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Monday, July 21, 2014

Editing with the Elrics: Making Background Characters Pop Out

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  • In Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, there are kind of two main characters. And there are kind of not two main characters. The show follows the story of Edward and Alphonse Elric, two brothers on a quest. What I found interesting though, is that for the opening episodes of the series, Alphonse ("Al") as a character is defined by what he isn't, instead of what he is. Even more interesting, he's defined by Ed's character.

    Ed, who is really the protagonist here, is loud, hot-tempered, driven, and a talented alchemist. You get that Ed and Al are kind of a tag team, but only because they're going everywhere together. Really, Al is kind of a background character (to begin with). Mostly, we know him by what he's not. He's not loud and hot-tempered like Ed, and he's not as talented of an alchemist. He's not a state alchemist like Ed. Sure, he can pack a punch, alongside Ed.

    Long backstory short, Al doesn't have a real body. His soul is bound to a suit of armor as a consequence of alchemy gone wrong. That's interesting. But he's in that suit of armor because of Ed.  The only real attention Al gets in the opening episodes is because people mistake him as Ed.

    I haven't seen a character so defined by someone else and by what he is not. I think that's why it took me a while to learn to love Al. At first, I kind of felt like he was just there to foil Ed. That made me think about how we as writers can likewise define our characters by what they are not and by who they are with. Maybe we should look at that more.

    Here's an example that comes to mind (hope you don't mind the Trigun references, but I've been rewatching it, so it's fresh on my mind), in Trigun, Vash lives in a world where it's normal for people to kill other people. As an audience, by seeing others kill and hurt people so casually, it's easy for us to see what Vash isn't. He's not a killer. I think a lot of writers don't think about defining what their characters are not. Something to consider.

    Anyway, I fell in love with Al by the end of the series, and I realized that's because I felt like I didn't get to see his real strength and talent until later. Frequently the characters were in situations that favored Ed's talents and abilities, and since Ed and Al are opposites, that often meant situations where Al didn't get to show off his strengths.

    It's really not until Ed and Al go their separate ways that we see what Al can really do. And it's awesome. That's when I started to love him, because that's when I started to really get to know him.

    Sometimes quieter characters get overshadowed by the loud ones, so you need to get rid of the loud (if only temporarily) and overly talented ones to show what the quiet guys can do. That's one reason a lot of mentor characters die in stories. They're overpowering the pupil. Once they're gone, we can see what the hero is really made of.

    But you can show off the "quiet guys'" strength without separating them. All you need to do is put that character in situations that require his talents and strengths. I would have liked to have seen that more in Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood. I'd like to have seen Ed and Al get stuck in more situations that called for Al's character traits, situations where he had to lead and Ed had to follow.

    But when Al finally is put in situations that favor his strengths--he's incredible. I love his character. We get to see him travel through a blizzard when no one else can, because he doesn't have a human body. We see his strengths when he's caring of others. And while Ed might be the better alchemist, Al is a better fighter. So here's to the Elric brother that tends to get overshadowed, but he can handle it. He's a humble character.

    So, if you have a character that seems to be blending into the background:
    1) Separate her from the characters that are taking all the thunder.
    2) Or, put her in circumstances that show off her strengths.

    More writing tips from Al next Monday.


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