actant (narratology) Rather than narratives being constructed through concepts of character, as though they are representations of people who act in a story as part of a plot, there are types of action, shared across narratives, which can be stated or depicted as story functions and in this conception of story, the characters and their actions are actants.
An embryonic conception of story functions is understood to be presented in Vladimir Propp’s The Morphology of The Folk Tale (1928), and these functions are identified as: aggressor, donor, auxiliary, princess, the father, committer, hero, bogus hero. The coining of the term actant is attributed to A. J. Greimas (1917-1992) and is presented as part of a highly schematic model with six actants and three axis: subject/object axis of desire, helper/opponent, axis of power, sender/receiver, axis of transmission.
Actant is not a term in common usage nor is Greimas’s theoretical model, but the structural approach to narrative is incorporated into narrative film theory, particularly with reference to The Morphology of the Folk Tale, and this type of methodology is used in most guides and manuals for screenwriting. With manuals utilising either a plot/structure model and/or a function/character model: in this second usage, the terminology will identify characters as having functions such as the seeker, the guardian, the helper, the gatekeeper or another range of terminology. An everyday usage of story function is present in the use of the terms protagonist and antagonist, hero and villain, although often without any clearly articulated theoretical framework for their usage.
As actant is not in common use, and is unlikely to come into common usage as a term in film making, the issue it raises is its validity in terms of its theorisation of narrative: does a theory of actants explain how stories function?
It is useful to provide a diagrammatic representation of almost any topic; be it a mechanical, natural, or human phenomena. Weather forecasts showing symbols on maps represent weather, road maps represent roads, but crucially they do not explain function, why there is rain and wind, how roads are built and used: these representations do not explain function because they are descriptions in visual form. The aim of actants is to offer a diagrammatic model through descriptive terms and narratives can be described through this, but not fully explained.
Diagrams are often used to depict narratives using linear and non-linear plot diagrams, or by using spider diagrams to indicate character relationships, there are also diagrams of rising and falling action, and diagrams of act structures. These are all valid, but only as descriptions, and the use of story-function labels, such as hero and villain, are also valid, but again only as descriptive terms: generalized and simplified descriptions: just as giving a story event a label does not explain narrative, so labelling what the controls of a car are, having names for the parts of a car does not explain how cars are made, their mechanics, how they are driven, their operation or their social function. Actants as a method of analysis can indicate similarities, but the link to the term ‘function’ can misleading: understanding characters and narrative forms as having features that can be grouped does not reveal some essential truth about narrative, and this means that a move to use actants as the foundation, as the basis for storytelling, to support creativity is unhelpful.
Creating groupings, typologies, gathers similar elements together enabling similarities and differences to be seen. In narrative film there are established story groupings, genres, and these offer accepted and shared understandings, but they are also imprecise: there is the genre of fantasy, but this can then be divided into over thirty subsets of fantasy with debates over the validity of some of these subgenre terms, what these terms mean and what texts and films should be included within these labels, and there are also discussions and debates over the meaning of the primary genre terms: what separates horror from fantasy, fantasy from science fiction, science fiction from SF. In narrative theory typologies of actants are not descriptions of function: they create a generalised description, gathering related subject matter, story events under a heading: what does a hero do, what is heroic action?
Story function concepts and terms are useful as a methodology for description, but this becomes problematic when they are understood as deep structure, as the essential components that construct stories, and following on from this there are problems with any claim that stories have essential structures, a universality of form, which is a highly reductive and simplifying theory. If an actant or structural theory of narrative is taken to be the fundamental and essential component of narrative then a story’s relationship to actuality, to life, or the function of story as a social and psychological phenomena is discarded: the understanding of stories being about lived experience, the knowledge this shares, and how stories reflect and inform our view of the world.
One practice of story creation which might claim that a story-function model is more than a description and that it is in fact a foundational method for creating a narratives would be for computer-generated stories where a rule-based computer programme makes story choices based on a programmed formula or algorithm. Computers can compile stories from event options, but these are simplistic and will often produce a failed narration: a story that does not work in terms of realism and credibility. Also, the abstractions of terms that are used in story function models like those provided by Propp and Greimas, are abstract and complex: Propp has terms such as absentation, interdiction, violation of interdiction, reconnaissance, delivery, trickery, complicity, villainy, lacking, and these abstract labels could not be used to programme a computer: a story generating computer needs to operate through simple instructions based on event choice guided by character and story setting parameters. There are examples of narratives in book, play and film forms that offer alternative and multiple choices, as a computer system would, but these options for action at a specific points in the story, different plot choices and endings, are options in narration, and not story-functions as proposed in narratology. Story-functions in Propp and Greimas are stated as simple labels, single words, short terms as though they can offer clarity and simplicity, but they actually require a complex and contextualised understanding for their use. Propp's morphology is intended to explain fairy tales and so this analysis is not intended to be universal.
