Vladimir Propp claimed characters could be defined by their “spheres of action” and the role they played in the progression of the story. After studying 100 fairy tales in tremendous detail, he identified seven archetypes: the villain, the donor, the helper, the princess, the dispatcher, the hero, and the false hero.
At the start of the story, the villain causes some “form of misfortune, damage or harm” by stealing a magical object for their own gain, ruining crops, kidnapping a person, or committing a murder. They could be a dragon, a witch, a stepmother or even the devil himself. These characters often use a disguise to perform their wicked deeds, such as the dragon who turns into a golden goat or the witch pretending to be a “sweet old lady”.
Their evil action will, of course, lead to a fight or another form of struggle with the hero.
Villains in contemporary media include Ganon from the Legend of Zelda series, Thanos from Marvel’s “Endgame” (2019), and the iconic Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939).
The Donor (provider)
For most of the folk tales in Propp’s study, the hero needs some sort of agent to defeat the villain and complete their quest. This object is provided by the donor. For example, a robber shows the hero a weapon, merchants display incredible wares or an old man can provide a magical sword.
The donor offers the hero these things if they can fulfil a task or test, such as the witch who gives the girl chores around the house or the hero who has to serve the knights of the forest for three years. During the encounter in the forest, on the road or some other wilderness, the donor might also make a request for mercy or a favour. Once the hero has satisfied the donor’s demands, they will be rewarded with agent they need to restore order in their world.
Lucius Fox, played by Morgan Freeman in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, provides lots of technology to help the hero destroy the Joker’s evil plan to bring chaos to Gotham. Tamatoa, the giant coconut crab who has Maui’s magical fishhook in “Moana”, is another example of a donor.
A helper uses their force or cunning to help the hero acquire the object needed to remove the misfortune from their lives. Perhaps they help break a spell or resuscitate a victim. They might help the hero choose the right route or carry them to their destination. In some of the folk tales, the helper rescued the hero from a dangerous pursuit.
At the end of the story, they might also offer the hero new garments which will represent the protagonist’s transformation.
The sidekick in most films could be considered helpers. Morpheus and Trinity unplug Neo and help him rebel against the machines in “The Matrix” (1999), Palico assists the players in their quest throughout the “Monster Hunter” video game franchise, and Donkey is always there to support Shrek.
This role is very similar to Ronald Tobias’s buddy concept and his example of the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion from “The Wizard of Oz” (1939).
The Princess (a sought-for person)
In many of the folk tales, the hero sets off on a quest to rescue a princess. Perhaps the princess is a victim, such as the character who is tormented by the devil every night and the hero must save her. During the story, she might give the hero a token, such as a ring or cloth, before he fights the villain. Of course, the hero’s journey concludes when he marries the princess.
However, in some stories the hero has to search for a missing person, most likely his sister. Therefore, the sphere of action that defines the princess has nothing to do with the royal title. The archetype refers to the “sought-for” character who the hero has to find to complete his quest.
It is important to note that there are a number of royal princesses in the stories who have a different sphere of action. For example, there is the princess who orders her servants to take her husband away into the forest and kill him, a princess who chops the leg off one of her victims, or the princess who steals a magic shirt and kills her husband. These functions indicate the princesses are actually the villains in those folk tales.
Remember, Propp was referring to the roles the characters played in the functions of the stories rather than their names or background.
The Sultan’s daughter in the platform game “Prince of Persia” (1989) needs rescued, and Bryan Mills, the former CIA operative played by Liam Neeson, has the set of skills needed to track down his teenage daughter who has been kidnapped by human traffickers in “Taken” (2008).
Modern damsels in distress are usually more empowered than their traditional counterparts. For example, Superman is always saving Lois Lane from certain death but she is certainly not a passive character. Although Ray Gaines has to rescue his daughter in the disaster film “San Andreas” (2015), she proves to be very capable in surviving the earthquake and tsunami until he arrives just as the building collapses.
