It actually took me years to realize that the Fantastic Four were based on the four elements. In my defense, I was into Spider-Man and the X-Men, so I barely paid attention to the FF unless they made a cameo. This got me thinking long ago about elements being used as a power base. I do it a lot with some characters (Nyx/fire) more obvious than others (Timoran/earth). There are various elemental systems too like the Godai (5 elements of Japan) and the Wu Xing (5 elements of China). I’m going to pay more attention to the 4 element system that I tend to use. Feel free to tell more about the others or mention different groups in the comments.
One issue with using elements is that it’s been done a lot. Fantastic Four, Captain Planet, Avatar: The Last Airbender, mythological beings, etc. It’s a tradition/cliche/trope in fantasy and this typically makes up the basis of most magic systems. You’ll notice that the majority of spells are fire, lightning, ice, and wind. I think part of the reason for this is because pure energy blasts can only be so varied. Nyx fires a blue beam and Trinity fires a purple beam? Doesn’t really make a big difference or an exciting fight. Nyx coming in with giant fists of fire while Trinity kicks to unleash a wave of tornado-level winds is a lot more exciting. So you have the elements as a power base, which still has plenty of variation. After all, Mr. Fantastic is ‘water’ in the way that he moves and shifts. The connection is more for the author to get a handle of a character’s abilities than for the reader to know exactly what the connection is.
Even if you don’t go with exact powers, you can use elements to help explain or plan a character’s personality. Flighty or easygoing can be air-based. Defiant or temperamental could be fire-based. Stubborn for earth and fluid-minded for water. That’s just a base to be used, so I wouldn’t recommend sticking solely to that trait. Jump off that to evolve your character into a more well-rounded person. Take in a little stoic earth to temper the fiery hero or have them become easygoing water in certain situations. It’s a lot of mind and term stretching here. Again this is more for the author side of the coin. Readers may jump to their own conclusions or simply not care if their favorite character is connected to wind or water. Most people start singing the Captain Planet theme anyway.
I’ve heard a lot of people call the use of elements as cliche and they try to avoid it. Yet I’m sure they factor in such things without thinking. Going beyond the characters, you have environments that assimilate the elements to come to life. You might not be paying attention specifically to that aspect of the world, but you it is there. Each area has a different balance of the elements even in the real world. Why do you think they’ve been acknowledged and used since ancient times? This goes for monsters too, but not every genre has those.
Maybe I’ll put together a list post for Monday since this is a fun topic. For now, I’ll simply open the floor to the audience. What do you think of using elements in stories? Have you ever done it before? Do you think you’ve done it unintentionally?