Narrative theory, narratology, acknowledges the limitations, the parameters of structural models, and neither Propp nor Greimas presented their work within an absolutist framework. They offered methods of analysis, which have then been taken to imply that there are rules for story structure and this idea has its appeal because it creates a simplistic concept for understanding narrative and storytelling: supposedly offering a quick route to understanding film narrative and from this how to write plays, novels and screenplays.
One theoretical feature that underpins both Propp’s and Greimas’s theory and that of structural narratology is the relationship of narrative to language: that narrative developed as a linguistic form. In using the term morphology, Propp is using a linguistic source, with morphology being the study of the internal construction of words, and Greimas, writing in French, uses the term actant, also a linguist term, with actant being the subjects in a grammatical clause. The first issue with this is if the use of morphology and actant in narratology is meant to be analogous to linguistic use or is actually a linguistic structuring of narrative, the second is that these theoretical terms are used in relation to spoken and text based narratives, are they also meant apply to audio-visual film narratives? One can make a simplistic comparison between the words in a sentence and the shots in a sequence, but words; nouns, pronouns, adverbs, adjectives, do not function and have a grammar that matches continuity film making: by referring to continuity film making as film language, there’s a comparison between language and film, but it would be mistaken to consider that continuity film making is language as in human language. The use of linguistic terms gives a sense of authority to theories of narrative which uses these terms, but this can be misleading.
An aim and basis for structuralist narratology was to use linguistics to study literary texts, complex narratives, and one reason for this move to linguistics was to shift literary theory away from personal and aesthetic criticism to an objective empirical narrative theory: hence the scientific, objective basis for undertaking and naming these approaches in scientific terms: formalism and structuralism. Narrative can be studied like all other subjects of the natural sciences, but this aim does not definitively link linguistics, the structure of language to narrative structure. As a comparative analysis we can compare the behavior of ducks to the behaviour of people, but this is not a scientific analysis that can state that ducks and people share the same behavioural functions: simply positing and then supporting a link between the grammar of language to forms narrative is only an analogy: a comparison.
This issue of using concepts as comparison rather than actual shared functions can lead once again to mistaken assumptions regarding narrative structure: grammar in language sets rules for structure, and this enables a generative grammar, the production of millions of utterances, some the same, nearly the same, many unique and most different to each other. When using linguistic theory in narratology identifying narrative, story, to be operating at the level of a grammar and so creating set forms of narrative would be false: complex forms of language and of narrative are created by conventions of social usage, not at the level of grammar. In music there are set rules for composition, and this produces a massive diversity of musical compositions, the forms of music, the style of music stems from those rules but these forms are not set by the initial grammatical rules and music can be developed in many ways apart from the way it is used in any particular culture at any particular time. In terms of film as a language system there is a grammar for narrative film, the continuity system, this sets rules for joining shots through editing to create a coherent system, but this does not determine the form of narrative film or its content. Linguistics has the concepts of langue and parole, with langue being the grammatical rules and parole being the use of language in practice, as used by a society, by a culture. Narrative may be thought to have langue, a system for joining story events, to offer a grammatical coherent narrative, but langue offers the social environment, the culture for these stories to be meaningful.
The term actant which is part of a theory that enables the study and description of narrative is valid, but it does not describe fixed and universal grammatical rules for narrative structure: story form is not set at the level of grammar. Narratology has addressed these issues, and developed a range of narratologies, different approach to understanding narrative and these should be incorporated into film theory and in the teaching of narrative film if storytelling in film is to be properly understood. When studying a film narrative or creating a narrative, its narration, and as a part of this it dramatic story structure can be considered, but trying to fit a story to a structural formula is a flawed methodology. The intentions of Greimas and Propp was not to guide or determine narrative but to analyse it and their work is made reductive if the narrative terms they produced are understood as rules.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019