Actancial model

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IRIS Wiki - Narrative Theories - Actancial model


The decomposition 6 actant model was proposed by E. Souriau in 1950, and then refined by A.J. Greimas. The actancial model usually refers to Greimas' work.

Histo-geographical placement

French Structuralism, mid twentieth century.

Type of story

The actancial model is proposed as a general model that could apply to a large spectrum of stories. Applied as a model of a whole story, it can only cover simple stories such as myths or quest-based stories. But as a model of actions, it can be applied to a larger number of stories. Note that the initial model by Souriau was focused on drama.

Parent Theories

V. Propp's Morphology of the folk tale, with the notion of roles (7 roles).

Child Theories

Canonical Narrative Schema (Greimas, Courtès)

Brief Description

This model breaks down an action into six actants:

  • The subject: the hero of the story, who undertakes the main action.
  • The object: what the subject is directed toward
  • The helper: helps the subject reach the desired object
  • The opponent: hinders the subject in his progression
  • The sender: initiates the relation between the subject and the object
  • The receiver: the element for which the object is desired.

These six actants are then structured into 3 axes:

  • Axis of desire: subject/object, the main axis.
  • Axis of power: helper/opponent
  • Axis of transmission: sender/receiver

One actant can be fulfilled by one or several characters and one character can represent several actants. It is also possible that the distribution actant/character changes during the story.

This can be represented as follows:

Sender -----------------> Object -----------------> Receiver
­                             ^
Helper -----------------> Subject <----------------- Opponent

This view on the actancial model is highly inspired by linguistics, following the tradition of French structuralism that considers the narrative as a "large sentence".

Relation with Interactive Storytelling

The initial formulation of the actancial model by Souriau contains an obvious generative intention, as illustrated in his book's title, "The two hundred thousand dramatic situations". This generativity is potentially interesting for IS. Various dramatic situations can be dynamically generated, depending on which character is associated with which role. However, the actancial model covering the general level of a story, it can only serve as a building block for an IS system, along with a more detailed account of the mechanisms for calculating successive narrative actions.

Systems/Tools using this theory

Despite the fact that the actancial model is often cited in literature, very few systems have implemented it. The most notable case is the "Black Sheep" scenario (Klesen, et al., 2000), involving a farmer (protagonist), a black sheep (antagonist), a grey sheep (helper for the protagonist or the antagonist), and a dog. Note however that this setting already departs from the actantial model, because the actancial model is "decentred" into characters (agents). A character can be the helper of a protagonist or the antagonist (who is thus considered as the protagonist of their own action). Furthermore, the communication axis is not mentioned.



  • Greimas, A. J. (1966). Sémantique structurale, Paris: Presses universitaires de France.
  • Greimas, A. J. (1983). Structural Semantics: An Attempt at a Method. trans. Daniele McDowell, Ronald Schleifer and Alan Velie, Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Klesen, M., Szatkowski, J. and Lehmann, N. (2000) The black sheep – interactive improvisation in a 3D virtual world, in Proceedings of the i3 Annual Conference, Jönköping, 13–15.
  • Souriau, E. (1950). Les Deux-cent-mille situations dramatiques. Paris : Flammarion, "Bibliothèque d'esthétique".