Roles and processes

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IRIS Wiki - Narrative Theories - Roles and processes


Claude Bremond

Histo-geographical placement

1965-1975. French structuralism.

Type of story

All narrative in general.

Parent Theories

Vladimir Propp, Tzvetan Todorov

Child Theories


Brief Description

Building on Propp’s methodology for analysing the folk tale, Brémond breaks down the narrative into a lowest common denominator of elements as well. However, where Propp divides the tale into a series of functions, sequentially dependant on each other, Brémond groups these functions into a more general and flexible categorisation. Furthermore, where the 31 functions presented by Propp are sufficient in and of themselves regardless of who carries them out, Brémond insists on the role of who carries them out. He defines a function in terms of the action a character takes and its effect on the story.

We are provided with a new terminology as well as with a structure for the terms.

  • Actions are called processes
  • A character has the role of patient or agent
  • A Patient is affected by a process
  • An Agent initiates a process
  • Processes are carried out either by agents or patients
  • A function is the relation between a character and a process and its effect on the unfolding of the narrative
  • A process is divided into 3 steps: eventuality, action, result
  • Processes can be sequential, imbricated or parallel

How a patient can be affected by a process: modifying processes, conserving processes

Let A be the state of a patient P at time t Let A' be the state of P at time t' (where t'>t)

If A equals A' then either

  1. no modifying processes exist
  2. a modifying process exists but is not complete
  3. a conserving process exists and completed successfully

if A does not equal A' then

  1. a modifying process exists and completed successfully
  2. a conserving process may exist but failed

An agent involved in a process can be either voluntary or involuntary and their role is dependant on what part of the process they are involved in (eventuality, action, result)

If a patient could undergo a modifying process, then there must be a modifying agent. The same logic allows us to introduce the existence of conserving and influence agents. In each case all varieties of potentialities exist around the agent.

For example:

Eventual Agent of a task, abstaining from undertaking the task
Eventual Agent of a task, undertaking it successfully
Eventual Agent of a task, undertaking it unsuccessfully.

In layperson terms, we can say that given a particular situation, a person can either deal with it or ignore it, if they deal with it, they can either succeed or fail.

Brémond adds states to each role at each stage of a process, which determines the potentialities that ensue from each given process.

States add conditions such as:

An agent can be informed or not informed of an information that has implications on available potentialities to choose from.

An eventual agent can know that they can undertake a task or they can not know.
They can be the patient of an information process that renders them aware of an ability (existence) to undertake a certain task which transforms them to an agent of that task

Generally, the characters that make up a story alternate between the roles of agent and patient. While a character is a patient of a certain process, they can be the potential agent of another, and vice versa.

When a patient undergoing a process, receives influences that motivate them to act (initiate a process), they becomes a potential agent of the new (potential) process. When an agent initiates a process whose end result might modify the agent's own state, they becomes the potential patient of that (potential) process. The potentialities are applied to each part of an action (eventuality, action, result) as well as each possible role(patient agent). The systematic approach to moving between processes according to the actualisation (or non actualisation) of a potentiality is pertinent to IS.

the sequence of roles described in the following diagram, is cyclic :

 Patient -->  Agent -->  Patient   --> ...
(potential  (potential  (potential 
  agent)      patient)    agent)
An example that summarises the above
"Bob wanted to get home and watch the game on tv. 
Mary wanted to watch a documentary and hoped Bob would 
get distracted on his way home. She thought of calling 
him so he could get a few errands done on his way home."

Bob: Eventual agent of process of watching the game
Mary: Eventual agent of obstructing process (from watching the game) 
If Mary undertakes the task then
Bob: Eventual patient of eventual obstruction process
If Mary succeeds then 
Bob: agent of a failed process (watching the game) and patient of a successful obstruction process

Relation with Interactive Storytelling

Brémond's approach to describe an eventuality as an "acting situation" contains the formulation of "possibilities" to act, including the deliberation of agents about the consequences. Therefore it suits Interactive Storytelling much better than e.g. Propps's approach, who simply described the sequence of happenings/actions. It relates to the plan-based modelling of agents who consider pre-conditions before actuating an action, as well as to the options an author can give to the user in certain situations.

Brémond provides a skeleton for how movement between processes occurs in a story.

Systems/Tools using this theory

  • IDtension has been inspired by Brémond, both in the definition of generic types of actions (influences, sanctions, etc.) and in the implementation of processes, which link pairs of actions.
  • Storynet (Schäefer, et al. 2004) follows Brémond's process triplet as a layer over branching options.
  • I-Storytelling adapts Brémond's roles and rhetorical functions (advice, seduce) to a character-centred dialog engine.



  • Bremond, Claude (1974) La logique du récit. Paris: Le Seuil.
  • Bremond, Claude (1980) "The Logic of Narrative Possibilities". New Literary History 11.3: 387-411.
  • Schäfer, L., Stauber, A. and Brokan, B. (2004). Storynet: An Educational Game for Social Skills. In: Stefan Göbel, Ulrike Spierling, Anja Hoffmann, Ido Iurgel, Oliver Schneider, J. Dechau, Axel Feix (Eds): Technologies for Interactive Digital Storytelling and Entertainment, Second International Conference, TIDSE 2004, LNCS 3105 Springer, 148-157.