Vladimir Propp (1895-1970) was a Soviet formalist scholar who analyzed the basic plot components of Russian folk tales to identify their simplest irreducible narrative elements. As a left-brained scientist, his studies focused not on what makes each story unique, but what they all share. His ‘Morphology of the Folktale’, published in Russian in 1928, now serves as an educational staple for students of folklore.
After analyzing the structure of 100 Russian fairy tales, Propp broke the artform down into 31 sections, defining each tale as a series of shared sequences. He identified each story as starting with an “initial situation”, then unfolding using some or all of these 31 functions. NOTE: According to Propp, some functions may be skipped, but the ones that remain will always remain in the order as listed.
The Internet provides tons of information on this. Here’s a breakdown of things, along with some useful examples using Star Wars:
0. INITIAL SITUATION: Some context is given for the story, with the hero and the family being introduced.
Example: In Star Wars, there is a garage sale on Tattooine, with Luke ferreting around like any home-grown boy.
1. ABSENTATION: Someone goes missing. A member of a family leaves the security of the home environment. This may be the hero or some other member of the family that the hero will later need to rescue. This division of the cohesive family injects initial tension into the storyline. The hero may also be introduced here, often being shown as an ordinary person.
Example: In Star Wars, R2D2 goes missing.
2. INTERDICTION: Hero is warned. An interdiction is addressed to the hero (‘don’t go there’, ‘don’t do this’). The hero is warned against some action (given an ‘interdiction’).
Example: In Star Wars, Luke’s uncle Owen warns him about getting the droids working on the south ridge.
3. VIOLATION of INTERDICTION. The interdiction is violated (villain enters the tale). This generally proves to be a bad move and the villain enters the story, although not necessarily confronting the hero. Perhaps they are just a lurking presence or perhaps they attack the family whilst the hero is away.
Example: In Star Wars, Luke ignores his uncle and goes in search or R2D2.
4. RECONNAISSANCE: Villain seeks something. The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance (either villain tries to find the children/jewels etc.; or intended victim questions the villain). The villain (often in disguise) makes an active attempt at seeking information, for example searching for something valuable or trying to actively capture someone. They may speak with a member of the family who innocently divulges information. They may also seek to meet the hero, perhaps knowing already the hero is special in some way.
Example: In Star Wars, Darth Vader searches for the missing escape pod.
5. DELIVERY: The villain gains information about the victim. The villain’s seeking now pays off and he or she now acquires some form of information, often about the hero or victim. Other information can be gained, for example about a map or treasure location.
Example: In Star Wars, Darth Vader is looking for the escape pod and spots the droids.
6. TRICKERY: The villain attempts to deceive the victim to take possession of victim or victim’s belongings (trickery; villain disguised, tries to win confidence of victim). The villain now presses further, often using the information gained in seeking to deceive the hero or victim in some way, perhaps appearing in disguise. This may include capture of the victim, getting the hero to give the villain something or persuading them that the villain is actually a friend and thereby gaining collaboration.
Example: In Star Wars, Grand Moff Tarkin interrogates Leia.
7. COMPLICITY: Victim taken in by deception, unwittingly helping the enemy. The trickery of the villain now works and the hero or victim naively acts in a way that helps the villain. This may range from providing the villain with something (perhaps a map or magical weapon) to actively working against good people (perhaps the villain has persuaded the hero that these other people are actually bad).
Example: In Star Wars, Leia tells Grand Moff Tarkin that the rebel base is on Dantooine, but Tarkin blows up Alderaan.
Another example: In Lord of the Rings, Frodo accidentally puts on the ring and so is exposed to Sauron’s eye.
8. VILLAINY or LACK: The need is identified. Villain causes harm/injury to family member (by abduction, theft of magical agent, spoiling crops, plunders in other forms, causes a disappearance, expels someone, casts spell on someone, substitutes child etc., commits murder, imprisons/detains someone, threatens forced marriage, provides nightly torments); Alternatively, a member of family lacks something or desires something (magical potion etc.). There are two options for this function, either or both of which may appear in the story. In the first option, the villain causes some kind of harm, for example carrying away a victim or the desired magical object (which must be then be retrieved). In the second option, a sense of lack is identified, for example in the hero’s family or within a community, whereby something is identified as lost or something becomes desirable for some reason, for example a magical object that will save people in some way.
Example: In Star Wars, Alderaan is destroyed and Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are killed.
9. MEDIATION: Hero discovers the lack. Misfortune or lack is made known, (hero is dispatched, hears call for help etc./ alternative is that victimized hero is sent away, freed from imprisonment). The hero now discovers the act of villainy or lack, perhaps finding their family or community devastated or caught up in a state of anguish and woe.
Example: In Star Wars, Luke and Obi-Wan discover the dead Jawas.
10. BEGINNING COUNTER-ACTION: Hero chooses positive action. Seeker agrees to, or decides upon counter-action. The hero now decides to act in a way that will resolve the lack, for example finding a needed magical item, rescuing those who are captured or otherwise defeating the villain. This is a defining moment for the hero as this is the decision that sets the course of future actions and by which a previously ordinary person takes on the mantle of heroism.
Example: In Star Wars, Luke decides to join Obi-Wan in fighting the Empire.
11. DEPARTURE: Hero leaves home; on mission.
Example: In Star Wars, Luke travels to Mos Eisley.
12. FIRST FUNCTION OF THE DONOR: Hero is challenged to prove heroic qualities. Hero is tested, interrogated, attacked, etc., preparing the way for his/her receiving magical agent or helper (donor).
Example: In Star Wars, Obi-Wan tells Luke about his father’s light-saber.
13. HERO’S REACTION: Hero responds to test. Hero reacts to actions of future donor (withstands/fails the test, frees captive, reconciles disputants, performs service, uses adversary’s powers against him).
