Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

There are numerous story universals. These may be divided first into event universals and character universals. (On universals of setting, see “Imagery.”) Event universals may be further divided into motifs, on the one hand, and broad story arcs or story genres, on the other.

Character and Motif

The basic character universals are unsurprising as they derive from the common structure of stories as sequences of events in which a main character pursues a goal. That main character, which is to say the primary agent in pursuit of the goal (e.g., the lover in a romantic story or the central warrior in military conflict), is the hero. Other universal characters divide primarily into those who help the hero and those who block the hero’s achievement of the goal. On the other hand, some universal character types are more particular. The older confidant to the female lover, the friend who acts as go-between, the domineering father, the inept ruler, are all candidates for universality. Perhaps more interestingly, different literary traditions have a character who manipulates the other characters and the events of the story to produce the particular result he or she desires. The character is hardly plausible realistically and is therefore particularly striking. Presumably, the origin of this character is in the author’s own manipulation of characters and events. At some point, it occurs to authors to put a character with their own authorial powers into the story. (On this final type, see Hogan “Shakespeare.”)

Motifs are limited narrative sequences that may be embedded in different story arcs or genres. Several important motifs have been isolated by pre-cognitive researchers. A prominent example of a motif is the quest, the long and dangerous journey to acquire some particularly valuable object. (Campbell’s treatment of the quest is probably the most famous.) The birth of the hero  is also a cross-cultural motif (see Rank). Lalita Pandit has suggested that the inclusion of staging–in effect, a play within a play—may be a universal of theater (“Patriarchy” 103). This is an inclusion of the same general type as found in the manipulator character mentioned above, a projection of the author’s relation to the story into the story itself. It is also an instance of a discourse universal–the embedding on one narrative within another, as in flashbacks or prophecies. Pandit has suggested further that the false imagination of a wife’s infidelity is a cross-cultural motif in patriarchal societies (“Patriarchy”). Raducanu has taken up and extended Pandit’s argument, indicating that a test or trial of a woman’s chastity—in connection with imagined infidelity–is a consequential cross-cultural motif (see Trials of Women’s Chastity).

Prototypical Stories

As to the larger sequences of events or genres, I have argued that there are several cross-cultural story arcs, three or four of which are particularly prominent (see The Mind and Its Stories). Fundamental to my argument is the idea that the generation and reception of stories are guided primarily by prototypes, which is to say standard or average cases, rather than more abstract, necessary and sufficient conditions. In each case, the prototype is a matter of categorization processes. When authors begin to imagine a love story or a heroic story—whether they self-consciously apply a particular label to the topic or not—they necessarily link some structure with that topic; the structure is, after all, what makes it a love story or a heroic story, rather than something else. My contention is that, in keeping with ordinary semantic processes (see Rosch), that structure is provided by prototypes.

More precisely, when creating a narrative, authors may choose any topic they like and they may develop that topic in any way they wish. But they will most often begin with a standard genre category (again, this need not be a matter of self-conscious labeling). They will then follow the prototypical story structure and deviate from it only insofar as deviation is required by their specification of the prototype (e.g., in the personality traits they simulate for the main characters) or their sense of what will best fulfill the emotional and thematic (e.g., political or ethical) purposes of the story. Similarly, when interpreting and responding to a narrative, readers will begin by tacitly presupposing the prototypical structure and deviate from it only when that is necessary.

As is usual with cognitive explanations of literary patterns, this merely extends ordinary processes to the case of literature. When setting up a restaurant, an entrepreneur will begin with a genre prototype (e.g., fast food restaurant or family style restaurant), following the prototype (customers ordering at the counter for a fast food restaurant, customers being seated by a host or hostess at a family style restaurant) and deviating from that prototype only insofar as this seems to enhance the success of the restaurant or is a function of prototype specification (e.g., bringing tortilla chips with salsa in a Mexican family style restaurant). Narrative production operates similarly, though with perhaps more emphasis on innovative prototype deviations in the service of the main aims of the literary production. As usual, those main aims are producing an emotional effect and conveying thematic—usually political or ethical—concerns; in other words, authors seek to produce works that are both sweet and useful, as Horace famously put it (75).

