Also, for instance, how would you build a character like Elric or perhaps a character along the lines of Rand Al Thor?
By this I assumed you meant Edward Elric of Full Metal Alchemist Fame. Well, here's my take on him with the explanation of my decisions thrown in.
Q: Does alchemy need
to be described by magic?
A: Not necessarily. I will present this build under the assumption that the answer is no.
Q: How should alchemy be represented then?
A: Let's look at what Ed actually does with it - most of the time.
He transmutes his metal arm slightly in order to give himself a short blade.
He also exploits the weaknesses of his enemies using alchemy to change either his weapon or their body (e.g. Greed's shield) in some way.
Most of the rest of the time, he uses alchemy in a way that we could handwave as dramatic fluff. The use of alchemy to transmute the ground and use it as an elevator is great but difficult to model with existing spells short of fly. I'm opting to write it off for now.
Q: Any other things that are either unique or needed to capture the feel of the character?
A: Determination, hardheadedness, stubbornness, refusal to give up, ability to take WAY more punishment than his size/age should allow, quickness, agility, martial arts, and a sharp tongue.
OK, let's get started.
I picked Nimble Fist as his Talent/Specialty pair and Martial Artist as his class.
Nimble covers his speed and acrobatics while giving us some options.
Fist covers more speed, the Two-Hit Combo Feat and more acrobatics.
Martial Artist (class) provides the Martial Artist feat; however, I picked this class more for the core ability than anything else. Ed seems to be able to bounce back from pretty much anything. He crawled to the transmutation circle to drag his brother's soul back through the Gate while missing a limb! That's hardcore.
So, why else would I pick Martial Artist? Well, the Disciplines looked attractive and the extra Reach could model his battlefield mobility. The mix of Unarmed and Melee combat feats work well with his armored arm and his open hand as well.
Wuxia also helps free our short (sorry, Ed) friend from some of the restrictions on mobility.
Thus we have the following:
Nimble Human Fist
Martial Artist 14
STR - 14 - 2 (Nimble) + 1 (Fist) = 13
DEX - 13 + 2 (Nimble) + 3 (Level benefits) = 18
CON - 13
INT - 13 + 1 (Discipline @ lvl 11) = 14
WIS - 13
CHA - 12 + 1 (Discipline @ lvl 2) = 13Feats
Two-Hit Combo (Fist)
(Mechanically, the Qi feats help deal with alchemy during combat after some flavoring.)
(His arm weapon could be modeled as a sword sword with the Unborn weapon upgrade.)
Sword and Fist
(Ed can be really annoying at times. But he makes the best of it.)
Living on the Edge (need fuel for Edge tricks)
Lucky Break (need fuel for Edge tricks)
Charging Basics (battlefield mobility)Proficiencies
Called Shot (Nimble)
* At my table, you need to specify. If you don't need to specify at your table, then pick another trick.Ploys (from Martial Artist)
Knife Hand (Unarmed Attack Trick)
He's got Reach 3 and can move 55 feat. He also gets a free attack while charging. (You can flavor that as an alchemical attack if you like.)
I also seriously debated Martial Artist 1 (for the Core Ability) Mage 3 and Rune Knight 10. In the end, I decided that magic wasn't critical to my concept of Ed.
I hope that helps.