As a writer, characters are the thing that interest me more than plots. Not to say that a good plot isn’t necessary, but when it comes to plot, good is a very relative term. A story about interesting people doing something mundane can be just as thrilling as an epic tale. The key is always in the characters. They need to be interesting, relatable, and engaging, whether they be the hero, the villain, or a random Half-Orc traveling merchant with a penchant for poetry, who only appears for two pages and is never seen again.
Because I write, and by the way, have a novel coming out in the near future, I’m always more interested in the characters of any piece of fiction, regardless of medium, than I am the plot. The plot can be as absurd as they come, but if the characters are well written, I’m happy. This has lead me of late to ponder the characters I enjoy most, and what it is about them that draws me in.
That’s not why I’m writing this post, though, at least, not entirely. As I spent time rolling around what it was that makes me like some characters more than others, I begin to notice that, often as not, I’m heavily drawn to characters that get little in the way of attention. It isn’t so much that they are overlooked, as it is they rarely, if ever, seem to show up on any particular list. A lot of that can be attributed to the list maker, obviously, as everyone is different, and enjoys different things, differently.
It got me to thinking, though, about why certain characters I think are amazing don’t hit others the same way. While I have no idea, even now, why that is, it got me to thinking that I should talk about them. I’m not big on making lists, as the things that draw me to specific characters can rarely be summed up in a few words, so I decided on a different approach.
I’m just gonna pick a character, tell you about them, why I like them, and what it is about them I consider important. Mostly because I can. After all, what’s a blog for if not sharing the things you love.
For my first installment of this concept, I’d like to talk about probably my favorite character to appear in anything, ever. Erza Scarlet of Hiro Mashima’s manga and anime, Fairy Tail.
When she’s first introduced, Era is the classic “Strong Woman”. She enters the Guild Hall carrying a massive horn from some equally massive beast she’d slain, and proceeds to lay down some law, making literally everyone in sight cringe as their failings are laid before them with all the tact of a meteor crashing into the Earth. Thing is, she’s right on the money with everything she says. She isn’t being bossy, she’s just stating facts. So why does everyone tremble before her?
Probably because she’s among the most powerful wizards in not just the Fairy Tail Guild, but the entire country. In Fairy Tail, wizards specialize in a particular type of magic, more akin to the powers of an American comic book superhero. In Erza’s case, the magic she initially had, telekinetic control over any forged implement, be it a sword or a shovel, was just the jumping off point. Since her magic abilities awakened, she’s developed an entirely new kind of magic, which isn’t bad, considering she’s only 19 years old.
The magic she created, called “The Knight”, allows her to not only store a nearly infinite amount of weapons in an extra dimensional pocket space, from which she can instantly summon them to hand, but to do this with armor as well. In the blink of an eye, she can change the armor she wears, augmenting various aspects of her combat abilities, depending on the needs of the situation. Add in to this that she is a master swordswoman, unequaled by almost anyone in her combat prowess, and she’s pretty much a one woman army.
When we first meet her, however, she’s rather distant and aloof. Kind of cold, really, and all about performing her duty to the Guild. She doesn’t really seem to know how to relax, or have fun. Much like other members of Fairy Tail, she’s a bit off, responding to the realization she’s made a mistake by insisting someone punch her, or dealing with fellow Guildmate Natsu’s severe motion sickness by knocking him unconscious, then later chastising him for not paying attention to the mission briefing she gave while he was unconscious.
Erza’s first story arc in Fairy Tail is “Lullaby”, which is kicked off when she learns that a Dark Guild called Eisenwald has uncovered some kind of terrible artifact, and plans to use to kill a lot of people. As the arc progresses, we learn it’s a flute called Lullaby, that kills anyone who hears it played. Eisenwald’s plan is to play it near the Guild Master Meeting, wiping them out, and creating chaos. Having roped fellow Fairy Tail members Natsu, Grey, Lucy and Happy into chasing down Eisenwald, they end up being the only ones who can stop the Dark Guild.
Through this arc, we see several times Erza pushes herself to the limit, and a couple where she goes beyond, in order to stop Eisenwald. It’s stated, pretty blatantly, that with the number of lives at risk, Erza will sacrifice her own, without a second thought, if that’s what it takes. This is a very noble sentiment, and the first thing that drew my interest, as it’s commonplace to see a male character take that attitude, but pretty rare to see a woman get to have it.
In the following story arc, “Galuna Island”, Erza plays a smaller part, but that willingness to lay down her life is again hinted at. She has what is sometimes called the White Knight Syndrome, which is basically a disregard for ones self, if it makes others happy, safe, or comfortable. She’s not trying to die, she just doesn’t care if she does, if it means saving others. It’s the philosophy of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, or the one, taken to an extreme.
For further proof of this, there are her actions during the “Phantom Lord” arc. In a nutshell, rival Guild Phantom Lord learns a secret Lucy has kept from the rest of Fairy Tail, namely that she’s the heiress to the Heartfilia fortune, the wealthiest family in the country, but ran away from all of that because her father is overbearing dictator. Lucy just wants to live her life, on her own terms. Her father, Jude, hires Phantom Lord to drag her back so he can marry her off and gain more wealth and power. He instructs Phantom Lord that if they have to kill everyone in Fairy Tail, that’s fine, since it’ll stop her from trying to go back to them.