Almost all stories involve general, story prototypical elements. A prototypical story, no matter what the genre, begins by establishing a particular goal for a hero or heroes. The unfolding of the story involves a hero or heroes seeking that goal. This hero is frustrated in his or her goal pursuit, usually due to the actions of a blocking character. That blocking character is typically a villain, thus a malicious and intentional opponent, and may be a family member. Moreover, the internal norms of the story indicate that the villain’s actions are not simply disagreeable, but more objectively wrong. The hero and the villain are often in conflict for reasons having to do with identity categories, the social in-group versus out-group divisions that organize their societies. The hero passes through a series of experiences that are non-ordinary and emotionally engaging. Ordinariness is of course defined relative to social expectations of the target audience; in other words, it is an indexical universal. For example, flying in an airplane is extraordinary for some audiences (e.g., those in the early days of aviation), but not for others. The hero’s experiences are frequently drawn from motifs, such as the quest motif. Moreover, these experiences often involve exile or some related removal from home. The hero may receive the aid of some helper, sometimes a figure with unusual social authority (e.g., a highly respected figure from the enemy side in a heroic plot). The hero’s exile is regularly part of a “tragic” middle, in which the protagonist seems furthest away from achieving his or her goal.

The story finally resolves when there is no longer any possibility of goal pursuit. In the majority of cases, there is a comic resolution, making the entire work into a tragi-comedy. In this case, the hero achieves the goal, often in an idealized way that assures it cannot be lost (as in the formulaic ending of a romantic story, “they lived happily ever after”). This idealization commonly involves social reconciliation, at least among those who are crucial to the wellbeing of the hero, such as his or her family. This may require that the blocking characters form two sets, those who are corrigible and those who are incorrigible. The former may undergo a sort of conversion, which allows their incorporation into the comic society, whereas the latter may be excluded from that society. In tragic cases, the conclusion still involves the necessary end of goal pursuit. However, in the tragic case that end results from the achievement of the goal being rendered impossible—for example, by the death of the hero. Sometimes that tragic resolution is preceded by a moment of (comic) hope, making these into what might be called “comi-tragedies.”

It is important to emphasize here that this is a prototype, not a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. There are plenty of sequences of events that we would count as stories, but that do not conform very closely to this outline. For example, if I recount my day to my wife, that is a sort of story, but it may have few of these features. That is what makes this a prototype-based account. On the other hand, it does indicate that some stories should feel like better cases of the category “story,” precisely because they are more prototypical. Thus Romeo and Juliet is a better case of a story than my rambling tale of the day’s events—or, for that matter, a work such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Of course, I might shape the events of my day by for example elevating minor frustrations into conflicts with the covert machinations of villains in my department. But that would make my tale a better case of being a story precisely by making it more prototypical. Similarly, I may interpret a work by Beckett in a way that makes it more story-like, thus more prototypical. (Note that this does not in any way suggest that a story is better because it is more prototypical. For example, a banal Hollywood romance may be highly prototypical; that does not mean that it is better than Waiting for Godot.)

Here, as with most literary universals, the prototypical story structure may be explained by reference to common cognitive processes along with—probably rather quick—convergent development across traditions. Emotion is particularly important here, as it is in the definition of particular genres. Specifically, we all understand trajectories of human action by way of our intuitive psychology, the set of psychological principles for which we are innately prepared (see, for example, Boyer 100). This intuitive psychology includes dispositions, circumstances, beliefs, and goals. We first of all understand the hero’s initiation of actions as a matter of emotionally engaged goal pursuit. That goal pursuit is directed by beliefs—for example, beliefs about enemy nations in heroic plots. The trajectory itself is qualified and specified by the hero’s dispositions and circumstances—thus character and setting in the simulation of a fiction. In this way, the basic elements of a prototypical story are provided by intuitive psychology.

The “outcome emotion” of a story is the emotion provoked by the conclusion of the story. Goal pursuit aims at happiness. In the usual or default (prototypical) case, recipients identify with the protagonist. Thus they generally experience emotions parallel with those of the protagonist—for example, empathic love in relation to the protagonists in a romantic story. That parallel emotion is a form of happiness when the protagonist achieves his or her goal at the end of the work (in comedy). It is a form of sadness when that goal becomes unachievable (in tragedy). Thus the outcome emotion of a work is most often happiness (as comedies are more frequent cross-culturally), but may also be a form of sadness. (There are rarer cases where it is something else, such as anger.)

