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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Vladimir Propp’s 31 Dramatic Situations and 7 Character Types

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


Russian formalist scholar Vladimir Propp analyzed his country’s fairy tales to identify their simplest narrative constituents, which, following the linguistic approach that breaks language into its smallest elements, he called “narratemes.” Using this method, he catalogued the thirty-one dramatic situations, several of which, following a story’s opening situation, appear, in various combinations, again and again in such tales. Occasionally, a situation is inverted. Typically, each is played out three times, the first two occurrences ending in failure or negation.

Based upon his analysis of fairy tales, Propp also contends that their characters can be grouped into seven categories.

Although his theories have attracted some criticism, especially by Claude Levi-Strauss, an advocate of structuralism, Propp’s views remain influential among readers, writers, and critics and have been applied to both narrative fiction and drama in general, rather than just to fairy tales in particular. Therefore, his theories may also be applied to horror fiction.

According to Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale (1928), the thirty-one dramatic situations are:

  1. ABSENTATION: A family member leaves the security of the home or community. This may be the hero or the heroine or another family member whom the hero or the heroine later needs to rescue. This division of the family creates conflict. The hero or heroine, if introduced here, is often shown to be an ordinary person, which allows the reader identify with the this character as someone who is similar to the reader him- or herself.
  2. INTERDICTION: An interdiction is addressed to the hero or heroine (he or she is told not to go somewhere or not to do something).
  3. VIOLATION of INTERDICTION: The interdiction is violated (the villain enters the tale, although the villain does not necessarily confront the hero or heroine). If the villain stalks or spies on the hero or heroine without (yet) attacking him or her, the villain’s presence nevertheless heightens suspense through dramatic irony: the reader, unlike the hero or heroine, is aware of the villain’s threatening presence.
  4. RECONNAISSANCE: The villain reconnoiters, seeking children, jewels, or other valuables or the intended victim questions the villain). The villain (often disguised) seeks information. He or she may speak to a family member who innocently divulges information. The villain may also seek to meet the hero or heroine, perhaps knowing already that the hero or heroine is special in some way. The introduction of the villain adds suspense to the story, particularly when the villain is in proximity to the hero’ or heroine’s family or community. The villain’s eloquence or power may also add suspense through dramatic irony: the reader knows that the persuasive rhetoric is false its speaker dangerous, but the intended victim or the hero or heroine may not.
  5. DELIVERY: The villain gains information about the victim. This information may be acquired in the form of a treasure map or the location or the intent of the hero or heroine. As the villain obtains this intelligence is obtained, his or her fortune improves as the hero’s or heroine’s declines. This change is the characters’ respective fortunes creates suspense concerning the ultimate outcome of the story: will the villain triumph, after all?
  6. TRICKERY: The villain attempts kidnap the victim or steal his or her belongings through trickery, such as the wearing of a disguise and the gaining of the victim’s confidence. The villain’s treachery shows conclusively that he or she is truly evil and again heightens suspense as the reader is left to wonder whether the hero, heroine, or victim will come to harm through the villain’s duplicity.
  7. COMPLICITY: The victim, deceived, unwittingly helps the villain, perhaps by supplying the villain with a map or a magical weapon or by working against good characters whom the villain has convinced the victim are actually wicked. The reader is apt to despair as the hero, heroine, or victim acts in a villainous manner.
  8. VILLAINY and LACK: The villain causes harm or injury to a family member by abduction, theft of magical agent, the spoiling crops, plunder, kidnapping, the casting of a spell on someone, the substitution of an object for a child, murder, imprisonment, forced marriage, or torment. Alternatively, a family member lacks something or desires something, such as a magical potion. There are two parts to this stage, either or both of which may appear in the story. In the first stage, the villain causes some harm. In the second stage, a physical or emotional lack is identified.
  9. MEDIATION: The misfortune or lack is made known and the hero or heroine is dispatched, responds to a summons, is sent away, or freed from imprisonment. The hero or heroine discovers the act of villainy or the lack
  10. BEGINNING COUNTER-ACTION: The hero or heroine agrees to, or decides upon, a counter-action as a means of obtaining what he or she lacks.
  11. DEPARTURE: The hero or heroine leaves home.
  12. FIRST FUNCTION OF THE DONOR: The hero or heroine is tested, interrogated, or attacked, which incident prepares the way for his or her receipt of the magical agent or helper (donor).
  13. HERO'S REACTION: The hero or heroine reacts to actions of future donor: he or she passes or fails a test, frees the captive, reconciles a dispute, performs a service, or uses the villain’s powers against him or her).
  14. RECEIPT OF A MAGICAL AGENT: The hero or heroine acquires the use of a magical agent which is directly transferred, located, purchased, or prepared, or which spontaneously appears, is eaten or drunk, ort appears in the form of help that another character offers).
  15. GUIDANCE: The hero or heroine is transferred, delivered, or led to the whereabouts of an object of the search.
  16. STRUGGLE: The hero or heroine and the villain join in direct combat.
  17. BRANDING: The hero or heroine is branded (wounded or marked, or receives a ring or a scarf).
  18. VICTORY: The villain is defeated by being killed in combat, defeated in a contest, killed while asleep, or banished.
  19. LIQUIDATION: The initial misfortune or lack is resolved as the object of search is discovered, a spell is broken, a slain person is revived, or a captive is set free.
  20. RETURN: The hero or heroine returns home.
  21. PURSUIT: The hero or heroine is pursued, as the pursuer tries to kill, eat, or undermine the hero or heroine.
  22. RESCUE: The hero or heroine is rescued from the pursuit as obstacles delay the pursuer, the hero or heroine hides or is hidden, the hero or heroine transforms into an unrecognizable form, or the hero or heroine is saved from an attempt upon his or her life.
  23. UNRECOGNIZED ARRIVAL: The hero or heroine arrives home unrecognized or arrives in another country.
  24. UNFOUNDED CLAIMS: A false hero or heroine presents unfounded claims.
  25. DIFFICULT TASK: A difficult task is proposed to the hero or heroine, such as a trial by ordeal, riddles, or a test of strength or endurance.
  26. SOLUTION: The hero or the heroine accomplishes the difficult task.
  27. RECOGNITION: The hero or heroine is recognized by a mark, a brand, or an artifact that has been given to him or her.
  28. EXPOSURE: The false hero or heroine is exposed.
  29. TRANSFIGURATION: The hero or heroine receives a new appearance as he or she is made handsome or beautiful or receives new garments.
  30. PUNISHMENT: The villain is punished.
  31. WEDDING: The hero or heroine marries and ascends the throne (is rewarded or promoted).

    These dramatic situations are not usually all present, and the order in which they occur may change from one narrative or drama to another.

Propp identifies these seven character types:

  1. VILLAIN: struggles against the hero or heroine.
  2. DONOR: prepares the hero or heroine or gives the him or her some magical object.
  3. MAGICAL HELPER: helps the hero or heroine in the quest.
  4. PRINCESS and her FATHER: gives the task to the hero or heroine, identifies the false hero or heroine, marries the hero or heroine, often sought for during the narrative. Propp notes that, functionally, the princess and the father can not be clearly distinguished.
  5. DISPATCHER: makes the lack known and sends the hero or heroine off.
  6. HERO/HEROINE or VICTIM/SEEKER: reacts to the donor, weds the princess or prince.
  7. FALSE HERO OR HEROINE: takes credit for the hero’s or heroine’s actions or tries to marry the princess or prince.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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