Elemental Geometry: A Study of Role Assignments in Fictional Team Structures

Human interactions are generally a vast, puzzling maze that no one can make heads or tails of. In fiction, however, these interactions are generally distilled to a set of simple schematics with fixed role assignments for each character. This paper is an attempt to examine and explain these structures, and the nature of each assignment, and how it relates to philosophical and metaphysical personality conventions.

This paper examines ten different structures, encompassing anywhere from two to six people. These boundaries are not arbitrary; one person has no interpersonal dynamics, and when you reach seven, fragmentation generally occurs, creating multiple groups with the dynamics already discussed. The individual role assignments often, but not always, fit with the elemental assignments of myth and legend, because such are the easiest ways to describe character archetypes. People are, of course, more complex than described here, but the basic skeletons are extremely accurate.

Binary/Polar: The smallest group is, of course, the pair. Familiar to us from hundreds of buddy movies, the pair almost always falls into the schematic of polar opposites. Take Mulder and Scully, the agents of the X-files. Believer and skeptic, man and woman, short and tall, dark and light, science and mysticism, these two are opposites, complimenting each other both visually and in personal relationships. Or Riggs and Murtaugh of the "Lethal Weapon" movies. White and black, crazy and sane, a loner and a family man, these opposite poles make for interesting conflict, and shore up each other's weaknesses in cooperation.

Polar with Satellite: A common variation on the Polar schematic is that of the pair with a satellite. This satellite is usually a third member who both is and is not a part of the pair's general goings-on. For instance, Director Skinner is a sometime satellite for Mulder and Scully. Acting as a grey area and mediator, the satellite's position is to keep the peace and control the sometimes volatile interactions between the poles.

Another instance of this configuration is the main trio from the program "The Sentinel." The main pair, Blair Sandburg and Jim Ellison, are most CERTAINLY polar qualities. One a man of academic pursuits, the other extremely physical in his relationship to the world. The pair is kept from exploding by the (sometimes frantic) efforts of their captain, Simon Banks, who is frequently seen smoothing over the disagreements that tend to arise between two such different men.

Trinity: Trinity schematics almost always break down into the most familiar configurations to the Western mode of thought: Mind, Body, and Heart. (Players of "The Legend of Zelda" will know these divisions as Wisdom, Power, and Courage, respectively.) Persons in the Mind role generally handle the planning aspects of a task, as well as being in charge of the scientific or technical aspects. Body, on the other hand, is usually the strong one, although not always physically. Sometimes the Body role is the person who keeps the team from fragmenting under a blow. Heart, on the other hand, is the drive, the one who keeps the group motivated to move towards a goal.

Two examples of Trinity schematics are the VR Troopers and the Beetleborgs. For the Troopers, JB Reese occupies the Mind role, being the computer and technical expert, while Kaitlin Starr occupies the role designated for the Body. She is usually the person looking after the mental and physical welfare of the others, especially Ryan. Ryan Steele, of course, is Heart, or Courage. This is appropriate because the battle is his, but he is also the one who keeps the others reminded of just what they are fighting for.

The Beetleborgs have similar assignments. Roland is Mind, not so much for technical expertise as for being the one to say to his more impulsive teammates, "Stop and THINK about this for a minute." Jo, obviously enough, is Body, both with her phenomenal physical strength and her intense desire to get things DONE. Last of all, Drew is Heart. He is the one who keeps reminding the others that they have a responsibility to take on the Magnavores or Crustaceans.

Tetrahedral: This is a fairly rare configuration. The tetrahedron, for those who haven't taken much geometry, is a three-dimensional construct, composed of four points equidistant from each other and a central point. It looks like a three-sided pyramid. The tetrahedron is a variant of the Trinity form, where the three points (Mind, Body, and Heart) form a base for a fourth point, a combination of the three, defined as Spirit. Spirit, being a point in a different plane than the others, is generally separated somehow from the other members in powers or duties. Often Spirit is the leader, directing the other three in the best use of their abilities.

The only Tetrahedral group I have yet run across are the characters of Superhuman Samurai Syber Squad. Tanker, the football player is Body, his general method of dealing with a problem being to pound it. Sydney is Mind, since she is the technical genius of the group, especially when it comes to computer programming. And the strange Amp fulfills the role of Heart nicely. His odd behavior hides an excellent understanding of what motivates people, especially when it comes to emotions. These three pilot vehicles when they go into battle in the computer. The leader of the team, Sam Collins, has a completely different type of power, though. Being in the Spirit role, Sam possesses traits of all three of his friends, and is capable of making command decisions. As for his powers, he is physically transformed into Servo, a digital warrior.