Emotional response, including outcome emotions, may be intensified in a number of ways. One obvious way in which an outcome emotion may be altered is by changes in the preceding emotions. Consider a simple example. If I go to the doctor expecting to be told that I have a chronic, degenerative disease (e.g., Parkinson’s disease), I will be relieved to be told that I have Lyme disease. However, if I go to the doctor expecting to be told that I’ve just been working too hard and need some rest and relaxation, I will be distressed to be told that I have Lyme disease. The outcome state (having Lyme disease) is the same in both cases. However, the outcome emotion differs radically. In each case, this is due to the contrast with the prior emotion, as I experienced it in anticipation of the outcome. This contingency of the outcome emotion on prior emotions gives rise to the tragic middle of tragi-comedies. Authors quickly recognize that it is perfectly nice to hear of two people falling in love, then getting married. However, listeners and readers are much happier at the outcome when the lovers are united after being separated, exiled, and nearly killed. The same process accounts for cases of comi-tragedy when this occurs.

The “familialization” of conflict—making the blocking characters into family members—is a matter of intensification as well. We expect or at least hope for more thorough loyalty and support from family members than from strangers. The attachment bonds one feels with family make conflict more painful—directly for the (simulated) hero, empathically for the (simulating) reader. This pain is relieved by the social reconciliation that often accompanies the hero’s achievement of his or her goal.

The motif of exile fits here as well. Our emotional organization of space divides the world fundamentally into home and not home. Home is cognitively familiar, but more importantly it is “where the heart is”—where we feel “place attachment.” Place attachment is related to person attachment (see Panksepp 407n.93) and our separation from home can be painful in precisely the way separation from a loved one is painful (and of course the two are often interrelated). Thus, for reasons of emotion intensification, we would expect different literary traditions to organize space into home and exile and to separate the hero from home in the tragic middle.

The tragic middle of course includes events other than exile. It generally involves the hero facing obstacles to achieving his or her goal. The nature of that goal is determined in part by the social quality of human cognition and emotion. Even our most basic, physical needs are inseparable from social interaction, cooperative and competitive. For example, even our acquisition of food is bound up with coordinated practices of hunting, gathering, or farming, as well as competition for resources. It is certainly possible for us to face purely physical obstacles in goal pursuit, and some stories treat such obstacles. But our social nature tends to make the goals themselves highly social (e.g., romantic union) and the main forms of help and hindrance social as well. This would lead us to expect to find blocking and helping characters. The principle of emotional intensification enhances this expectation in that our emotional response to people is more vigorous and sustained than our emotional response to things. I may be temporarily irritated with a door that flies open and hits me, but my anger is far greater in strength and duration if a person hits me. Moreover, my response to a person hitting me is commonly stronger to the extent that the act was intentional and malicious. If someone trips and smacks me accidentally, that is different from punching me—as is intending a playful jab that happens to be a tad too battering for my wispy frame. Thus we would anticipate the elaboration of blocking figures into plotting, malicious villains.

The implications for helping characters are parallel, but generally less consequential. This is true in part for the simple reason that it is more difficult to give inadvertent help than to do inadvertent harm. But it is also due to the fact that generally our emotional response to hedonic experiences is much less analytic and demanding than to aversive experiences. It appears that we are willing to accept benefits produced by chance, but we feel the need to understand the reasons for harm—presumably so that we can avoid similar harms in the future. Thus we may be perfectly willing to accept a hero succeeding by dumb luck. However, as Aristotle pointed out, we tend to recoil from stories in which a hero fails through no fault of his or her own (XIII.2; 1452b). This is one aspect of “hedonic asymmetry,” the non-parallelism of negative and positive emotions (on the general idea of hedonic asymmetry, see Frijda 323).

It is important to dwell for a moment on our different attitudes toward intentional and unintentional harms, as they tell us something important about emotional response. We may initially respond with anger in both intentional and unintentional cases. However, we quickly modulate our response to unintentional harms. One of the most important forms of modulation is ethical. We might inhibit or enhance our emotional response to a given action depending on whether we view it as ethical or unethical. Thus it generally becomes important that our preferences in a literary work broadly align with our ethical evaluations. If we consider the blocking character morally justified and the hero unjustified, that will constrain our emotional response. Of course, stories of this sort occur—and many of us may even prefer them, in part for their intellectual stimulation, in part for their non-habitual quality. However, we would not expect this to be the default or prototypical case.

