TW: This column includes discussions of transmisogyny, ableism/sanism particularly against psychotic and schizo-spectrum disorders, generalized homophobia, PTSD and trauma. It also discusses genocide, (briefly) racism, and sexism. Also – spoilers for both Fullmetal Alchemist anime series and the manga!
Additionally, for consistency’s sake, I’ve used he/him pronouns for Envy and Will throughout. These are the pronouns used the most often both within fandom, English subs and dubs, and within the fanfiction itself; however, this isn’t the case for the original Japanese (where pronouns are a much more complicated fact anyway) and nor does it de facto imply that Envy should be read as male. Envy’s been referred to with she/her, they/them, ‘kono’, etc. so it really is up in the air. Pronouns aren’t gender, nor are they set in stone.
Everybody is entitled to their obsessive, devotional passions – but nobody does it better than neurodivergent people, especially autistic and ADHD fans. I’m proudly both, and my special interest is Fullmetal Alchemist, the anime series. Over the years, I’ve ended up taking in massive amounts of small details about the canon, and poured it into a series that started life as Hero of the People, but split into parts and is now called Lux Sanguinum Nox Animorum, of which HOTP is the first part.
LSNA is… well, for starters, it’s 200k and counting, and I’ve been doing it for seven years. That tells you something to begin with. But as far as an actual story goes, it’s a roleswap AU, not an uncommon trope in fanfiction. You take two characters, switch them and see what happens. But a lot of roleswap AUs, while fun in concept, suffer from similar problems; they end up redoing canon and the roleswap is essentially a palette swap. Fun to think about, but not necessarily interesting as a long-term project. LSNA came about because I wondered what a roleswap really would look like. The best narratives are built on character choices, choices that make sense for the character and proceed naturally from their pasts, their environments, their circumstances – What would a mass roleswap actually look like?
Honestly? A lot of fucking work. But that’s why I’m doing this little essay series! It’s self-indulgent, yes; but I enjoy character and fandom meta, and ultimately, that’s what this is. What is a character, beyond what they do, and into who they are? How do you preserve that in a vastly different context? Coffeeshop AUs manage it. Why not roleswaps?
ENVY & EDWARD ELRIC
FMA is a series (well, canon in general) that offers a nice handy set of villains and heroes to switch, complete with names for the villains. I also decided early on that I was going to pull from both canons, blend them, and see what happened there as well. But I can say whatever I want and it won’t avoid the very basic fact that Envy is my favourite character, so he was inevitably going to be the main character.
Still, Envy and Ed are very much set up as foils in the 2003 series. They’re both the sons of Hohenheim, Envy has a specific bitterness towards Ed, and even the final battle, imbued with importance and significance, is between the two of them. There’s a lot of ‘dark archetyping’ involved, especially in regards to parental relationships and gender. In the Brotherhood series, they’re less directly contrasted, but Envy is still one of the first homunculi Ed meets, repeatedly given the task of keeping him safe (as a ‘precious sacrifice’) and in Envy’s final moments, it’s Ed who stands up for him along with Riza, and understands where his bitterness is coming from. So Envy is a good candidate for the Fullmetal Alchemist in a roleswap, especially since they’re comparable in (visual) age. (The other setup I was considering was Wrath as the Fullmetal Alchemist, but I like how it worked out – I’ll get into that later.)
Envy is a complicated character, both in canon and in fanon. Fanon around Envy has always been a bit of a mess. A fandom dating from 2001 isn’t overwhelming politically correct, and fans who watch today are pretty horrified to hear that the joke used to be that Envy was “the gay psycho in the miniskirt” and even the common target of ‘trap’ jokes. It’s hard, though, to entirely blame fans for this – the shows play into plenty of homophobic and transphobic tropes on their own. Envy takes Winry’s shape more than once as a deliberate trick, and even approaches Wrath with Red Stones in a distinctly predatory way in the 2003 show. Brotherhood is a little less on the nose with it, until Envy’s death scene – in which Envy takes on Gracia’s shape in a deliberately uncanny-valley mocking way, rubbing it in Mustang’s face until he’s killed slowly, humiliatingly, and unnecessarily violently by a friend of the ‘tricked’ and murdered man. The current trend in fandom is to label Envy as canonically non-binary, but that’s only true inasmuch as many shapeshifters are considered as such – but gender isn’t about the body, and in both canons Envy plays into both neutral and negative coding about trans women. He’s also erratic, violent, bad-tempered, and just as quick to fly into a murderous rage as he is to laugh in somebody’s face. All in all, it’s a depiction a lot of people latched on to for numerous reasons, but an overwhelmingly stereotyped villainous one.
So what parts of Envy transfer best – or the most interestingly – into the role of Fullmetal Alchemist? Ed has a temper, but he’s not somebody who lashes out in violence. Envy is, and he’s petty and underhanded about it; between him assaulting Wrath and Bradley in 2003 out of sheer rage, and his smirking threats to Marcoh in Brotherhood to destroy an innocent village just to get on Marcoh’s nerves, it’s not behaviour you expect from an upstanding hero. But that’s interesting in and of itself. What makes a human kid act that way? Both versions of Envy are clearly traumatized – and the role of Edward Elric is not short on trauma. Same stimuli, different reactions. Ultimately, it’s almost more realistic in some ways to have a teenager responding in over-the-top, cruel ways; it’s just not what you expect from a shonen hero.
In terms of gender, it gets more complicated. Envy is clearly coded and presented as transfemme, to some degree. He (pronouns used for simplicity and consistency) talks about enjoying a young, beautiful body and claims to have ‘forgotten’ his old form in 2003 – in Brotherhood, he says something very similar, with the main difference being that he doesn’t like his true form. Calling him a monster or ugly is a quick way to inspire his ire, and then there’s the obvious; he’s making a choice to wear a skirt and crop-top, unambiguously feminine clothing, in a setting that doesn’t otherwise promote or seem particularly comfortable with gender ambiguity. William in LSNA isn’t totally in tune with his emotions when he chooses what he wears – he just knows it makes him feel more comfortable, and he’s ornery enough to do it despite joining the military. But what Ed gets away with in terms of masculine-but-not-uniform clothing due to his genius, doesn’t quite cut it for explicit crossdressing. Immediately, Will is less accepted by and less comfortable in the military. The dyed-green hair and attitude are ways of leaning into that discomfort, essentially being Aggressively Counterculture in a similar way to Ed, but with a very different significance applied to it.
There’s also an extra element when it comes to Will’s personal style choices. Ed hates Hohenheim, but it’s a longing, lonely sort of hate; “if you hadn’t left, Mom wouldn’t have died”, etc. While their reunion in 2003 isn’t particularly kind, in Brotherhood it involves a lot more softness, and Hohenheim’s death in Conqueror of Shamballa is absolutely heartrending for Ed. In Brotherhood, too, Ed slowly leans more and more into the fact that he looks like his father; it doesn’t upset him especially after they reconcile. Will, on the other hand, is pulling from a character who hated Hohenheim enough to kill him. While Will isn’t outwardly homicidal towards his father, between gender dysphoria and stomach-turning hatred for the man he looks like, dying his hair and going out of his way to look as un-masculine and un-Hohenheim-like as possible is a deliberate statement. (Much in the same way, probably, as it was in 2003 when Envy chose his new form.)
So far, then, the new character of the ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’ is a more sour, angry, explicitly-counter-culture and queer character than Ed – kind of a darker-and-edgier redux. But if that’s all I wanted from a roleswap, I would find one of those Emo Ed MS Paint edits and stop there. What else makes Envy Envy? The fandom so frequently calls (called, it’s admittedly semi-out of fashion now) Envy psychotic that sometimes, it’s easy to forget that the word actually means something.
Is Envy psychotic in canon, then? Well, not explicitly. Psychotic refers to mental disorders that include hallucinations, delusions and disordered thinking. But there are hints, in both canons but towards slightly different conclusions, that Envy is mentally unwell in a way beyond ‘haha I’m scary and violent’.
In 2003, to start, and keep things together, Envy changes moods drastically and at the drop of a hat. His proper introduction to Ed involves playful, innuendo-laden banter that leads to very casual violence – and then tensed eyes, hissed threats and a distraction into another topic (how much Ed reminds him of Hohenheim). His outbursts at Pride and Wrath are preceded by almost-boredom – and more than anything else, he reacts with such casual lack-of-care to situations that should be stressful that it’s unnerving. (The homunculi have a habit of this to some degree, but Envy is particularly eerie about it.) As mentioned above, Envy is definitely traumatized, and this kind of drastic mood-swing can be linked to both PTSD and C-PTSD (complex PTSD, seen in people who are in high-stress situations for a long period of time with no escape). Even more so, however, the anger issues and outbursts are reminiscent of things like BPD and other personality disorders, especially since Envy himself doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with how he’s reacting. BPD and C-PTSD both also include abandonment issues, which Envy has… in spades.
Personality disorders aren’t psychosis, though. (The term ‘psycho’ can refer to them, but that’s short for psychopath. More on that in a bit.) Envy doesn’t hallucinate, at least in the 2003 canon that we’re shown, but there’s a good potential argument for delusions. Unshakable beliefs in a truth of the world that is incompatible with “objective” or everybody else’s reality aren’t always things like literally believing that you’re a martyr or Elvis Presley. (Actually they usually aren’t.) In Envy’s case, his unshakable belief that Hohenheim abandoned him and therefore is evil, that humans are worthless and need to be destroyed despite originally being one, and that homunculi (who need humans to create more of themselves) are a superior species could definitely qualify as a delusion. Despite Al’s attempts, it certainly doesn’t respond to any sort of external force. It also shows a certain failure of logic that appears to seem fine to Envy from the inside – obviously, if homunculi need humans to exist, getting rid of all humans isn’t going to work – but disordered and disorganized thinking would account for that. He also shows this a few times in his planning. Lust is the planner of their group; Envy is much more haphazard and unpredictable, needing a guiding hand to point him in the right direction.
There’s room for interpretation for a number of mental illnesses, but it all runs up against the problem that a lot of this relies on the worst presentations of those illnesses. People with BPD certainly aren’t inherently violent, nor are people with psychosis naturally inclined towards genocidal temptations. However, part of what’s interesting is that this all seems very natural (to standard, non-mentally-ill audiences) for a villain to do or feel. He seems to enjoy it, and have it encouraged by Dante.
Brotherhood doesn’t go as deeply into Envy’s personal beliefs except right at the end, and a core difference is that in 2003, Envy wins. We see him in triumph in 2003, but it’s in Brotherhood that we see him at the edge of the cliff, scared. In 2003, he can be interpreted as suicidal when he throws himself into the Gate, but it’s in Brotherhood that he actually does kill himself, too humiliated by Ed’s (accurate) assessment of his jealousy. But what do we see of him in Brotherhood? He’s not as grandiose or directly violent as his 2003 counterpart – he’s a much less proficient fighter, and notably, his acts of direct violence are apparently notable enough for him to remember. There are a few scenes of interest here, but one of my personal favourites is as he’s bragging to Ed and Ling about his murder of the Ishvalan child that kicked off the war. He laughs as he does it… but there is something a little wrong about it. His eyes aren’t quite focused. He laughs a little too long, and a little too nervously. And more than anything else – he remembers it just a bit too well. This lines up with the PTSD/C-PTSD/BPD traumatic interpretations from above, but also gives us something that 2003 never showed; that Envy, or at least this one, is capable of guilt. It’s buried deep, and it’s very possible Envy himself isn’t fully aware of it. But his later death scene emphasizes a similar pattern. Something makes him uncomfortable, so he leans into it; deliberately plays it up, plays at a lack of remorse, while remembering just a little too many details for somebody who Doesn’t Care. It’s not often commented on by fandom why Envy remembers an otherwise unremarkable murder with such excruciating detail, down to taking Gracia’s form from memory – he’s never shown to have a particularly good or notable memory otherwise, except for the murder of the Ishvalan girl. Not only does this say he’s not as comfortable with either of these murders as he claims; it also gives the game away that he does it significantly less often than you’d expect.
The death scene also deserves some special attention towards Ed’s assessment of Envy. He’s jealous of humans because he wants what they have – this contrasts so strongly with 2003 Envy’s dismissal and outright genocidal intentions towards humans that it’s easy to assume the characters are completely incompatible with each other. The jealousy and craving for connection also mirrors a certain awkwardness that Brotherhood Envy has and 2003 Envy doesn’t; he’s a little clumsy with his interactions even with the other homunculi, he doesn’t really know how to talk to Ed, and the only person he seems to have natural interactions with is the Also Definitely Not Sane Kimbley. There’s a lot of neurodivergent coding embedded in there immediately, but the personality disorder interpretation raises its head again. He doesn’t understand humans, even though he wants to; he’s jealous not just of humans and how they support each other, but the fact that they even can. The lurking tension between him and Greed is never really given a name, but ultimately, it seems to be Envy who can’t put any words to it. It’s easy to claim a lack of empathy as some deliberately cruel thing where a character ignores the humanity of others on purpose, but Envy lacks empathy in the sense that he genuinely cannot feel the emotions of others the way he’s “supposed” to. (It seems notable here, by the way, that Envy is frequently caught out in his shapeshifting, and is a poor actor.) In response, he’s built a persona, which is most of what we see in canon; the strutting, Gleefully Evil, homicidal nightmare intended to intimidate others and possibly use fear alone to get others to back out of a conflict or a conversation. Nobody needs to know that it’s a matter of ‘can’t’, not ‘won’t’, and when Ed does land on it, seemingly by chance or astute observation, the humiliation is enough to drive him to suicide. It’s not the defeat or the looming disaster of the foiled Promised Day that makes Envy kill himself – it’s the prospect of that destroyed persona, and the horror of having his ‘true’ self exposed. With this in mind, it’s a little easier to accept 2003 Envy as a much-older version of BH Envy; one who’s gotten better at not showing the cracks.