Quadral: This configuration consists of four people on the same plane, no one being set apart from the others. Generally personality assignments go along the lines of the classic four elements of alchemy: earth, water, air, and fire. The only pure Quadral group I know of is the Fantastic Four, whose powers reflect their elemental assignments. The malleable Mr. Fantastic is water, intelligent and emotionally intuitive. The Invisible Woman is an air personality, capable and ready for almost anything. You'll notice that the character's maiden name was Storm. Solid, gruff, and practical Ben Grimm, the Thing, is earth, quite in keeping with his powers. And last of all, the impulsive Human Torch is of course associated with the element of fire.

Quad-Pyramidal: The Quad-Pyramidal structure is far more common than the pure Quadral form, because once a team reaches four members, supporting characters play a stronger role. The general assignments are those of the Quadral form, with a fifth member occupying a different plane. The diagram resembles nothing so much as the pyramids familiar to us from the architechture of Egypt. While the base assignments are still the four elements already discussed, the fifth, extra element is usually given the designation of "Heart."

Probably the most obvious example of this is "Captain Planet and the Planeteers." The Planeteers are a team in and of themselves, and so Captain Planet is not included in this discussion. The four older members, possessing the four cardinal elements, have a tendency to take the lead in all matters. The younger Ma-Ti, possessing the element of Heart, is usually regulated to the background. Not to mention that the other four can all use their powers as weapons, while Ma-Ti's power is primarily a communications device.

Another example of the Quad-Pyradimal structure is the team of Ghostbusters from "The Real Ghostbusters." The four main Ghostbusters correspond with the four elements of the Tarot quite well. Peter Venkman is the intelligent, somewhat suspicious, argumentative air element. The scientifically gifted Egon Spengler is represented the water element, which deals with both the intellectual and emotional aspects of the mind. Winston Zeddemore, calm and rational, is the element of earth. And Ray Stantz represents the energetic fire. The fifth, pyramidal member of their group is Janine Melnitz, who often provides the emotional support or sensitivity the others lack. The Ghostbusters could function without her, but not for long.

Power Ranger fans have also encountered this particular configuration in the first segment of "Power Rangers in Space." This time, however, the elemental configurations were somewhat different. The four base elements were Ashley's fire, TJ's earth, Carlos' water, (Ranger fans noted that he suddenly developed technical prowess when the season began,) and Cassie's Heart. The fifth member, the cool and distant Andros, embodied the element of air, which is in fact considered an "extra" element in Japanese symbolism. An in-depth discussion of that principle must wait until later in this paper, however.

Quad-Bipyramidal: Another fairly rare configuration is the Quad-Bipyramidal structure. This is similar to the structure above, but the fifth element on one side is balanced by another element on the other. This new element is usually similar to the one on the other side, but manifests itself as a polar opposite.

The only example of this particular structure that I am aware of is the structure of the cartoon version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The four turtles fit the elemental assignments of the Quad structure perfectly. Leonardo, the calm, rational leader, is earth, while the wisecracking, devil-may-care Raphael represents the element of air. Childlike, energetic Michelangelo is fire, and the intuitive, scientific genius Donatello is represented by the water.

The Heart assignments go to the Turtles' two closest friends and allies in the world: their mentor, Splinter, and April O'Neil. Splinter and April are polar manifestations of the Heart role, passive and active. Splinter is passive, counselling the turtles and generally acting as a father figure, but rarely acting unless the situation is dire. He is the one they come to when they have problems, and he is the one who gives them stability. April, on the other hand, is active. She is always moving, and is often the one who spurs the Turtles into the action that is right, although not always consciously.

Pentagonal: Another unusual structure is the Pentagonal form. This is a structure in which all five members occupy one plane, in a pentagon. Take, for instance, the structure of the early Power Rangers Turbo. Despite Justin's youth, and somewhat sheltered position, he was still a full member of the team, and so cannot be considered a separated member. Also, the elemental assignments shift here, to the five base elements of Japanese myth and symbolism. Three of those elements, fire, water, and earth, are familiar, but two are different. These two are metal and wood. In the West, the term "metal" generally evokes images of iron or steel, but that is not the actual context the Japanese have for it. In Japanese myth, the metal is usually gold. As a result, metal stands not only for strength, but for the somewhat bright disposition that gold reflects. As for wood, trees are not the only things this element represents. The Japanese word for "tree" is "ki," a word that also translates to "life force." It's generally better known by the Chinese word, "chi." So the element of wood also stands for the element of life.