The evaluative concerns of a story—and thus its thematic point–are often bound up with social identity categories. These categories are a fundamental means of organizing intra- and inter-societal relations in real life. They have profound psychological consequences, affecting one’s understanding of and emotional response to other people (on some of these consequences, see chapter one of Hogan Understanding Nationalism). For example, it appears to be the case that we tend to respond to in-group members with parallel emotion (e.g., sharing their mirth), but often respond to out-group members with a complementary or opposed emotion (e.g., resenting their mirth). (On parallel and complementary emotions in identity categorization, see Gazzaniga 164 and Hain and colleagues 155.) It is thus unsurprising that identity categories figure prominently in prototypical stories.

The preceding observations perhaps suggest one reason why ethical and political themes are of such importance in literature, and why that importance is found across traditions. That importance is, to some extent, a by-product of the emotional function of literature. Ethical and political concerns engage our modulatory processes and thus become consequential for our emotional response. Of course, other factors enter as well, such as who is paying for the production or preservation of stories and what ethical or political concerns he or she might have. Moreover, once present, ethical and political concerns may be developed systematically and autonomously.

Before going on to specific genres, it is important to remark on two points raised but not answered by the preceding reflections. The first concerns tragedy. Again, it appears that tragedy occurs less frequently than comedy across cultures. Why might that be? In part, this is a topic requiring further research. On the other hand, some points seem clear enough given what we know presently. First, sadness is an aversive emotion, while happiness is hedonic. Thus we would expect people in general to prefer comedies to tragedies, leading to the predominance of the former. Indeed, the problem is not so much why there are fewer tragedies than comedies. It is why there are tragedies at all.

One possible explanation for the existence of tragedy derives from the fact that compassion activates the reward system (see Kim and colleagues; the reward system is the system that governs “wanting” and “liking” [see Chatterjee 309]). Our experience of compassion is therefore not wholly aversive, but ambivalent, with a hedonic component. Understanding the operation of tragedy, then, should require a good understanding of ambivalence and the ways in which simulation may shape or direct ambivalence. It seems likely that the structure of prototypical tragedy will be explained most fully by such an understanding of ambivalence. For example, it may be the case that comi-tragic enhancement occurs principally in works that we consider melodramatic or that we criticize as emotionally manipulative, and that this is a matter of just how ambivalence is developed. An ambivalence-based account of tragedy would include reference not only to sorrow and compassionate reward response, but also modulatory processes, particularly bearing on the former, where ethical and thus thematic issues are likely to enter again. For example, Aristotle’s idea of a tragic error is a way of considering modulatory ambivalence (see Aristotle XIII.3; 1453a). We feel sorrow for the hero’s fate, but we also recognize that he or she is in some degree responsible for that fate, which modulates our response. Unfortunately, the nature of empirical research, with its necessary concern for isolating variables, has given us much less knowledge about ambivalence than more unequivocal emotion states—despite the fact that most of our real emotional experience is probably ambivalent to some degree.

The second issue worth commenting on is the case of non-identification with the hero. The default or prototypical case appears to be one in which the recipient of the work empathically hopes that the hero will achieve his or her goal. However, it does happen that we disagree with the hero’s goals and hope that he or she changes those goals in the course of the story. This is not necessarily a problem as the point of a cross-cultural pattern is that it recurs across traditions, not that it characterizes every work. Moreover, one point of tying genres to prototypes (not necessary and sufficient conditions) is that individual narratives will converge only approximately and in varying degrees, not wholly. However, it is still worth remarking that the non-identification story is commonly of two sorts. In the simpler version, we hope for the happiness of the protagonist. However, we think that the protagonist is mistaken about what will make him or her happy. In the more complex case, there are two or more protagonists and we hope for a reconciliation of the happiness achievements of these different protagonists. The two types of non-identification may occur together, as in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night where audience members are likely to feel that Orsino should give up on Olivia and that his happiness goal should be reconciled with that of Viola. The same point applies to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park with respect to Edmund, Mary, and Fanny. Thus we are usually dealing with a complication of identification in these cases, not a repudiation of it.

Story Genres: Romantic Tragi-Comedy

But, again, the full prototypical forms of stories are not confined to this general structure. They divide into more specific genres as well. In isolating these genres, I began by more or less accidentally noticing the recurrence of certain story types across literary traditions, suggesting genre prototypes. From here, I saw that the story types themselves had certain features in common, suggesting the story prototype just discussed. I then sought to explain these features by reference to emotion. I found that I could explain the story prototype by general features of emotion operation, with the differentiating characteristics of the genres explained principally by reference to differentiating features of specific emotion systems.