Example: In Star Wars, Luke watches Obi-Wan use the light-saber with awe.
14. RECEIPT OF A MAGICAL AGENT: Hero acquires use of a magical agent (directly transferred, located, purchased, prepared, spontaneously appears, eaten/drunk, help offered by other characters)
Example: In Star Wars, Obi-Wan teaches Luke about the Force and the Light-saber.
15. GUIDANCE: Hero reaches destination. Hero is transferred, delivered or led to whereabouts of an object of the search.
In Star Wars, they journey to the Death Star.
16. STRUGGLE: Hero and villain join in direct combat.
Example: In Star Wars, Luke and Han fight the storm-troopers whilst Obi-Wan fights Darth Vader.
17. BRANDING: Hero is branded (wounded/marked, receives ring or scarf). The branding of the hero is a life-changing experience.
Example: In Star Wars, Luke is changed by Obi-Wan’s death.
18. VICTORY: Villain is defeated (killed in combat, defeated in contest, killed while asleep, banished).
Example: In Star Wars, Luke and Han defeat the stormtroopers.
19. LIQUIDATION: Resolution. Initial misfortune or lack is resolved (object of search distributed, spell broken, slain person revived, captive freed).
Example: In Star Wars, Leia gets hold of the Death Star plans.
20. RETURN: Hero returns. Sets out for home.
Example: In Star Wars, they leave the Death Star for Yavin 4.
21. PURSUIT: Hero is chased (pursuer tries to kill, eat, undermine the hero).
Example: In Star Wars, Empire Tie fighters chase the Millennium Falcon as it escapes the Death Star.
22. RESCUE: Pursuit ends. Hero is rescued from pursuit (obstacles delay pursuer, hero hides or is hidden, hero transforms unrecognisably, hero saved from attempt on his/her life).
Example: In Star Wars, Luke and Han blow up the pursuing Tie fighters.
23. UNRECOGNIZED ARRIVAL: Hero unrecognized, arrives home or in another country.
Example: In Star Wars, Luke arrives on Yavin 4.
24. UNFOUNDED CLAIMS: False hero presents unfounded claims. The role of the false hero can be very varied and they can be heroic in their own right. A major difference with the hero is in who gets to marry the princess. Sometimes the false hero is known as such from early in the story. Sometimes also they are concealed, perhaps masquerading as a friend and helper right up to the last minute. Sometimes the existence of a traitor is known but who is not exposed until the last minute.
In Star Wars, Han says he’s going to take the money and run.
25. DIFFICULT TASK: Difficult task proposed to the hero (trial by ordeal, riddles, test of strength/endurance, other tasks).
Example: In Star Wars, they need to blow up the Death Star.
26. SOLUTION: The task proposed to the hero is completed, demonstrating the hero’s integrity, character and true worth. Where the task is used to differentiate the hero and false hero, the false hero fails and the hero succeeds.
Example: In Star Wars, the Death Star is destroyed.
27. RECOGNITION: Hero is recognized (by mark, brand, or thing given to him/her).
Example: In Star Wars, Darth Vader recognizes Luke through the Force, realizing that Luke has true power.
28. EXPOSURE: False hero or villain is exposed. By their actions in the final duel, competition or task versus the hero, the false hero is at last seen to be what they are. They often expose themselves through the display of non-heroic actions, including cowardice, cheating, and other false actions.
Example: In Star Wars, Han Solo returns.
29. TRANSFIGURATION: Hero is given a new appearance (is made whole, handsome, new garments etc.) Their wounds are dressed and their bodies cleansed. Whereas they may well have arrived tattered and dirty, they now are clean and attractive.
Example: In Star Wars, Luke get cleaned up and is given a nice yellow jacket.
30. PUNISHMENT: Villain (if not vanquished earlier) is punished. This may be lenient, harsh, or something just, depending on the story.
Example: In Star Wars, Darth Vader is sent spiraling away into distant space.
31. WEDDING: At last, the hero gets the final and just rewards for all of their actions. In classic tales, this may well be marrying the beautiful princess and ascending to the throne as king, living ‘happily ever after’. In other stories, the accolade of heroism is enough and they retire to quiet lives or even go adventuring again.
Example: In Star Wars, Luke and Leia exchange happy glances at the medal ceremony where they are confirmed as heroes.
Occasionally, some of these functions are inverted, as when the hero receives something whilst still at home, the function of a donor occurring early. More often, a function is negated twice, so that it must be repeated three times in Western cultures.
Propp also concluded that all the characters could be resolved into 8 broad character types in the 100 tales he analyzed:
1. The villain — struggles against the hero.
Example: Darth Vader and company.
2. The dispatcher — character who makes the lack known and sends the hero off.
Example: In Star Wars, Obiwan Kenobi plays this role.
3. The (magical) helper — helps the hero in their quest.
Example: In Star Wars, R2D2.
4. The princess or prize — the hero deserves her throughout the story but is unable to marry her because of an unfair evil, usually because of the villain. The hero’s journey is often ended when he marries the princess, thereby beating the villain.
Example: In Star Wars, Leia. Or, more specifically, her well-being, and by extension, the well-being of the galaxy.
5. Her father — gives the task to the hero, identifies the false hero, marries the hero, often sought for during the narrative. Propp noted that functionally, the princess and the father cannot be clearly distinguished.
Example: In Star Wars, the Allies.
6. The donor — prepares the hero or gives the hero some magical object.
In Star Wars, Obiwan Kenobi teaches Luke the ways of the Force.
7. The hero or victim/seeker hero — reacts to the donor, weds the princess.
Example: In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker.
8. False hero — takes credit for the hero’s actions or tries to marry the princess.
Example: In Star Wars, Han Solo fills this role.