Studying Character and Narrative Structure: The Morphology of the Folktale

Some of the most common Western narrative structures are derived from traditional forms like folktales, fairy tales and myths.

We’ve already looked at Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey narrative structure.

I’ve also broken down the Hero’s Journey to explain how it can be applied to a typical romance plot and shown it can also fit into a mystery plot structure.

The Hero’s Journey is far from the only study of its kind.

Now, we’re looking at a similar theory of narratology;  that explored by folklorist, Vladimir Propp in the influential work, The Morphology of the Folktale.

The Morphology of the Folktale

By examining Russian fairy tales, Propp’s theory of folktale narrative structure breaks a story down into 31 distinct sections or functions, and 7 different character types operating within these functions.

While The Morphology of the Folktale has its critics, like all theories of narrative, looking at commonly occurring narrative structures can be a valuable tool in thinking about how our own stories might be best put together.

narrative structure

The 7 Basic Character Types

These do not necessarily need to be seven distinct characters. Rather, they’re seven different character patterns. Multiple types might be fulfilled by a single character.

1. The Hero

The Hero, who can also be a Victim or a Seeker, reacts to the call of the quest and ventures off. He also weds the Princess. Our modern, enlightened minds can understand this gender distinction to be arbitrary and the marriage can be symbolic.

2. The Villain

The Villain opposes the Hero.

3. The Dispatcher

The Dispatcher is the person who instigates the hero’s journey, often identifying the problem the Hero needs to venture off and address.

4. The Helper

Sometimes called “the magical helper”, this assistant serves to assist the Hero in his or her quest.

5. The Princess (or Prize) and Her Father

The Princess, who is typically paired with her guardian Father figure, represents the prize the Hero deserves throughout his quest but is unable to obtain. It’s typically the antagonistic actions of the Villain preventing the Hero winning the princess. The Hero’s quest is typically completed with a marriage to the Princess. Again, let’s be flexible with these gender distinctions and literal applications

6. The Donor

The Donor figure functions to prepare the Hero for his/her quest often by giving the Hero some kind of powerful object.

7. The False Hero

The False Hero threatens to take credit for the Hero’s actions and take the prize away from the deserving party.

The 31 Functions of Folktale Narrative

A folktale will typically begin with an initial situation that sees a secure home environment. This is similar to Joseph Campbell’s “Call to Adventure” in the Hero’s Journey that sees the Hero in an everyday normality.

Propp didn’t consider this introduction as one of the 31 functions, though it really does to serve as a function in its own right.

1. Absentation

Someone leaves the security of the home environment. This might be the Hero or it may be a person the Hero needs to go and rescue. This division serves as the first point of tension in the story.

2. Interdiction

The Hero is warned against action.

3. Violation of Interdiction

The warning addressed to the Hero is violated and the Villain enters the story. This doesn’t necessarily need to be a direct encounter with the Hero.

4. Reconnaissance

The Villain tries to find out something about the Hero and his/her quest. Often the Villain and Hero often meet face to face.

5. Delivery

The Villain finds out something useful. Usually it’s about the Hero or sometimes the victim.

6. Trickery

The Villain attempts some kind of trickery. Often it’s a disguise in order to win the confidence of his/her victim. Sometimes the victim is captured. This phase earns the Villain more information to use against the Hero.

7. Complicity

The Hero/victim falls for the Villain’s trick, unknowingly helping the enemy. The Hero usually now unwittingly  responds in a way that helps the Villain.

8. Villainy or Lack

The Villain gets a win and causes some kind of harm or the main community unit in the story suffers some kind of lack or setback. Sometimes it’s both. This usually results in some other desire of the family/community.

9. Mediation

The lack or setback becomes widely known. The Hero is prompted to act.

The Morphology of the Folktale is a valuable tool for writing stories in any genre.Click To Tweet

10. Beginning Counter Action

The Hero/Seeker is prompted into a counter action against the Villain in order to resolve the lack. This is a defining moment that will set the course for the rest of the tale. The Hero is usually here defined as the Hero (as opposed to the ordinary or reluctant adventurer) in this function.

11. Departure

The Hero leaves home again (or place of normalcy).

12. First Function Of The Donor

The Hero is tested, opening up the opportunity for the helper/donor to act.

13. Hero’s Reaction

The Hero reacts to the donor. Maybe withstands a test, frees a captive, reconciles adversaries etc.

14. Receipt Of A Magical Agent

The Hero acquires a magical object.

15. Guidance

The Hero is guided to the object of the search.

16. Struggle

The Hero and Villain meet in direct conflict.

17. Branded

The Hero is somehow branded. He/she might receive an injury or a mark, or maybe some kind of object.

18. Victory

The Villain is defeated.

19. Liquidation

The previous misfortunes or lack are resolved. Spells are broken, captives are freed, etc.

20. Return

The Hero starts back home.

21. Pursuit

The Hero is pursued again by an adverse force.

22. Rescue

The Hero is rescued from pursuit. Here the Hero undergoes a transformation.

23. Unrecognised Arrival

The Hero returns to a familiar place and is unrecognisable. This could also be the Hero arriving in a new place.

24. Unfounded Claims

A False Hero appears presenting unfounded claims.

25. Difficult Task

Another arduous task is presented to the Hero.

26. Solution

The Hero resolves the task.

27.  Recognition

The Hero is recognised by their brand.

28. Exposure

The False Hero or Villain is exposed.

29. Transfiguration

The Hero is transformed again, often by a new appearance or garment.

30. Punishment

The Villain is punished. Justice is served.

31. Wedding

The Hero marries the princess and takes their place on the throne. Remember this might be figurative.

These functions are not set in stone. They can sometimes appear in an inverted or combined  order, or repeated. The repetition is how we get Try Fail Cycles.

Like all narratology studies, Propp’s Morphology isn’t going to be a direct map to every story. It can work as a guidebook, a series of suggestions on how to think about character functions and plot points in just about every story you can think of.

Have a think about how such a morphology might apply to your current work in progress. Do your characters fulfil a function? Do your story events occur in a logical action/reaction sequence?

Can you think of any modern stories that fit into Propp’s narrative functions?

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Kate Krake
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Kate Krake

Kate Krake writes speculative fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of the urban fantasy series Guessing Tales. Kate blogs about popular culture, health, wellness and creative writing. She lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband, daughter and two beagles. Find out more on www.katekrake.com.
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