Romantic stories start with some prefatory material that introduces the protagonists. The main action begins when the protagonists fall in love. This establishes their goal of romantic union. The lovers face obstacles. Often, these obstacles involve identity categories such that the lovers fall into non-intermarrying groups. There is usually opposition to the union coming from some social authority, typically parents. The parents often prefer another spouse for one of the lovers. This links the socially separated lovers sequence with a love triangle sequence involving a rival. That love triangle may be the main story sequence or subsidiary to the story of the lovers’ social separation. (Both the romantic and heroic prototypes have two partially separable sequences, though the reasons are different in the two cases.) The lovers are separated, with one often exiled. Sometimes the separation is associated with imagery of death or rumors of death. The lovers are often helped in their union, sometimes by a character with some sort of authority (either through social position or some merit, such as intellect, as with the wily slave of Roman New Comedy). The efforts of the helper and the lovers alter the situation so that the lovers are able to be reunited. This may involve the discovery that the identity opposition was mistaken (e.g., the beloved is not actually a slave, but a patrician kidnapped in infancy), the hero’s achievement of social prestige, the disgrace of the rival (sometimes involving defeat by the hero), or something else. The lovers are united and reconciled with society, including their parents; however, the rival may be excluded from the reconciliation.

Once again, it is important to stress that this is prototypical, not necessary. Individual stories will approximate the prototype to a greater or lesser degree. Specific elements of the prototypical sequence may be missing or altered. The point is simply that there appear to be tendencies of this general sort.

As should be clear, many features of the romantic plot are explained by the principles governing the general story prototype. The meeting and falling in love are simply versions of establishing the goal. The centrality of identity categories is part of the story prototype and explicable in the same way. The obstacles are a matter of intensifying the outcome happiness. We see familialization in the establishment of parents as blocking figures, and the emotion-intensifying organization of space in exile. The imagery of death is a straightforward instance of creating a tragic middle. The existence of a helper character—enabled by status or skill–fits the general social nature of goal pursuit. The comic achievement of romantic union is typically idealized in the usual manner, with social reconciliation completing the intensification of the outcome happiness. The common incorporation of the family into the comic society obviously functions as part of this idealization. The place of the rival is complicated by the fact that his or her presence in the society may pose a lingering threat to the happiness of the lovers. It seems to be the case that the rival is most likely to be incorporated into the comic society when events have excluded the possibility of such a threat—for example, if it is discovered that the rival is a close relative of the beloved (as in The Marriage of Figaro), thus precluding their romantic union.

Only a few elements of the romantic prototype are not explained by the story prototype. Some of these are a straightforward result of other developments in the story. For example, social authorities (e.g., the beloved’s parents) may object to the lover on the basis of his or her identity category. In tragic versions of the story, this objection may never be overcome. In comic versions without social reconciliation, it may also not be overcome. However, in intensified, comic versions, the conflict should be overcome. There are two obvious ways that this may occur. First, the identity opposition may itself be overcome. This may involve a broad change in society and may run contrary to dominant beliefs in the real society in which the story occurs. This version of reconciliation may be more common in modern works that set out to criticize social taboos (e.g., on interracial, gay, or lesbian romance). On the other hand, these may also be more frequently tragic, pursuing their thematic point through the cultivation of compassion. In any case, the other obvious way in which identity conflict may be reconciled is through the discovery that one of the lovers has been mis-categorized. Alternatively, the objection of parents or the social limitations on the lovers may be a matter of achievement, rather than identity. A simple case of this occurs in stories where a lover simply does not have the financial means to establish a household. In this case, there is one obvious solution—the lover achieves the sort of success that was previously lacking. One or the other form of social inhibition—that bearing on identity categorization or that bearing on achievement—seems likely to predominate in one or another social milieu (e.g., feudal society may foster the former, while capitalist society is more consistent with the latter). This introduces a typological element into romantic prototyping. Finally, the blocking characters may not object to the lover himself or herself, but may merely consider the rival superior. In that case, the obvious means of reconciliation is to alter the relative status of the hero and rival, either through the achievement of the former or the disgrace of the latter. Thus the most prototypical versions of the romantic story seem clearly explicable regarding the means of goal attainment.