In combination, this creates an even more compelling character, albeit still villainous. But what happens when you make this character a hero? We’re so used to seeing characters with violent impulses, suicidal ideation, low empathy, poor social intelligence and “fake” personas as unsympathetic, intended to be killed off and evil. But putting this character in a different role doesn’t take away the mental health issues. Instead, the story changes around him. Will hallucinates, deals with mood swings and delusions, hears voices, deals with suicidal and violent ideation, and has super low empathy. He’s also fifteen years old, trying to do the right thing, and – especially without the influence of a Dark Master – terrified of his own impulses. Outside of a villainous context, Will has the freedom as a character to be fighting himself and challenging what he thinks, with help from other characters. He wants to hurt other people and himself, but he knows that he shouldn’t, and knows just as many parts of him don’t want to. Ed navigates the world in FMA 03 and BH with obvious PTSD, but the backlash he gets to his disability is minimal and related mostly to his automail. Will, on the other hand, can’t fake being neurotypical, or cloak it as Endearingly Quirky in the same way.
Already, these established gender and mental/neurodivergence differences add up. The same events (more or less) occur, but where Ed hides his automail, Will flaunts his – the kind of direct ‘fuck you’ challenge that got Envy into trouble so many times in BH. Where Ed loves and adores Al and is always checking in on him, Will loves Alex but is ignorant enough of the tensions at play that he goes about his quest with Alex as almost an afterthought as a person. Ed avoids killing out of principle, but Will doesn’t have the impulse control to stop, and Shou Tucker dies ingloriously on the floor of his own basement. Ed’s fears of reprisal from the military mostly revolve around Al and what could happen to him, even at the end of 2003 when it’s both of them on the run. Will, on the other hand, has a more concrete shape to his concern; he’s a mentally unstable, queer member of the military, trading on his status for a measure of safety but on much unsteadier ground.
But it’s not just about differences in marginalization, either – Ed isn’t exactly the pinnacle of heterosexuality and masculinity in either FMA series, and he clearly has a measure of PTSD. Personality in and of itself matters. Ed doesn’t talk about his feelings, but he expresses his care for others through action, and when pressed, he’ll find ways to tell others they matter to him. In Brotherhood, Winry makes a point of crying because he won’t, and he promises he doesn’t want to make her cry at all anymore; his 520 cenz promise to Mustang is much the same thing, a sideways but fairly-clear expression of faith. Envy, however, is an incredibly insular character. The only homunculi we see him having any kind of close relationship with are Lust and Greed, and the latter is only implied in the strong feelings of betrayal Envy expresses in both canons. Whether or not he does care about somebody, he keeps it even more to himself than Edward does.
While we’re talking about relationships, perhaps the most important one in the entire canon is the one between Edward and Alphonse. They repeatedly express their devotion to each other and are searching for the Philosopher’s Stone not for themselves but for each other. But for a more insular character – somebody afraid to show that kind of devotion to anybody – the relationship changes. No matter who gets cast as the younger brother, Will as a character struggles with expressing vulnerability on such a deep level that the Elric brothers are a significantly less cohesive unit as a result. Not all brothers are bound as closely as the OG Elrics. It’s also relevant, though, that Edward’s devotion to Al in both series makes him somewhat blind to anybody else, especially in a sexual or romantic sense. In 2003, Winry loves him and his silence/deliberate avoidance of the topic implies that – whether because he’s gay, on the aroace spectrum or not into her– he can’t return it. Even Brotherhood is tentative when it comes to Edward’s interests – the only reference to sexuality is incredibly oblique and Edward’s reciting of the periodic table can indicate discomfort just as much as arousal. Envy is quite deliberately contrasted to this in both series, but especially 2003; he quite enjoys being pretty, and a number of times his threats to people are imbued with playful, dangerous innuendo. (“I can be anything you want, pipsqueak – maybe a taller version of you?”) This means Will is already a character that, instead of entirely uninterested or even nervous around sexuality, is curious about it and has plenty of desires of his own.
