Vladimir Propp

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Vladimir Propp

Histo-geographical placement

V. Propp's book has been edited in 1928 in Russia. It belongs to the litterary movement called Russian formalism, active from 1910s to the 1930s.

Type of story

The analysis initially covers Russian folk tales. But it suits to many other folk tales from other countries. To some extent, it can also be applied to more complex stories.

Parent Theories

Russian formalism applied to narrative structure

Child Theories

Myth analysis by C. Lévi-Strauss, Narrative units by R. Barthes, Roles and processes by C. Bremond.

Brief Description

From a set of 100 Russian folk tales, Propp derived a clear distinction between the variable and constant elements of the fables. He determined that they can be reduced to a sequence of 31 functions. All, or a subset of these functions are present in the folktale and are sufficient for describing the story. While not every function appears in each folktale, the ordering must not change. This is rather logical since, for example the hero cannot accomplish his task before he accepts the quest. The functions (in order) are:

  • Prologue - setting the scene, is not part of the 31 functions
  1. Absence - a character (family member) goes off to accomplish a task (work, visit, ...)
  2. Prohibition - the hero receives an order of -you must not, can be equally interpreted as you must
  3. Transgression - the hero disobeys the order. This is where a new character is introduced, usually the hero's adversary
  4. Request for information - At this stage, the goal is for the adversary to learn delicate information
  5. Obtainment of information - either directly or indirectly, the adversary learns what he was after
  6. Trickery - the adversary takes on a disguise and attempts to trick the hero
  7. Involuntary complicity - the hero falls for the trick and unwillingly aids the adversary
  8. Misdeed - the function that gives the story direction. The 7 preceding functions can be considered a build up to this one
  9. Transition/Proposal for the hero to undertake a quest - news of the misdeed is divulged to the hero. The hero is introduced (as the hero)
  10. Acceptance of quest
  11. Departure - Hero embarks on quest, introduction of donor
  12. Hero is tested/Donor's first action - donor's validation of hero for reception of magical object/transmition magical object (magical object as a metaphor for an element the hero will need to accomplish quest)
  13. Hero's reaction to donor - the relationship (positive or negative) is established between hero and donor
  14. Transmission of magical object to hero - Since this necessary success element can take many forms, and the tests can be many (p55-58), this is an interesting entry point for multiple paths in IS, often seen in games where there are quests within quests within... (solve this puzzle to unlock this box to find the potion to make the sorceress sleep to take the, etc.)
  15. Hero's transfer between worlds - Hero arrives at location with source of quest. It can occur that this function cannot be isolated from the previous as an independent occurrence. At the end of this one or the previous one, the hero must be at the right location. (how he got there can and cannot be specified - again pertinent to IS)
  16. Hero enters combat - Hero and adversary affront
  17. Hero is branded - An identifying mark is transferred to the hero
  18. Hero is victorious - Adversary is vanquished
  19. Misdeed is set straight - story climax
  20. Return - Hero embarks on return journey
  21. Hero is persued - Another obstacle prevents the hero from getting home - another potential path
  22. Hero is rescued - obstacle is overcome
  23. Hero returns home in disguise - hero returns unrecognised
  24. False hero presents himself - An imposter pretends to have achieved quest
  25. Difficult task proposed to the hero - hero must prove himself
  26. Hero accomplishes task - can refer to something that happened in the past, knowledge/mark only the real hero would know/have
  27. Hero is recognised
  28. False hero is unmasked - often times linked to the previous.
  29. Metamorphosis of hero - hero cleans up
  30. False hero is punished
  31. Hero is rewarded/married - however happily ever after translates for the specific tale

Propp also identifies 7 roles that the characters assume as the fable unfolds; the antagonist, the donor, the helper, the princess or her father, the dispatcher, the hero, the false hero. A character can take on one or more of these roles within the story, but what is important to understand, is that within each fable, any role a character assumes stems from one of these 7. Between the 31 functions, and the 7 roles, Propp provides the lowest common denominator for describing a fairytale, and reversely for creating one.

Relation with Interactive Storytelling

Multiple points of view can be taken regarding Propp's contribution to IS. On one hand, the formulaic approach to folk tale deconstruction lends itself well to digitial story construction. As stated by (Cavazza and Pizzi, 2006) the narrative functions can be used as a ready to use formalism. Yet in the same text, it is stated that the strict ordering constraints on the functions prohibits branching, a property generally considered necessary in the IS domain. However, functions like 14 and 15 can allow for the entire series (or a subset) of functions to be reapplied (as a substory) and completed before continuing with the main story.

Systems/Tools using this theory

The Propp model has been widely used for story generation and IS.

  • Back in the 1970s, Klein and coll. (1976) used it to automatically generate tales. Each function is represented symbollically and variable binding occurs in realtime to generate different tales.
  • More recently, the Propp model was used to select relevant scenes in an IS system (Grasbon & Braun, 2001). Grasbon and Braun's tool uses Propp's functions model to define rules and algorithms for the runtime engine.
  • fairy tale generator
  • Hartmann, Hartmann and Feustel (2005) developed an authoring tool using Propp's functions (motifs as they call them) to classify scene descriptions.
  • The Director Agent and SAGA used in Teatrix establish both story functions and user roles based on Propp's morphology.
  • IAGE (Internet Adventure Game Engine): Propp's functions are used as building blocks that the game author can use to create the story base from which the player can act upon (Rawson-Tetley, 2002).




  • Cavazza, M. & Pizzi, D. (2006). Narratology for interactive storytelling: A critical introduction. In Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Technologies for Interactive Digital Storytelling and Entertainment, TIDSE '06, Springer, vol. 4326 of Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 72-83.
  • Hartmann, K., Hartmann, S. and Feustel, M. (2005). Motif Definition and Classification to Structure Non-linear Plots and to Control the Narrative Flow in Interactive Dramas.In:Gérard Subsol (Ed.): Virtual Storytelling Using Virtual Reality Technologies for Storytelling, Third International Conference, ICVS 2005, Lecture Notes in Computer Science 3805 Springer, 158-167.
  • Klein, S., Aeschlimann, J. F., Applebaum, M.A., Balsiger, D.F., Curtis, E.J., Foster, M., Kalish, S.D., Kamin, S.J., Lee, Y.-D. and Price L.A. (1976). Simulation d'hypothèses émises par propp et Lévi-strauss en utilisant un système de simulation meta-symbolique. Informatique et Sciences Humaines, 28, 63-133, Mars 1976.
  • Machado, I., Brna, P. and Paiva, A. (2004). 1,2,3...Action! Directing Real Actors and Virtual Characters. 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, 36-41
  • Peinado, F. and Gervás, P. (2004), Transferring Game Mastering Laws to Interactive Digital Storytelling. 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, 48-54.
  • Propp, V. (1928/1970). Morphologie du conte. Seuil, Paris.