The existence of a rival, and thus the love triangle plot, is not predicted by the general story prototype. However, it is hardly anomalous. To some extent, it derives from social factors that recur cross-culturally. The main factor is the assumption of that men and women will marry.  In other words, the main cultural alternative to marrying one person is not remaining single, but marrying another person. Given general cultural imperatives to marry, one would expect that social opposition to a character’s marital choice would involve an alternative.

On the other hand, the love triangle plot may develop independently of any social disapproval of the main lovers. In other words, the rival may not be a socially approved alternative. Indeed, it may even be unclear whether there are or are not primary lovers, thus whether or not the beloved does or does not reciprocate the feelings of the hero or heroine. As the phrasing of this point suggests, in cases of this sort, we commonly have a single rather than a dual protagonist. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, for example, the lovers are Anne Elliot and Wentworth. However, the protagonist in the novel is clearly Anne; she does not share this role with Wentworth. It is also not clear until the end of the novel that Wentworth actually loves Anne. Moreover, the development of Wentworth’s relationship with Louisa—the rival—is not socially preferred. (There is a love triangle of the socially preferred sort as well. Lady Russell has disapproved of Wentworth and favors William Elliot as a spouse for Anne.) Cases of this sort seem best explained as part of the intensified emotional development of the focal lover’s goal pursuit.

The most obvious unexplained feature of the romantic plot is of course that it concerns romance, with the specific goal of union of the lovers. The general prototype says nothing about the definition of goals. Differentiation of goals is precisely what distinguishes narrative genres in this sense. The goals of all these genres involve the pursuit of happiness. However, that happiness is of a different sort in each case. Again, a fundamental claim of this account of story genre is that particular happiness goals are defined by emotion systems, individually or in interaction. The happiness goal of the romantic genre is defined by romantic love. Romantic love does not seem to be a single human emotion system. It is, rather, the result of several emotion systems interacting, with cumulative effects resulting from their mutual enhancement. These emotion systems are attachment (the bonding that occurs most obviously between parents and small children), sexual desire, and reward (for discussion of this analysis of romantic love, see chapter three of Hogan What). Again, the reward system is the system that governs wanting and liking. It is also the system involved in addiction. What occurs in drug addiction may be understood as a specific form of what we might call “reward dependency.” Reward dependency is the narrowing of wanting and liking such that any enjoyment becomes reduced to or at least contingent on one sort of enjoyment–the drug in addiction or the beloved in romantic love. The romance-specific features of the romantic prototype are, first of all, a matter of the protagonists’ goals being defined by the particular complex of emotion systems involved in romantic love.

Attachment in romantic love, enhanced by reward dependency, tends to make happiness fragile. There are two primary sources of that fragility. The first is the world, especially the social world, outside of the couple. That is the source of the socially separated lovers sequence. But there is another source of insecurity in such relationships. That is the inscrutability of the beloved. However much we may think that we understand and sympathize with another person, we do not know their thoughts and feelings directly and with certainty. There is always a possibility of doubt. The contingency of our happiness on someone else—not only his or her presence and behavior, but his or her love as well—makes that doubt consequential, sometimes deeply so. This is the reason that jealousy may become so important in romantic love. When not the result of social preference, the love triangle plot may be understood as a development from this aspect of insecurity in the emotional profile of romantic love. Moreover, the possibility of doubt helps to explain why the final resolution of the romantic plot is apparently more likely to incorporate socially disapproving figures (such as parents) than rivals—except in cases where the rival has been rendered innocuous (e.g., by the discovery that he is the long lost sibling of the beloved).

Thus we see that the cross-cultural recurrence of the romantic prototype can be readily explained, largely by reference to emotional factors. The point extends to other cross-culturally recurring genres. Those too are explicable by reference to happiness goals defined by emotion systems or combinations of emotion systems. Conversely, this account suggests that we should find cross-cultural genres that derive from other systems or combinations of systems. We cannot consider all these genres and their explanations in detail. However, it is worth sketching their outlines.

Story Genres: Heroic and Sacrificial

Romantic tragi-comedy may be the most common genre in written traditions. The heroic genre is very frequent as well. It too involves two separable, but usually interrelated sequences. These are the usurpation story and the invasion story. The usurpation story concerns a legitimate leader of some social identity group, such as a nation. His or her legitimacy is usually connected with both moral right and competence. Sometimes complications occur and there are problems with his or her rectitude or capacity. