This week I’m excited to bring you a guest post from urban fantasy author Ken Hughes, who’s taking a closer look at the four elements and the use of elemental magic systems. Ken is the author of the Whisperers Series and the Spellkeeper Flight Series, and has recently released his latest book, Freefall:
“Water. Earth. Fire. Air.” Those are the first words in Avatar: The Last Airbender, but we’ve seen the same four-elements structure of magic and worldbuilding in so many other fantasy stories that the dreaded word “cliché” is never far away.
Still, the difference between a cliché and a classic might just be how long it’s been since we’ve seen that idea handled well (which Avatar does, yes). And fantasy does love its classics.
For myself, I think the reason the Four Elements idea sunk such deep roots into fantasy isn’t so much because Aristotle’s writings made it “the official historical mysticism.” (Never mind that his theory was science in ancient Greece.) I think it keeps turning up because fantasy loves returning us to the sense that there are still forces larger than ourselves in the world, sometimes under our control like we see today’s world, sometimes not.
—After all, if a fantasy hero ventures into a primeval cave or chases pirates over the sea, it’s only “natural” that that rock or that ocean might be the decisive source of power.
For the most direct forms of magic, the elements are perfect. If a story needs magicians to simply blast each other, there’s instant variety in doing that through the Four, especially if the story does justice to differences between them. Of course earth is the strongest and most stable, air the fastest, water a happy medium between them, and fire the most purely destructive—it’s as simple as heavy, light, and medium military forces, plus a specialist. We can see that in Avatar’s duels, or games like Grandia where you quickly learn fire spells hit harder but wind rattles the whole battlefield.
But even if elemental magic were to start with brute force, it wastes no time in spilling out into larger possibilities where it belongs. Half the fun of fantasy is playing up physical wonder, and anything from that pirate-ravaged sea to the whisper of wind on a harp just might be tied in to elemental forces. (At least, to a writer worth reading.)
To make a world feel unknowable, elemental power can lurk deep in nature and be perilous to even bargain with, let alone control. Or it might be wielded on naturalistic terms only, like foresters who can guide their trees’ growth to crumble a fortress in a week but be too slow to snare a charging enemy. Or smiths might keep a fire-spirit in their forges, or Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea sailors depend on weather-wizards for favorable winds, and Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters books show elementalists’ mining and shipping secretly driving the Industrial Revolution.
Elements of Improvement
So should we use elemental magic in a story?
My short answer would be: of course, if you want—but it might not hurt to use something other than four of them.
The elements are a huge storytelling touchstone, which means any writer should approach that with a sense of how much they’ve been done before. If your vision starts leading toward the idea that magic has five, seven, or three forces, that could be a head start on making your story more distinct. (European magicians did add Spirit as the fifth element, aka the “quint-essence,” to form the famous pentacle. Asian spiritualism separates earth, wood, and metal. And then there’s ice, light, lightning…)
Meanwhile if you stick to the classic four elements, you’re taking on both the most familiar appeal and what some readers will see as the most overused approach. For some stories that might be a problem, but not for others.
Something else to watch for is how much you keep the elements separate. It can be too easy to assume a magician can only wield one, and maybe have whole societies spring up on your map patterned around a single element. Those might be the form your story needs, but they’re also a convenient way to come up with more ideas than you’ve stopped to do justice to—don’t overlook how many possibilities might lie in how all of them interlock. How much is rain an air spell, and how much is it water? Would a seafaring nation worship water gods and neglect the winds, or would they understand better than anyone how the two work together on the sea? plus how devastating fire would be against an enemy ship? Some stories’ magicians might be patterned around one element alone, but it’s hard to think of a nation ignoring the others.
Then there’s the nonphysical question: which “element” is it that summons up a ghost, or works a teleportation spell, or moves a piece of cloth? It’s easy to picture the elements as tangible force, but then find your magic has no room left to do anything unsolid or even outside of nature. Historical “magicians” used the elements as much as symbols of nonphysical ideas as for the obvious: they’d invoke fire to bring “burning, ruinous rage” on an enemy or inspiration on an ally, and “all-seeing air” to bless a scholar. (Of course, they did that instead of expecting their rituals to literally set someone’s house on fire… but there’s no reason your magicians can’t do both.) Or there’s Spirit or other nonphysical elements that could have their own place in your spellbooks.
The four elements are a familiar device in fantasy, with all the appeals and the risks that come with that. But the reason they’ve endured is less as a shortcut in worldbuilding, and more because of how much they tap into and how much room they have to develop something new.
How would you use them?
Ken Hughes dreams of dark alleys and the twenty-seven ways people with different psychic gifts might maneuver around each corner. He grew up on comics and adventures before discovering Steven King and Joss Whedon, and he’s written for Mars mission proposals and medical devices, making him an honorary rocket scientist and brain surgeon. Ken is a Global Ebook Award-nominated urban fantasy novelist, creator of SHADOWED’s “Whisperers” series and the Spellkeeper Flight series (with the newest, FREEFALL, just launched this month). Don’t get him started on puns.