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:
- 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.
- INTERDICTION: An interdiction is addressed to the hero or heroine (he or she is told not to go somewhere or not to do something).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- DEPARTURE: The hero or heroine leaves home.
- 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).
- 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).
- 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).
- GUIDANCE: The hero or heroine is transferred, delivered, or led to the whereabouts of an object of the search.
- STRUGGLE: The hero or heroine and the villain join in direct combat.
- BRANDING: The hero or heroine is branded (wounded or marked, or receives a ring or a scarf).
- VICTORY: The villain is defeated by being killed in combat, defeated in a contest, killed while asleep, or banished.
- 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.
- RETURN: The hero or heroine returns home.
- PURSUIT: The hero or heroine is pursued, as the pursuer tries to kill, eat, or undermine the hero or heroine.
- 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.
- UNRECOGNIZED ARRIVAL: The hero or heroine arrives home unrecognized or arrives in another country.
- UNFOUNDED CLAIMS: A false hero or heroine presents unfounded claims.
- 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.
- SOLUTION: The hero or the heroine accomplishes the difficult task.
- RECOGNITION: The hero or heroine is recognized by a mark, a brand, or an artifact that has been given to him or her.
- EXPOSURE: The false hero or heroine is exposed.
- TRANSFIGURATION: The hero or heroine receives a new appearance as he or she is made handsome or beautiful or receives new garments.
- PUNISHMENT: The villain is punished.
- 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:
- VILLAIN: struggles against the hero or heroine.
- DONOR: prepares the hero or heroine or gives the him or her some magical object.
- MAGICAL HELPER: helps the hero or heroine in the quest.
- 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.
- DISPATCHER: makes the lack known and sends the hero or heroine off.
- HERO/HEROINE or VICTIM/SEEKER: reacts to the donor, weds the princess or prince.
- FALSE HERO OR HEROINE: takes credit for the hero’s or heroine’s actions or tries to marry the princess or prince.