Elements in Fiction

Ultimate Fantastic Four

Ultimate Fantastic Four

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?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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47 Responses to Elements in Fiction

  1. What a great topic. Sometimes these things are right in front of us and we are still blind. Thanks for the possibilities!

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  2. Sue Coletta says:

    I didn’t realize the Fantastic Four represented the elements. In my defense I don’t read fantasy. But I did love Iron Man and Avatar movies. Does that count?

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  3. I think it’s great, and have done it to a slight degree. The Southern Dwarves are very much an Earth based people. I glanced off the possibilities contained in the elements in Will O’ the Wisp. I come right out and talk about it in Panama. There is nothing wrong with it in my mind. I’ll probably do it again too.

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  4. marjma2014 says:

    I do agree that the elements creep into writing fantasy, an interesting topic to explore further.

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  5. tpolen says:

    Have to admit – I never realized the Fantastic Four represented the elements either. My son and I have read a great YA series – The Elementals by Brigid Kemmerer – about four brothers, each able to control a different element. He still goes back and rereads them.

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  6. I’ve teased about the elements, and I’ve come right out and said it. I think it’s a wonderful way to explain how something foreign to us works. If it’s now considered a trope, I missed the memo.

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  7. The way I see it, most all stories dealing with any kind of magic (or majik, for those who delve?) use the Elements for carrying out the spells. The incantations manipulate Earth, Air, Water and Fire to the specifications of the wielder. Or, am I incorrect?

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  8. Since there are only those elements I think we all put them in our characters knowing so or not.

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  9. L. Marie says:

    I read the Fantastic Four comic books, but didn’t realize that Reed Richards represented water. Huh. Makes sense. Johnny Storm is obviously fire. And Ben Grimm is earth or rock? What about Sue with her boring invisible power?
    I love the use of the elements. Avatar is my favorite. I love how they came up with bending!
    Mercedes Lackey had that Elemental Masters series that I liked some years back.

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    • Sue is air. Her invisibility (boring?) includes force fields. So they’re attacks that can’t be seen like the wind. Reed is simply fluid like water. Avatar is definitely the reigning king of element-based stories.

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      • L. Marie says:

        Oh, duh. *smacks head* Makes sense. But when I was a kid, she was kinda boring next to the guys. I thought they made her invisible so she’d escape a beat down, which seemed lame to me then, since it was not an offensive weapon like fire. They must have increased her powers lately.

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      • She started like that, I think. A lot of invisibility and shields. Then they evolved her over time. I’m not sure when the more offensive stuff started. All I know is a running gag for a while was the mention of her defeating the Hulk and letting it go to her head.

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  10. D.T. Nova says:

    The main characters of my WIP mix the elements with animal themes.

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  11. sknicholls says:

    I think of the four elements as ancient concepts, not cliches. Hard to imagine how any epic or sword and sorcery fantasy cannot include them.

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  12. Well thought, I hadn’t considered it with much depth before. A good read as usual, Charles, thanks 🙂

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  13. Oh, what a great conversation! I think it can happen intentionally and by accident – especially if there are four main characters. Maybe readers subconsciously relate four to the four elements, maybe the author did.
    ~SAT

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  14. I hadn’t thought of FF in that way — interesting!

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  15. Neat! That is so cool.

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