The Power Rangers Turbo, in the first season, fit these elemental assignments nicely. Tommy is the energetic fire, Adam the calm, stable earth, and Justin the somewhat emotional, intelligent water. Tanya's bright personality and unshakeable courage peg her as metal, while Kat's nurturing instincts make her the Ranger filling the wood role.

Five-Pyramidal: Five-Pyramidal structures are similar to pentagonal, except that a sixth, separate member has been added. This member represents the element of air.

As for examples, where do I start? Saban adapted media is rich with these teams, perhaps because such teams are common in the Japanese Sentai that such shows adapt. 1st season Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the early Zeo Ranger team, the second set of Turbo Rangers, and the later set of Space Rangers all fall into this category. For MMPR, Jason is fire, Zack is metal, Trini is earth, Billy is water, and Kimberly is wood. Tommy, cool and aloof, takes the position of air.

Billy holds this position in early Zeo, further emphasized by his lack of powers. Some of the other Rangers have radically shifted as well. Tommy is fire now, as leader of the team. He is all energy and action, having left his aloof days behind him. Adam still is earth, and Tanya fullfils the position of metal. Katherine, however, is now water, in its emotional aspects, and Rocky, the life of the party, has the role of wood.

Second-season Turbo also falls into this. TJ is still earth but Justin has the position of water. Carlos' energy and bright outlook puts him in the position of fire, the unbreakable Cassie is metal, and the sensitive, lively Ashley is wood. Air is represented by the mysterious Phantom Ranger, who is swift and invisible, but somehow distant.

In the second season of Rangers in Space, a new Ranger, Zhane, joins the team. TJ and Cassie retain their Turbo assignments, but Carlos is moved to water, and Ashley takes up the fire. Andros is air, but he has now been integrated into the team. The separate member is Zhane, despite his assignment as metal.

Double Trinity: Last of all is the Double Trinity. The structure of this one harkens back to the Trinity discussed earlier. Now, however, each of the points of the triangle has two manifestations, best described as Yin and Yang. Yin is fundamentally passive, allowing action to come to it. Yang is active, reaching out to whatever is there. (These are simplifications, of course, but adequate for our discussion.)

One of the best examples of the Double Trinity is the cartoon show "The Mighty Ducks." On the Mind level, we have Tanya, the team technical genius, and Grin, the world's largest (seven feet tall, easily,) repository of ancient wisdom. Tanya is the Yang side of Mind, reaching out with scientific curiosity to that which she does not understand. Grin is Yin, allowing the knowledge inherent in life to come to him as it will.

Body level is shown in team leader Wildwing and the military Mallory McMallard. (No, that's not the worst pun coming up.) Wildwing is definitely a physical type, more than ready to slug it out with the Saurians, but he's still Yin. Wildwing possesses a quiet strength, holding the team together without having to pull rank. He doesn't lead the team with what he says or does so much as by who he is. Mallory, on the other hand, is very Yang. She would prefer to take the Saurians out BEFORE they can cause any trouble, and she tends to charge in blasting. Wildwing holds the team together- Mallory makes sure they have the drive to get where they're going.

Last are Nosedive and Duke L'Orange, (I warned you!) the aspects of Heart. Dive is Yang, still a big kid at heart, despite everything he's seen and done. He's the innocence of the Ducks, doing what's right without really much thought. Dive is Courage, doing what has to be done, despite the risks. Duke, on the other hand, is more quiet, and introspective, Yin. However, he remains the moral conscience of the Ducks.

Also falling into this structure are White Ranger-era MMPR teams, especially the first one. Tommy and Jason are aspects of body- Tommy Yin, Jason Yang. This was obvious in their leadership styles. Trini and Billy were the Yin and Yang aspects of Mind, respectively, and Heart was represented by Zack for Yang and Kim for Yin. Courage to do, and courage to be. When the other three came in, Adam took Trini's place, Rocky took Jason's, and Aisha took Zack's. Later, Kat would take Kim's position for a brief time.

Last, the late-season Zeo team fell into this one. Jason was too familiar to viewers and teammates to be a separated member, and he quickly resumed his position as Tommy's opposite pole. This time, however, the mellower Jason was Yin to Tommy's Yang. Adam and Tanya were Yang and Yin aspects of Mind, Adam with technical knowledge after Billy's departure, Tanya with wisdom about people. And Rocky and Kat were heart, Rocky Yang, Kat Yin.

These structures are extremely basic, but can easily be made to fit almost any fictional team, and go a long way to diagramming interactions. And perhaps, at heart, these are the themes that drive real humans as well. After all, as they say, "Art imitates Life."