Q&A: Demon Hunting in Urban Fantasy

I had an idea for an Urban Fantasy setting where a group of humans are covertly fighting demons. I wanted to have the humans stick to swords and bows/crossbows and that sort of thing while the demons rely on their natural abilities. My excuse for no guns is that demons aren’t affected by mundane weapons and have to be killed with special enchanted weapons, with bullets being to small to properly enchant. Is that a good enough reason or should I go back to the drawing board?

This may sound like a nitpick, but it’s not an excuse; it’s how you’ve designed your setting. That is a legitimate rationale, and in the grand scheme of things word choice like that can affect how you view your own work.

The important thing to remember is that guns are not the right tool for all situations, even in the real world. They’re noisy, expensive, leave lots of evidence around when used, and are the first thing any security checkpoint will look for. Even if guns do work, they’re not going to solve all your character’s problems.

Guns exist, and people take precautions to deal with that.

If you have a setting where magic and enchantments exist, people would take precautions to deal with those as well.

So, let’s talk about Urban Fantasy as a genre for a moment, and work through the basic idea.

Urban fantasy is, by design, the modern world with fantasy elements. That means you’re still dealing with all of the trappings of the modern world, mixed in with other things. Cops still carry firearms and have a shotgun in their car. Every other idiot is carrying a smartphone which can upload video of that inexplicable thing they’re seeing to Youtube faster than you can summon John Cleese to plug the Spanish Inquisition sketch, and Google will happily provide you with a wealth of information on the supernatural, most of it bogus from lonely teenagers in the Midwest who, “had a weird experience last night.”

Like any fantasy genre, there is a lot of leeway, when you’re setting the ground rules. Your characters could come from backgrounds that would seem entirely plausible in the real world. For example: a real estate agent, a waitress, and an auto mechanic hunting the monsters who tore their lives apart. They could be something more fantastic, like an elite CDC unit tasked with identifying and eliminating supernatural monsters that can infect and turn normal humans. They could be part of that world, and are members of an ancient conspiracy who secretly rule the world. Who your characters are does a lot to define what kind of tools your characters can get their hands on, what kinds of options they’ll consider.

There’s a second problem here, “demons,” aren’t a specific supernatural creature. So, as a result, it’s a little tricky to say exactly how well your approach would fare. We occasionally run into this problem when we’re talking about vampires, and even werewolves. However, with demons specifically, but the entire concept is very vague in the real world realm of religion, mythology, folklore and metaphysics.

There lots of creatures which fall under this specific header. Depending on your perspective, a demon could be anything from a small extra-dimensional scavenger who could be put down with basic weapons, to a literal fallen angel, who personally participated in the creation of the universe and has enormous power over fundamental forces like the gravity or molecular motion. A monster who can, literally, strip the electrons from your body on a whim, reducing you to a whiff of smoke. Going after a low grade scavenger isn’t necessarily safe, but it’s manageable. You’re not going to take on a primordial universal force escaped from the original prison with a glorified sword. You could, but it won’t end well. Trying would be an insult to the creature, and to you.

This is also ignoring one of the more horrific demonic varieties in fiction: the possessing spirit. This flavor of demon isn’t a physical foe your characters can fight, it hijacks hosts, riding around, taking control of them, and switching out when it’s achieved its goals. With something like this violence won’t get the job done. You can’t kill it, you can’t even harm it. If you managed to, it’d just jump to a new host, maybe one of your hunters. There’s even intermediate ranges where your demon may compel or thrall other normal humans to use as shock troops. Or the demon has set up cults, and there’s no compulsion involved at all. The humans will just try to kill you.

Some demons are in a category equivalent to the forces of nature. You don’t attempt to take out a hurricane with a .45, mystical or otherwise. Some writers will, but doing so undercuts all the work they did to make this creature scary in the first place and killed their tension in the process.

It’s very difficult to pin down what your demons may be after, which will give you some insight into how to stop them. There’s a lot of possibilities, ranging from retribution against mankind for some biblical grievance, to exiles simply trying to survive in a hostile universe, looking for someplace to call their own. These goals scale with what your demons are capable of. Somewhat obviously, a fallen angel who would bend a modern city to their will or obliterate all life on the planet on a whim probably won’t be scrabbling around in the gutters where your characters could take them out.

So, which demons do you have?

The Buffy the Vampire kind, which are campy monsters of the week who regularly get kicked off balconies until we’re reminded they can occasionally be frightening. The little imps from The Darkness who’ll rip off faces when they’re not busy trying to give themselves nose rings with that .45. Fallen spirits back from Hell that are just glorified ghosts like the kind seen in Supernatural, many of whose hosts have been murdered by the Winchesters. The much more dangerous variants like those seen in The Exorcist and other horror movies. The demons from Demon the Fallen, a playable RPG characters who can at their base mess with the laws of physics. The mass of conflicting creatures from folklore you can find in Leonard R. Ashley’s Complete Book of Demons and Devils which is just a catalogue of encounters.

