With spoilers for Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa
The Lancer is the name of a character who serves as a foil for the main character (MC). According to TV Tropes, the name originates from knights of lesser status who fought beside one of their superiors (wielding, surprise surprise, a lance). Sometimes Lancers are sidekicks, but not always, so for the sake of clarity, let’s use the term Lancer to mean a person who is independent from the MC, clearly not the hero or focus of the story, and somehow provides a counterweight or contrast.
The Lancer is a common trope: think about the snarky, grittier, often deadpan character standing beside the hero and handing them their lines. This character can be used in a number of interesting ways.
Most often, a Lancer/MC dynamic helps the MC shine. Like most foils, the Lancer is there to show us, by contrast, our hero’s virtues. But there are other possibilities: for example, a Lancer can serve to show the readers a tempting way out of the story, often more negative or cynical than the MC’s. By playing them off the MC, the writer can showcase conflicting viewpoints, underlining the strengths and weaknesses of both outlooks. This gives the good guys a wider, richer range of solutions to the problems they’re confronted to. It can avoid the good guys coming up with only one way to deal with issues, and grants the story more nuance. Sometimes, when someone needs to get their hands dirty and it cannot be the MC because they are too pure, the Lancer gets to do it.
Another use of the Lancer, which I find can be very successful, is to use their disillusioned approach to life as a cipher for the audience. If the MC, by being nice and idealistic, risks passing off as naïve or dumb, the Lancer can help justify the MC’s opinion: by convincing the Lancer, the MC can share their bright, optimistic outlook with the readers.
I’d like to look at a great example: Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa. If you haven’t read it or seen the anime (be sure to watch FMA: Brotherhood), I can only warmly recommend it as one of the very best shonen I’ve come across, which still stands out from everything else I’ve read.
Shonen often try to send hopeful messages to the audience: they tend to be coming-of-age stories where young teenagers fight evil and, against all odds, defeat it. Unfortunately, this means the MC can come out as either stupid or arrogant, as their ideals don’t seem to match reality. This is when a good interaction with a Lancer can help readers engage with the MC.
Fullmetal Alchemist has a young hero, Edward Elric, who after a terrible mistake when practising alchemy and breaking one of its taboos, has had to sacrifice a lot more than he was ready to bargain for. His quest is all about repairing that mistake, and uncovering a world-wide conspiracy whilst doing so. He is young, bright, sometimes prideful, full of bite and laughter despite what’s happened to him.
Edward shares the narrative with a couple of characters, but the obvious runner-up to being the hero is Roy Mustang, an older soldier who is also bright, good at alchemy, and also busy uncovering the main plot for tragic reasons of his own. They are played off each other: one is small and blonde, the other tall and dark. One is cool and collected, the other boisterous and emotional. They both have a sidekick who serves as their foil and whom they love dearly.
They are rivals who, although they are never pitted against each other, are clearly competing. But here is where the two characters are interesting in their conflict and interplay: Roy, as an adult, has been involved in a messy, violent war before Edward’s birth. He has witnessed and sometimes participated in war crimes. His motivation is revenge, when Edward’s is repair.
This comes to a head during what is, in my eyes, the most powerful scene of the manga: close to the end, having found the person he was hunting for, Roy is busy fighting them. He is determined to kill them without showing any pity. This is when Edward intervenes, captures the bad guy for himself, and refuses to hand him over. He tells Roy that he’s being consumed by hate, and that if he wants to fulfil his revenge, he’ll have to fight Ed first. This scene goes against the traditional revenge trope, in which the cool hero is the one who kills the person they were hunting down. Here, the hero is the person who is against the revenge narrative, who stands for empathising with people who have committed terrible crimes.
On his own, Edward’s wide-eyed idealism and the notion that killing your enemies is wrong would have stuck out as an unpractical, unrealistic way of viewing the world. But Edward works hard to persuade the reader, because he has to work hard to convince Roy – who has already killed, for less good reasons, and who has no reason to listen to a more junior alchemist. Without giving away too much of that brilliant scene, the reason why Fullmetal Alchemist is such a good manga is because it makes a convincing case for empathy, despite the very human tendency of wanting to see the bad guys pay.
The reader is sincerely torn during that key confrontation: on the one hand, the bad guy is unrelentingly evil, has done many things during the course of the narrative which warrant punishment, and watching them burn would be intensely satisfying. At the same time, however, readers are aware that, should Roy give in to violence, then he becomes what he was hunting down: a monster.
Edward makes a convincing case for this, and the narrative helps him, picturing Roy clearly as a villain during that scene, as someone whose thirst for blood is taking over. This is when we know why Roy, despite having all the traditional traits of a main character, is not our hero. It is clearly a conscious choice: the hero is the person who tries to hold him back, who protects the weak, even if the weak are the ones we hate the most.
Interestingly, the person who ultimately defeats the bad guy – breaks their spirit, earning the mental victory, once the physical fight is sorted – isn’t Roy. What undoes the villain is Ed, softly telling them about their insecurities, quietly letting them know he understands.
More than once, Edward’s role in the narrative is to take the gun out of the killer’s hand, however good the reasons for killing may be. In one scene, he literally removes a gun from the hands of his love interest before she can shoot the person who murdered her parents. His role in the story, highlighted by the characters around him, is to show the readers where the right path lies.
Sometimes, the writer can use the Lancer to show what makes the MC unique – if the Lancer is just as powerful and smart, what is the mark of a hero?
18 Sept. 21