In traditional Western thought, the world was made up of four mystical elements: Fire, Earth, Air and Water. This was not the case everywhere — the Chinese, for instance, had a five-element system of Fire, Wood, Water, Metal and Earth.
When developing his alternative Tarot, the author Piers Anthony used a third system which had appeared in India (among other places). In this system the four Western elements were used, but with the addition of a fifth element, representing Spirit. This corresponded well with the five Buddhist 'Aggregates of Grasping', and could be reconciled with the four-element version by regarding Spirit as a central element with the others revolving around it. The traditional "four corners" elemental diagram can be thus updated as follows:
Active, physical — ultimately, the most 'Male' Principle of the Five, this element is represented primarily by the Staff of Life. All phallic symbolism is appropriate, and anything to do with Force, or Energy. It is associated with work and the raw power of Nature.
This 'Feminine' Principle is symbolically associated with roundness — rings, discs, wheels and so forth. It represents status in all it's forms, from the shallow status of wealth through political power to true dignity. Since it deals so strongly with people in relation to other people it represents society, and also the force of the will. It thus is the element most strongly associated with Traders and their underworld counterparts, Thieves; with Politicians (including the mediaeval Noble); and with those who use force to exercise their will — Soldiers.
Represented by the sword of humanity's divisive intellect, this element was traditionally associated with trouble; however, it has stronger links with the inquiring mind and in it's higher forms with the communication of ideas. It also associates with the concept of Justice, and those who deal in it — the inquisitive minds of detectives and lawyers alike.
The cup of emotion is probably the simplest image of the Five, representing as it does simply feeling, from the most basic passions to the highest forms of Faith.
Beyond the elements mentioned above, there is the final matter of a person's Soul, or spirit. Represented by the image of a burning lantern, this is the essential 'self', expressed in the form of Art in any of its many aspects.
Below is a series of tables showing a few of the more prominent aspects of the five elements; the verb listed first is probably the closest you will get to a single idea summing up the character of each, but all the tables can be of help in developing an overall picture of the elements. Some of these tables are taken from the appendix to Piers Anthony's 'Tarot'.