Principles of Elements: Elements and Character Patterns

Yesterday, I made a case for mixing elements in elemental systems. But I know not everyone’s going to do this, so instead I’ll look into the ramifications of fully differentiated elements.

One major irritation of these systems is the fact that they always seem to result in the same character types: the hot-headed fire-slinging redheads, the compassionate Water, Wood or Spiritual Fifth Element healer, the flashy, flighty air, and all of their ilk. (Limyaael also has a rant on this; it’s worth reading.)

The best way to avoid this is—gasp—to not predispose a certain element to a certain personality type. But if you simply can’t resist the urge to predispose them like that, consider a couple alternatives to the standard collection of personalities.

One possibility is to subvert the trend. Many of the stereotypical elemental magic users have the tendencies they do because it’s supposed to demonstrate an affinity for their element. But while it’s good for empathizing with said element, it isn’t near as good for controlling it, or even putting it to optimal use. How does the Ubiquitous Fire-Based Hothead ever keep from destroying half of what’s around her every time she gets excited? A better person for keeping a lid on the flame would be methodical, controlled, good at allocating resources—after all, fire consumes in a way that most of what’s usually grouped with it doesn’t. I’d also expect a good fire-user to have a shades-of-gray mentality: if there’s anything that proves a force or object is not inherently benevolent or malicious, it’s fire; just look at all that it does.

Earth? I guess I can see stubbornness and ability to deal with problems head on, but many people insist on their earth-types being rather stolid, not too inclined to new ideas. That’s not going to work too well; you can’t really fight inertia with inertia. You’d need someone more dynamic, willing to introduce change or attack a problem from multiple angles. Being able to apply different levels of force to different areas to make sure the overall result comes out the same would be useful as well. Let’s face it, it’s hard to get earth as a pure element; most rocks aren’t just one mineral.

Air? Sure, the stereotype is flighty, fickle and flashy, but you’d want to be well-grounded, or at least able to keep to one thought when the wind about you is going in all different directions. It’d also help to be good at calculating the force and positioning needed to accomplish a task; it’s harder to move something with air alone than with earth or water.

If you absolutely must follow the “Element users act like their element” schtick, at least look at the elements a little more closely, and try to find some associations with them that haven’t been used so often that people can guess element from personality without even having been introduced to the world. The key here is to write down all the associations you can think of, and then eliminate or re-purpose the common ones.

This way, you get an an elemental system that doesn’t lead to the same old characterizations, giving you a new feel and thereby drumming up interest.

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