Finally, differences in physicality still matter, albeit less than roleswaps would make them out to be generally. Envy is taller than Ed, though not by much, and acrobat-thin, which makes the automail immediately a harder thing to carry. Ed is bulky and muscular enough to deal with the metal fairly gracefully, but for Will, while he’s able to compensate a certain amount, it sticks out a lot more on his form and the adjustment was harder. While Envy as a homunculus in both canons is strong, a lot of emphasis in 03 is placed on him as fast and precise versus brute strength, while BH goes the almost complete opposite direction and has him using brute force almost entirely. For a human character with the same form, though, the interpretation I like the best is somebody who’s strong, physically, and an excellent fighter, but susceptible to injury. Especially once put in context with the mental health issues above, it’s likely that a human version of Envy doesn’t take care of himself very well – so you have somebody who’s underweight and just a touch sickly, but also vicious enough to hurt you and pass out afterwards.
WILLIAM ELRIC, FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST
All of this meta, obviously, intersects with every other character. But Will as a character immediately presents a very different story. He’s passively (and occasionally actively) suicidal, and while the main reason he stays alive is because of his brother, he’s bad enough at expressing care that it doesn’t always come through. Externally, he’s not nearly as well-loved as Edward. He’s more than a little cruel, and while he gets the job done, he doesn’t automatically value human life or safety in the same intrinsic way that Edward does. He also runs his mouth constantly, and while Edward is usually running his mouth about alchemy or passing moral judgement, Will’s just as likely to be insulting somebody because he’s feeling petty that day and they pissed him off. (Not dissimilar characters, but with enough difference to cause problems.) Internally, however, he’s a mess; he’s intrigued by his own developing sexuality and gender identity, but just as terrified by it and its implications, and he’s sullenly prodding at his inability to Immediately Grasp why certain things are bad just as often as he’s raging at the outside world for not giving him what he deserves. It makes him complex and full of contradictions as he negotiates this external persona while trying to decide how much of his internal world he actually wants to share.
One of my favourite things about writing Will is also how this combines with an inherent sense of justice/injustice. A low sense of empathy just means the sense of something being inherently ‘gross’ or ‘wrong’ doesn’t come naturally to him. But raised by Trisha Elric and then taught by Izumi, he’s got a deep sense of fair vs. unfair, and because that’s a metric based on something other than understanding other human emotions, it’s one he understands. He doesn’t always think that lying to somebody is wrong and will do it if it gets him what he needs or wants, but something like the truth of the Ishvalan genocide and the sheer imbalance of it hits him hard. The sense of justice is also what keeps him consistently just at arms-length away from the military; even before he quite has the words for it, he knows that they don’t want him, and he doesn’t want them – for longer than he has to. The members of the military he’s close to and bond with are his immediate superior and surrounding squad, precisely because they don’t try to convince him that the military doles out ‘justice’. They’re there for reasons of their own, same as him.
Finally, while Envy displays lots of varying mental illness symptoms in both canons, I wanted to narrow things down a little. Not much; one of the more enduring myths about mental illnesses is that you can “only have so many”. But Will displays elements of bipolar, schizophrenia, PTSD, as well as a number of Cluster B symptoms that sort of run the gamut of all four. (ASPD, BPD, NPD, HPD) Within the context of the fic, a lot of these diagnoses either don’t exist yet or look significantly different, so the term given within the fic is ‘epileptoid hysterical psychopath’, which dates to about the 1930s and comes from Gannushkin’s psychiatric research. If that sounds ridiculous, consider: so do most of the current DSM diagnoses. Nevertheless, he’s got enough narcissist traits in particular that I feel confident that I’m writing a (questionably) heroic NPD character, which is rare.
I’ll round this off with my favourite or most significant change resulting from this character swap: Will shows up to the State Alchemist exam in full gear, miniskirt, crop top, green hair, etc. It’s a bold move, and one that immediately gets the superiors talking amongst themselves. Colonel Solaris (Lust, swapped with Roy) overhears Hakuro saying something particularly nastily transmisogynistic – and tells him, rather bluntly, to shut up. This gets her transferred away from Central City and to the East, a demotion of sorts, but also immediately changes the dynamic between the Colonel and Fullmetal into a much more explicitly protective one.