What is the Actantial Model? Definition and Examples from Film.

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Greimas’ actantial model (aka the actantial narrative schema) is a handy tool for analyzing narratives. Developed by Algirdas Julien Greimas, this framework helps you understand different roles and functions in a story. It can also be used to analyze movies and help with scriptwriting.

In this article, I’ll show you how.

The Actantial Model explained

Greimas Actantial Model - FilmDaft
Figure 1: Greimas’ Actantial Model

The actantial model helps us map out the plot’s six key roles or “actants”: the Subject, Object, Sender, Receiver, Helper, and Opponent.

These aren’t always individual characters but can be concepts or groups. Below, you can see their roles explained using Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) as an example.

  • Subject – This is the main character or entity driving the action forward.
    • Luke Skywalker
  • Object – This is what the Subject is after.
    • Defeating the Empire by destroying the Death Star (later becoming a Jedi.)
  • Sender – This actant sends the Subject on their quest.
    • Princess Leia (her message recorded on R2D2).
  • Receiver – The beneficiary of the quest’s outcome. Often, this aligns with the Subject, but not always.
    • The Rebel Alliance and, more broadly, the galaxy itself.
  • Helper – These are the allies who assist the Subject.
    • Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi, The Light Side of the Force.
  • Opponent – The antagonist who opposes the Subject.
    • Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine, the Empire, The Dark Side of the Force.

The actants are placed onto three axes: the project, conflict, and communication axes.

  • Project axis – This axis aligns the subject (main character) with the object (the subject’s goal). Sometimes called the axis of desire.
    • Destroy the Death Star
  • Conflict axis – Displays the helper and the opponent, who assist or hinder the subject.
    • Luke (and the Rebellion) vs the Empire, epitomized by Darth Vader and the Emperor.
  • Communication axis – The end where the sender transfers the object to the receiver, which is often the subject.
    • Leia (Sender) initiates the action and communicates the need (Destroy the Death Star), which ultimately benefits the Receiver (the Rebel Alliance).

And here it is illustrated:

Greimas Actantial Model Star Wars Example - FilmDaft
Figure 2: Greimas’ Actantial Model – Star Wars Ep: IV: A New Hope (1977) example.

Using Greimas’s actantial model schema on your favorite movies is a great way to understand better what drives the conflict, who sends the hero on the journey, what he/she must overcome, who the important side characters are, and who benefits from all the trouble.

See also Campbell’s Monomyth.

I recommend trying this exercise a few times to see if you can apply it to your scriptwriting.

Using the Actantial Model together with Character Archetypes in Scriptwriting

Placing character archetypes (or concepts such as The Force in Star Wars) into the six actant categories is a great and simple model for developing your screenplay’s plot, conflict, and narrative foundation.

Below, you can see the model used with character archetypes using the Lord of the Rings as an example:

Greimas Actantial Model Archetypes LOTR Example - FilmDaft
Figure 3: Greimas’ Actantial Model character archetype example (Lord of the Rings).

Closing Thoughts

Using Greimas’ actantial model is a great tool in movie analysis to help understand the characters’ roles, interactions, and conflicts.

It can be applied on multiple levels, meaning it’s also useful for understanding supporting characters’s arches and motivations and uncovering subplots. I recommend trying to put different characters’ as the subjects.

In scriptwriting, it’s also a useful tool for fleshing out conflicts and character roles, and you can combine it with character archetypes to underline the various positions. When you get those down, it will act as a guide for developing your plot and narrative.

Up Next: How to come up with plot ideas.

Author

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  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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