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‘Fullmetal Alchemist’: when characters write their own stories


February 28, 2018

The book and corresponding TV series “Fullmetal Alchemist” is probably pretty much unknown to the general populace. However, among the overwhelmingly nerdy fan base for anime (Japanese cartoons), Fullmetal has a cult following and is often used to lure hapless non-nerds into anime culture.

Which then consumes them.

That aside, “Fullmetal Alchemist” fully deserves its cult following, and there is a good reason it’s so effective at getting people hooked on anime. Among other things, it features phenomenal world building, has a tight story with minimal plot gaps, explores interesting political concepts and is beautifully drawn and animated.

The greatest strength of Fullmetal, however, is the characters and the way they drive the plot.

The series is packed solid with characters. They’re all extremely interesting and have different backgrounds and colorful personalities. They’re also very distinct from one another because the series makes a point to give even the side characters full development.

Full character development is a difficult thing to define. You could say that it has to do with detail – the more details, the more fully developed a character is. However, I think level of detail has more to do with the distinction between main characters and side characters; we tend to know more details about the main characters because we spend the most time with them.

When determining whether a character is fully developed, I like to go use the test of: “do we know what they want and why they want it?”

A simple example from Fullmetal would be the character Gluttony. Gluttony is pretty straightforward: he wants to eat things all the time. Why? Because he’s hungry, and can never satisfy that hunger because (spoiler alert) his stomach is basically a portal to another dimension. Everything he does, therefore, is linked to his desire to satisfy his insatiable hunger. Otherwise, he seems to be a pretty nice guy.

A character that is fully developed like this, even a side character, is a wonderful way of driving plot. Plot often runs on conflict, and one of the best ways to generate conflict is to create characters who have opposing desires. Gluttony, for example, wants to eat people. Most people don’t want to be eaten. Put him in an alleyway with your main characters, and suddenly you have conflict (usually in the form of a dramatic street brawl with lots of blue lightning flying around).

Think, then, what you can do with  ten or twenty characters with development like Gluttony’s. Each one has a different desire. Each one is trying to get to that desire, and oftentimes desires clash. If two people want things that are too different (world domination versus saving the world, for example), you usually get enemies. If two people want things that are a more similar, they usually team up. Sometimes you get a situation halfway between – two characters think they want different things. Over time, however, they realize that they have similar values and begin working together. Or vice versa.

Character-driven plot is an ingenious writing method. If you create solid characters and fully understand how they would interact with one another, they will often write the story for you. Alliances and enemies will form, fights will break out and setbacks will befall your main characters. If the characters are three-dimensional, the story will be too.

Disclaimer: there are two versions of the TV show. One is called “Fullmetal Alchemist,” and deviates sharply from the books in an oftentimes confusing way. The other is called “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood,” and is generally recommended as the better of the two because it more closely follows the original plotline from the books.

Sophia Koch is a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.