After a couple of skirmishes, Fairy Tail’s Guidmaster, Makarov, is incapacitated, and the members of the Guild all wounded. Phantom Lord strikes while they have the upper hand, moving their mobile Guildhall into position so they can deploy the magic focusing cannon, Jupiter, which would not only wipe out Fairy Tail, but half the city of Magnolia where Fairy Tail’s Guildhall is located.
To stop this, Erza places herself between the Jupiter Cannon and Fairy Tail, using all her stored magic energy to hold back the attack, which only really buys Fairy Tail fifteen minutes, the amount of time it takes Jupiter to recharge. What’s important, though, was her willingness to do it. She didn’t hesitate for even a moment. There was no debate or discussion. The death of everyone she loved, and the destruction of town she called home, was imminent, and she acted. Again, with no real regard to her own safety.
While she did manage to survive the blast, and save everyone, she had no magic energy left, and was so weakened she couldn’t even stand. Despite this, when Phantom Lord’s Guildmaster called on Fairy Tail to hand over Lucy or die, Erza was the one to pull herself up, and declare, at the top of her lungs, “We would never betray her like that! You’ll have to kill us first!”
Erza did not defy the Jupiter just to save Fairy Tail, or Magnolia. She did it to protect Lucy. She was willing to lay down her life, without hesitation, for a single person, because she believed it the right thing to do. Because Lucy was her friend, her family, and was worth dying for.
Too exhausted to do anything more, Erza passes out, with the rest of Fairy Tail taking up the fight, disabling the Jupiter Cannon, and trying to defeat Phantom Lord. It goes pretty well, until Natsu ends up fighting Aria, a wind magic user, who has perfected the art of taking away another wizard’s magic. About to be defeated by him, Natsu is saved by Erza, who has recovered enough to throw herself into battle with her now trademark disregard for her own life. Despite Aria using a type of magic called Airspace Of Death, which will kill anyone who enters it, Erza takes him out with a single blow, then collapses again, having used what little magic power she had regained.
Sending Natsu off to protect Lucy, Erza is found by Josei, Phantom’s Master, and the two engage in battle. In her weakened state, it’s all Erza can do to stay ahead of his attacks, and is eventually captured by him. He lets her know that his plan is to break her body and will, then hang her out for the rest of Fairy Tail to see, demoralizing them enough to defeat them. Rather than allow this, or even the possibility of it, Erza uses her telekinetic magic, and attempts to run herself through with her own sword. She’s only saved by the timely return of Makarov, who handily defeats Josei, saving the day.
Over the course of a single story arc, we see Erza willing to give her life three separate times, always for the people she cares about. While she is still somewhat aloof and distant, even a bit cold, we do see that the other members of Fairy Tail are precious to her, that she loves them deeply, enough so she keeps trying to die for them. Which is what’s happening. It’s gone beyond White Knight Syndrome at this point.
Erza is suicidal. Not in a heroic way, but literally. She won’t take her own life, as she’s too strong willed for that, but she does keep trying to give her life, even in situations where there are other options and avenues open to her. Over three story arcs, we’ve seen at least five instances where Erza’s first and best battle plan is to die.
Granted, she tells herself that it’s for her friends, to protect them, but this is Erza’s own desire to see herself as a heroic figure talking. The harsh reality is that she is trying to get herself killed, on purpose. That she is suicidal.
As is often the case with those who suffer from suicidal tendencies, no one notices her cries for help. They are too carefully hidden, so as not to appear desperate. Those who suffer from suicidal tendencies typically place no value on their own lives, so even when they do try to ask for help, it’s pretty hard to notice, since they hide the actual cry so well, as not to be a burden on those around them. The instances where they reach out to others, wanting to be taken out of that dark place they live in, are veiled as something else, in a self sabotaging manner.
I say self sabotaging because again, many who suffer from suicidal tendencies do not inherently believe they are worth saving. Even their attempts to ask for help are often designed to feed back into that belief. No one hears me asking to be saved, because no one really wants to save me, because I’m not worth saving. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy of the worst kind. It’s also something you almost never see depicted accurately in any medium, which is what makes Erza’s personal story arc to this point so impressively written.
We didn’t hear her cries for help, either. We saw the heroics of it. That she was brave and selfless, like a hero out of, perhaps appropriately, a fairy tale. It never occurs to us, any more than it does to her friends, that Erza is waging a private war, just to find value in her own existence, beyond sacrificing it for others. Which is exactly what is happening. To Erza, her life has no meaning or value beyond being given up for someone else.
This was why I came to regard Erza as one of the best characters ever written for anything, because I understood that, having dealt with suicidal desires when I was a teenager. I saw myself in Era, in her silent battle to find something, anything, about herself that was worthy, with everything falling short because it was held against an impossible to meet standard. I also saw how deftly Hiro Mashima had written the character to reflect the real struggle those of us who have battled these suicidal desires go though. How we try to be a part of something, while holding ourselves separate from it.
Erza was never aloof or cold. She was distant, so no one would grieve her death. They would be thankful for her sacrifice, and in that, her life would have gained meaning, all without causing anyone any kind of trouble, which is too often the secret goal of those who struggle with suicidal tendencies. To vanish from the Earth, unnoticed, because they believe themselves unworthy of notice. While Erza knows her death would not go unnoticed, she tries to mitigate any suffering it will cause by keeping herself unloved.
But what caused her to be this way? We’ll get into that tomorrow, in Part 2, when we look at the story arc that’s all about Erza, “The Tower of Heaven”.