Demons says exactly nothing. Every person who reads your story will come to it with their own understanding, and if you don’t specify that is the one they’ll continue to carry with them. It is your responsibility to clearly define your creatures and the rules, especially for yourself. In fantasy, those rules are your lifeline because they’re the only way anyone other than you can tell what’s going on. The audience doesn’t need all the answers, but you need to be consistent.

A lot of this comes down to world building. There are reasons for a character to carry a sword in Urban Fantasy. For example, it could be a mythical artifact like Excalibur or or it may be a celestial weapon, like Michael or Azarael’s blades (the Catholic angels of death, if you’re wondering.) At that point it’s probably worth pinning down exactly what the enchantment is. A sword that protects the wielder from possession would be very useful against a body hopping demon even if actually killing the creature wasn’t a viable option.

Taking a sword against a monster who is significantly faster and stronger than a normal human is not going to end well. Not well at all. This is like saying you’re going to go hunting a bull African elephant solo with nothing but a spear. That may sound badass on the surface, but you’re going to wind up very dead in short order. Just ask a hunter what its like to hunt for cougars without dogs. You can’t find them. They can, however, find you. The raccoon and the possum can give you rabies, and if you’ve ever heard stories about close encounters then you’ll be glad you never did. Human is not on the menu for them unless they act in self-defense, the same is not true when it comes to monsters.

The monster is giving up nothing to fight your character, they have no handicap in the violence department. They’re perfectly built for killing. This includes the most urbane of demons.  Their nature is not that of a human. In a dark back alley, they have the advantage. They’re creatures of horror built to prey on mankind.

They hunt you.

At that point guns might still be the wrong tool for the job, but it would be in your characters’ best interest to identify tools to deal with the threats they’re facing. Those may not be technological. It could be tactics or magical innovation. Most importantly, remember, violence isn’t always a viable response. Even for monster hunters.

Taking the every problem is a nail approach and using violence when it isn’t sensible undercuts your story, especially a story based in fantasy. For a monster hunter narrative to be successful, the monsters are required to be viable antagonists. Remember, the terminology for demons has its basis in horror both as a genre and in folklore. In a fictional sense, they exist to teach necessary lessons and impart wisdom through the failures of the characters in the narrative. You’re not supposed to mindlessly fight them off, because in some situations violence is doomed to failure or certain types of violence are due to failure. You’re supposed to be clever and realize every situation must be approached in a unique fashion, that brains are needed as well as brawn.

In Christian mythology, demons are outwitted with wits and cleverness. Those who face them with brute force are the ones who die. The purpose of these parables is to teach the listener to think in new directions, to approach dangerous situations with sense, to pay attention, and to gain insight into what is occurring before them. Learning that every problem cannot be solved with a hammer is the literary purpose a demon historically serves. That, and a test of faith. One you survive by enduring and staying the course against temptation.

What are these demons doing for your narrative?

What purpose are they serving in pushing your characters toward development?

These are two questions far more necessary than how one wields a crossbow or a sword. And if you can’t answer them, then you’ve got a myriad more problems than a lack of understanding in the violence department.

-Starke

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A few viewing and reading recommendations:

The Ninth Gate (2000): Superficially this might not seem to be a film about hunting monsters at all. (It’s not, exactly.) It’s about a rare book dealer (Johnny Depp) hunting down books supposedly written by the Devil.

Fallen (1998): A homicide detective (Denzel Washington) tracking a serial killer finds himself dealing with a body hopping demon.

The Last Wish (Andrzej Sapkowski): Not technically Urban Fantasy, nor about demons, Sapkowski’s Geralt of Rivia is an excellent examination of the limitations of violence for a monster hunter. Sword of Destiny is arguably a better example, but both are easy to recommend. (Incidentally, Sword of Destiny is the second Witcher anthology chronologically, I’m not sure what the Book 4 bit is about on Amazon.)

I think I’ve recommended Ultraviolet recently, but it’s still an excellent series. This was a fantastic British TV series about vampire hunters. No demons, but if you’re having trouble adapting classic monsters to the modern era, this should give you some ideas to kick around. (Jack Davenport, Idris Elba, and Suzannah Harker.)

Demon: The Fallen: Part of White Wolf’s World of Darkness, Demon was a late addition, and is somewhat hard to come by now. The game focused on demons who’d participated in a war against Heaven, had been imprisoned in hell and were just starting to escape back to Earth as the end of days started revving up. Probably useful for its own (extensive) lit review for suggested media at the beginning. Hunter: The Reckoning from the same setting may also be worth a look for ideas when it comes to street level monster hunters and the challenges they face.

Fair warning: The World of Darkness was bleak as hell, but it is probably still be worth a look, as there’s a lot of very good concept work baked in.

The Complete Book of Demons and Devils by Leonard R. Ashley – I like Leonard Ashley’s collection because they’re just lists of history and folklore including events attributed to the supernatural that did occur or were said to have occurred by people in history. Its a great resource for getting your boots on the ground for the breadth of mythology, and finding weird trivia you can dig into further for inspiration. If anyone writes Urban Fantasy, Paranormal, or any fiction based in the supernatural then I recommend checking out his books. This is a great way to figure out the phenomena people throughout history and all thought were related to the demonic. Some of these sources involve very mortal people who were very evil, and others not so much. Helpful in either case.

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