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Propp's Dramatis Personae

Nathan Kiehn is the author of over 100 blog posts on his family website Keenlinks and "The Gray Guard" ebook fantasy trilogy on Amazon.

"Persons of the Drama"

Not only did Vladimir Propp identify 31 different functions nearly all narrative structures have, but he also selected eight (or sometimes seven; I'll explain) character archetypes that are common to stories as well. Whether these are ancient myths or modern stories, these are archetypes that we can all identify as staple characteristics to our favorite tales.

Mankind has always loved stories, so it makes sense that we have these archetypes. We want heroes that are beyond us; we want villains who can be stopped; we want sidekicks who are funny. It's our nature to enjoy these characters, so this Hub will take the time to go over what those archetypes are and what they add to the tales.

The Hero

The hero. The guy or gal we cheer on, the person we empathize with the most. This is the much-beloved character who leaves their home on a quest, risks their life to defeat the villain, and sacrifices much to save the day. The hero can be a common person who becomes extraordinary or a victim of the villain's evil striking back. The hero usually wins by the end, defeating the villain and receiving some reward.

Classic heroes include (and this time, I'll stick to three classic stories for all archetypes): Beowulf, the strong Geat warrior who battles Grendel and other beasts. Rama, the blue-skinned avatar of Vishnu destined to kill Ravanna. Thor, the Asgardian god of Thunder who battles foes externally and internally.

Ravana

Ravana

The Villain

The villain is the character the reader is supposed to hate. This is the guy with the sinister plan who causes pain to people, including the hero, and somehow gets the hero embroiled in his conflict. The villain can be an antithesis of the hero--he stands for the opposite goal or ideal--and his evil only strengthens the hero's goodness.

The villain for the above stories would be: Grendel, the monster who eats King Hrothgar's men and battles Beowulf. Ravana, king of the Rakshasas, who kidnaps Rama's wife Sita. Loki, the Trickster God who eventually becomes a god of evil and initiates Ragnarok, Doom of the Gods.

Loki

Rama and Sita

Rama and Sita

The Princess

The princess is a character who can serve two functions. One, she is the object being sought by the hero, perhaps having been taken by the villain. Two, she is the reward the hero receives at the "wedding" function. This, of course, doesn't mean she's a useless damsel in distress waiting to be rescued. She can also journey with the hero in a "sidekick" role, falling in love with him along the way. She could also be substituted with the prince if your hero is female.

The princess is these stories would be: Rama's wife, Sita, who really does nothing in the story but be kidnapped, but still serves Rama faithfully despite her predicament. Sif, the wife of Thor, who battles by his side until Ragnarok. There really is no princess for Beowulf, unless you consider the societies which he rescues from the monsters he defeats and who reward him later with gold, kingship, and honor.

King Hrothgar

Dasharatha finding his second wife

Dasharatha finding his second wife

The Dispatcher

This is the character who sends the hero on his quest. The dispatcher may physically tell the hero to go somewhere or take some form of action, or he can tell of danger that the hero will choose to face. The dispatcher, unlike other archetypes, could be any number of characters already in the story. He could be a king giving a mission, a father sending a son away, or a Wizard foretelling terrible doom. This character can be combined with the helper, false hero, or father, which can turn the eight archetypes into seven.

Examples of the dispatcher include: King Hrothgar, who asks Beowulf to come and save his knights from the feeding of Grendel. Odin, who bestows upon Thor quests to battle enemies. Dasharatha, Rama's father-in-law, who banishes Rama and inadvertently sends him on his quest.

Hanuman finds Sita

Hanuman finds Sita

Odin

Odin

The Donor

The donor assists the hero in some way on the quest. As the name implies, the character often helps by giving the hero something in order to further the mission along. This could by anything from a magic weapon, advice on how to defeat the villain, or the cure to a disease. The donor doesn't need to be human, but he may require the hero to prove his worthiness before passing along his help.

Classic donors would be: Hanuman, the Monkey King, who tells Rama where to find Sita. Unferth, the knight who offers Beowulf his sword to help kill Grendel's mother and, while he doesn't purposefully test Beowulf, its his questioning of the hero's deeds which wins the knight over. Odin would be a donor as well, offering objects and assistance in godly quests.

Wiglaf and Beowulf

Wiglaf and Beowulf

Rama and Lakshmana

Rama and Lakshmana

The Helper

The helper is the person who accompanies the hero. The sidekick, the buddy, faithful to the end. The helper is there to support the hero, and perhaps offer comic relief, but his main goal in the story is to be the hero's rock. He stands by the hero's side through all the trouble that the hero goes through.

Helpers in these tales would be: Lakshmana, Sita's brother, who exiles himself with Rama and Sita and journeys with Rama to rescue his wife. Beowulf's nephew, Wiglaf, who helps Beowulf fight and kill a Dragon. Loki serves as helper as well as villain, journeying and assisting Thor throughout his journeys before ultimately dooming the gods.

The False Hero

The anti-hero, perhaps. The arch-rival. Though this character may not necessarily be evil, the false hero wants what the hero gets but doesn't care about doing it the honorable way. Or, once the hero has attained his goal, the false hero swoops in and steals it away from him. However he does it, the false hero is a selfish character who wants what the hero has and attempts to take it, never succeeding.

Classic false heroes would be: Beowulf's knights, who go with him to fight the Dragon, but flee from the monster and thus lose honor. Ravana, though also a villain, wants Rama's wife, uses trickery to take her, and represents the lack of morals that Rama possesses. Loki, who constantly brings his fellow Asgardians into trouble and gets them out, but never receives any glory.

The Father

This character will typically be the princesses father. He's the one who wants the kidnapped princess back, but at the same time, he may be reluctant to let some random boy (the hero) have her. Sometimes, once the princess is rescued, the hero will have to convince the father that he is worthy of her.

The father is said stories would be: Hrothgar, again, who wants Beowulf to save his kingdom from Grendel and his mother. Odin, once more, who gives Thor tasks and guards his family closely. Rama, actually, shows to be the "father" character in the respect that, once he rescues Sita, he belives her to be unfaithful and thus requires her to prove her chastity to him.

Odin Allfather

Odin Allfather

"Drama of the Persons"

There are eight types of characters that Propp identified, and they all serve a purpose. They all bring something to the story, and that's why readers enjoy these tales. They read about fictional people and enjoy what those characters bring. How they talk, how they act. Thor might be a god, Rama might be an avatar for one, and Beowulf may kill monsters and Dragons, but these are characters created by humans, so they still have human qualities. And that may be why we enjoy these stories so much. At their heart, they remind us of ourselves.

Dramatis Personae

Character TypeFunction

Hero

The main character of the story

Villain

The evil counterpart of the hero

Princess

The goal the hero seeks to attain

Dispatcher

The one who sends the hero on his quest

Donor

The person who gives the hero something of importance

Helper

The character who follows the hero along

False Hero

The one who tries to upstage the hero

Father

The man who stands between the hero and the princess

References

© 2014 Nathan Kiehn

Comments

AJ Long from Pennsylvania on August 15, 2014:

Nathan Kiehn great summary of Propp's literary method of analysis! :o)

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