The actantial model was developed by Algirdas Julien Greimas in the 1960s. The model describes the various roles that are typically fulfilled in stories. These include “object,” “helper,” and “sender.” An actant is the paring between two of these roles. For example, hero pairs with villain and drugs pairs with drug dealer. Actants are helpful literary binaries. They can be used to create complex problems in one’s storyline.
Definition of Actant
Actant refers to a pairing of characters, objects, and their roles. Writers use these pairs in order to define the oppositional relationships in a storyline. The same actants, or pairings, don’t need to remain consistent throughout the story. They can change from part to part as a character’s relationship with another character or object changes. For example, a young woman who is at first terrified of weapons and then embraces them as a way to protect herself and those she cares about. The relationship evolves as the character does. The weapons might take on the role of the opponent at first and then the helper later.
Below are a few of the possible pairings within the actantial model and their meanings. While they might seem complicated at first, the example below should help make the various roles clear.
- Subject: what wants or does not want.
- Object: the thing with which the subject does or doesn’t want to be connected.
- Sender: the instigator of the action.
- Receiver: what benefits from the action.
- Helper: what helps the subject in the action.
- Opponent: what hinders the action.
If these categories were used to outline a story, they might be attributed in the following ways. The subject could be a soldier who wants to rescue one of her comrades from behind enemy lines. The object is the comrade who needs to be rescued. The instigator is the soldier’s commander, who gives the soldier the order to go rescue her comrade. The receiver is the person who benefits, that could be any of the three previous roles as well as the comrade’s family and other friends. The helper could be the weapons the soldier uses in their rescue attempt. The opponent/s are the enemy combatants.
Examples of Actants
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
In The Lord of the Rings, readers can find several different relationships that take on actant roles. For example, Frodo Baggins, the main character/hero, often takes on the role of the subject as he carries the Ring to Mordor. The Ring is at times the opponent and at other times the helper as it does allow him to escape from several dangerous situations. The destruction of the ring and peace, from most character’s perspectives, are the objects.
The instigator is Gandalf, who starts Frodo on his quest. Aragorn also takes on the role of instigator at times as he encourages the various characters to continue on their journey. Here is a thoughtful quote delivered by Gandalf in which he alludes to the various roles different characters and objects play:
Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.
The opponent is, as mentioned before, the Ring at times but is more broadly Sauron and his dark forces. The receiver is all of Middle Earth that is not aligned with Sauron.
As this example demonstrates, there are various ways these actant roles can be assigned. They also change over time as the character’s intentions shift, and they learn more about the situations they’re in.
The Star Wars film series is a great example in which to find various actant roles. The “dark side of the force” plays the role of the opponent throughout all the films, but the person or people embodying it changes. For example, the Sith like Emperor Palpatine, Count Dooku, and Darth Maul. The subject changes as the films change but is at times Anakin Skywalker and Luke Skywalker.
The former shifts from subject to the opponent in the films, a great example of how actant roles can change. The object is different depending on the film but is generally related to the defeat of the dark forces, like the Empire, and the realization of peace throughout the galaxy. Those who benefit from it, the receivers, are all the peace-loving citizens of that same galaxy. These include the main characters and all the rebel fighters. The Force is the main helper at play throughout the films. It takes the characters time to figure it out and use it, but without the Force, the Empire could not be defeated.
Why Do Writers Use Actants?
Most writers do not actively set out to use actuate pairings, but these pairings are an integral part of all stories. The actantial model is a way of understanding the relationships in stories and, for those writers who are interested in actively perusing them, a way to understand how complex stories can be. For most readers, these relationships are self-explanatory. Clearly, there is a hero or subject, an object, and a helper. But, when defined and separated into categories, these roles can be easier to understand.
An actant is a pairing of two roles in a story. It could be a knight and the damsel they have to rescue or a small business and their competition.
The actantial model is a way of understanding relationships in storytelling.
A pairing example is a hero and their weapon (the subject and the helper).
The subject is also sometimes referred to as the hero. It is the person who is looking for something or is looking to avoid something. This might be a tangible or intangible thing.
It is pronounced ack-tant.
Related Literary Terms
- Plot: a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
- Characterization: a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
- Cliffhanger: a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment of the plot is concluded.
- Subplot: a side story that occurs at the same time as the main plotline. It is less important than the central storyline.