After the villain has committed a terrible deed and brought misfortune to the land, the dispatcher calls for help. In many of the stories, the tsar promises a reward to the hero who can solve the problem, or a family member requests their children end the evil blighting their home. In one example, a mother informs her son about his sister’s abduction. He then sets out on a quest to rescue her from the evil dragon.
Perhaps the hero was punished at the start of the story and the dispatcher releases them so they can go on a quest to save the day. Propp offers the example of a girl wrongly condemned to death for murder. A cook sets a her free and slays an animal instead to present its heart as proof of girl’s execution. In this tale, the cook is the dispatcher.
In the original Star Wars trilogy, the android, R2D2, dispatches Luke Skywalker on his quest to find the Jedi Knight, Ben Kenobi. In “Alien” (1979), the computer on the spaceship Nostromo, known as Mother, alerts the crew that a distress signal has been received and needs to be investigated. In “Attack On Titan”, Armin Arlert describes the world outside the walls which inspires the protagonist, Eren Yeager, to see the world beyond those confines.
Propp defined two types of hero. First, there is the seeker who “agrees to liquidate the misfortune” suffered by another character and goes on a quest to defeat the evil. For example, if they have to rescue a young girl who is kidnapped by a wicked villain.
The second type of hero is the victim who “directly suffers from the action of the villain” at the start of the story. Perhaps they were warned not to “look into this closet”, “venture forth from the courtyard” or “pick the apples”, but the villain persuades them to violate the “interdiction” and they are punished for their disobedience. The victimised hero will then have to find a magical agent to help them resolve the misfortune.
Media texts are full of heroes. Katniss Everdeen competes in the Hunger Games and then leads a rebellion against the oppressive Capitol, T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman in Marvel’s “Black Panther” (2018), has to defend Wakanda, and Mario from Nintendo’s most popular franchise has to save Princess Peach from the villainous Bowser.
The False Hero
When the hero finishes their quest and the evil is defeated, the false hero takes credit for the victory. For example, the hero’s brothers pretend they captured the prize or the general tells the tsar he conquered the dragon. These characters appear to be good but it quickly becomes obvious they are corrupt.
A great example of the false hero is Hans from Disney’s “Frozen” (2013) who pretends to love Anna but is plotting to steal the throne of Arendelle. Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter series is another character who presents himself as the hero but is often thwarted by the protagonist and his friends. Finally, Marlene in “The Last of Us” seems to help Ellie but then wants to use her in an experiment that could lead to her death.
Morphology of the Folk Tale
Vladimir Propp was interested in the structure of traditional Russian fairy tales, but he wanted to analyse the stories with the same “well-ordered classification” taken by the “physical and mathematical sciences”. Using what is known as a formalist approach to literature, the scholar mapped out the “constant elements” of 100 narratives according to the actions of the characters and their significance on the plot.
To explain his methodology, Propp offered an example from two different tales:
- a tsar gives an eagle to a hero and the eagle carries the hero away to another kingdom;
- a sorcerer gives the hero a little boat and the boat takes him to another kingdom.
Although the names and backgrounds of the characters changed, the action and consequence remained the same. Propp believed folk tales were driven by the decisions and actions of the various characters, so each beat of the story could be defined by what they say or do. He then argued these “constants and variables” made it possible to study the stories in terms of the “functions” of its dramatis personae.
In “Morphology of the Folk Tale”, first published in Russian in 1928 and then translated into English in 1958, Propp delivered his incredibly detailed analysis of these “wonder” stories, identifying his seven stock character types and the roles they played in the thirty-one plot functions.1
Based on his sample of 100 Russian folk stories, Propp believed the narratives all shared 31 distinct functions. He also argued the “functions must be defined independently of the characters who are supposed to fulfil them” and these plot points usually occurred in the same order in the story.
Invariably, the tales began with an initial situation which offered some details and description of the characters, even if it was simply a reference to a name or status. Of course, this concept is similar to Tzvetan Todorov’s equilibrium or Ronald Tobias’s suggestion that the opening of the story should establish the origination of the hero.
