Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked!
You’ve probably heard this spiel before, even if you’re not a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender. The idea of Four Elements is an old one, deeply ingrained in societies all over the world. While it doesn’t fit everywhere (i.e. China includes gold, Greece includes Aether), it’s a pretty good standard that’s seen in all kinds of media. Usually the inclusion of this trope means there will also be people who can control those particular elements, whether through magical training or inherent ability.
Why this is bad: I’ve already talked a little bit about this in a previous post, but the principles there can be used here, too. First of all, the Four Elements idea is a bit outdated, when you think about it. After all, we have an entire periodic table of elements. While water, earth, fire, and air are often meant in reference to classical elements, they were originally used to refer to the simplest parts of life that matter was based on. Obviously, we now know that isn’t the case.
While being dated isn’t necessarily a bad thing, developing a world where characters’ powers reflect their personalities can be. Those with control of earth are often very grounded, those with control of water go with the flow – I’ll stop making puns now. I think you get it. A lot of authors will base their worlds on these kinds of assumptions, which can get boring and predictable.
How you can fix it: If you really want to characterize your characters by elements (whether they control them or just for fun), try to find a more unique way to do it. Dig deeper into the characterization of the different elements. Fire can hurt, yes, but it also brings life and warmth. Air can be soothing and light, but it can also burn you if it’s strong enough. While I’d definitely suggest avoiding characterization based on element, if you want to go down that road, try to do it in a way you haven’t seen before but still makes sense. Take into account all the aspects of the element and not just the most obvious.
Bottom Line: If developing your characters based around the four elements, think deeply about the traits you’ll be giving them and find new, interesting ways to characterize them.