Over the last few weeks we have been learning about how to create dynamic story characters through brief character profiles. We started with the main characters – the Hero and the Villain and then moved onto the first of our secondary characters – the Princess.
This week we will exploring the possibilities for the last of our archetypal characters as originally proposed by the Russian folklorist, Vladimir Propp – the Donor, the Dispatcher, and the Helper.
Although the Hero, the Villain and the Princess provide the main action in a story, the Donor, the Dispatcher and the Helper are indispensable elements in a narrative. These story characters are especially important for our Hero. The Hero would not be able to embark upon his quest or successfully achieve his goal without these characters.
In a future blog, I will be exploring the role of characters even more in ‘How to create four dimensional characters’. As you can probably tell creating characters is one of my favourite aspects of storytelling. Whether we are reading a book or watching a film or a television show – great storytelling depends on dynamic characters.
So let us get back to creating a character profile/s for the Donor, Dispatcher and Helper.
Once more I am going to use a literature/filmic reference – The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) to explore these three character types. LOTR is a good narrative to use for story character profiling as it provides us with a perfect example of how one character can play dual roles. See Propp’s archetypal character list.
The Donor is responsible for providing a magical agent to the hero before he embarks upon his quest.
The Donor in LOTR is the wizard – Gandalf the grey. After finally succeeding in getting Bilbo to leave his “precious” ring behind before he leaves the Shire to journey to Rivendell, Gandalf gives this ring, which is the magical agent, to Frodo. But this magical agent harbors deadly magic – it originally belonged to the story’s villain – the dark lord, Sauron. So we can see from this narrative that archetypal elements can take on variations. LOTR also features more than one magical agent. There are the elvish gifts that are given to Frodo: the sword that glows blue when Orcs are present, the silver ethereal vest, and The Light of Eärendil that is bestowed by Galadriel.
Gandalf also performs the role of the main Dispatcher as he sends Frodo on his mission. We could also include Strider/Aragorn, Elrond and Galadriel as dispatchers.
The Dispatcher has two functions. He alerts the potential Hero to a grave misfortune or some sort of lack in their mutual world. The Dispatcher’s second function is to send the Hero on a mission or quest in order to resolve the original misfortune or lack. Ultimately, the desire is to restore equilibrium to a world that is seriously out of balance or on the brink of destruction.
The Helper’s job description is to inspire or motivate the Hero, provide rescue, help with or solve difficult tasks, and to transform the hero. Out of all these three characters, the Helper is the one character who is usually consistent throughout the narrative up until the conclusion of the story. And there can be multiple Helpers in a narrative.
In the LOTR films there are many Helpers. Besides Boromir, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimili, and Arwen, there are also Frodo’s friends – the mischievous Merry and Pippin, and of course, the self sacrificing and loyal, Sam. With Merry and Pippin, we can see that sometimes the helpers can cause more trouble for the Hero than provide any actual help. But towards the end of the film franchise we see that Merry and Pippin redeem themselves and prove that they are indispensable to the story and more importantly to Frodo himself.
Here I have provided three brief character profiles for the Donor, the Dispatcher and the Helper. For a more extensive outline of these archetypal characters and their broader narrative groups and place within a narrative, see John Fiske, 2010, Television culture.
This week I have a creative exercise for you.
Watch ‘The Opera’ Season 4 episode from the Seinfeld series (you should be able to find it on YouTube). Or you can use any narrative that you familiar with. Analyze each of the characters. What are their functions within the narrative (hero, villain, princess etc.)? Do they perform one or more function? Which is your favorite character and why?
Fiske John 2010, Television culture, 2nd edition, Routledge, New York, London.