This initial situation was then followed by his list of functions.
Functions 1 – 7
Propp suggested the first seven functions could be considered to be the preparatory part of the narrative:
- One of the members of a family absents himself from home.
- Something is forbidden.
- That interdiction is violated.
- The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance. (The villain sometimes uses a disguise)
- The villain receives information about his victim.
- The villain attempts to deceive his victim in order to take possession of him or his belongings. (Trickery)
- The victim submits to deception and thereby unwittingly helps his enemy.
This is the complication: THE VILLAIN CAUSES HARM OR INJURY TO A MEMBER OF A FAMILY.
The act of villainy takes many different forms. For example, a dragon kidnaps the tsar’s daughter or the villain steals the magical agent. Perhaps the servant girl cuts out the eyes of her mistress or a stepmother drives her stepdaughter away from home. Put simply, there has to be some affliction or misfortune which produces an insufficiency or lack to be solved by hero.
Propp believed this function was “exceptionally important” because the “actual movement” of the narrative is “created” at this point.
Propp called this function the connective Incident. The misfortune or lack is made known and the hero is approached with a request or command to help overcome the evil.
Depending on the situation, the hero will either be a seeker or victim. For example, if the previous functions followed the abduction of a daughter from her father, then the hero will go in search of the girl to bring her back home. There is usually the promise of marriage in this sort of narrative.
A good example of the victim hero is the girl who is banished into the forest by her stepmother. Her quest is to find a new life for herself in the wilderness.
Functions 10 – 18
- The seeker agrees to or decides upon counteraction.
- The Hero leaves home. The hero is tested, interrogated, attacked, etc., which prepares the way for his receiving either a magical agent or helper.
- The hero reacts to the actions of the future donor.
- The hero acquires the use of a magical agent.
- The hero is transferred, delivered, or led to the whereabouts of an object of search.
- The hero and the villain join in direct combat.
- The hero is branded.
- The villain is defeated.
Once the villain is defeated, the hero obtains the magical agent need to liquidate the lack. Propp suggested this is when the narrative reached its peak.
Perhaps the hero has captured the magic duck that lays golden eggs or a wicked spell has been broken. The hero could even be revived by life-giving waters.
Functions 20 and 21
The hero returns home
However, sometimes the hero is pursued by a dragon, a witch or an attractive maiden who tries to seduce the protagonist.
The hero is rescued from the pursuit, managing to escape on horseback or hiding in side an apple tree until the danger has passed.
Propp acknowledged that many of the tales ended at this point. Perhaps the hero marries a girl and they live happily ever after. However, some of the tales had “another misfortune in store for the hero”. He suggested this second villainous act creates a new “move”.
Functions 23 – 31
The second movement:
- The hero, unrecognised, arrives home or in another country.
- A false hero presents unfounded claims.
- A difficult task is proposed to the hero.
- The task is resolved.
- The hero is recognised.
- The false hero or villain is exposed.
- The hero is given a new appearance.
- The villain is punished.
- The hero is married and ascends the throne.
It is worth noting that Propp defined function 29 as transfiguration. The hero is given new clothes or he builds a marvellous palace. This might be a useful plot point to explain narratives found in advertising.
Propp’s division of the folk tales into 7 spheres of action and 31 narrative functions was an impressive attempt to discover the fundamental elements of storytelling. It revealed the importance of causality to the success of the narratives because one plot point always seemed to lead to the next with a clear sense of progression. In fact, his research continues to influence contemporary writers so you should look out for his character types and narrative functions in the next book you read or film you watch.
Exam Practice and Revision
The best way to learn the key concepts of Propp’s narrative functions and character types is to apply the critical framework to a variety of media products. There are examples on our narrative exam practice page, but you should begin with the representation of Princess Zelda or the positioning of the Joker as the villain in the Batman franchise.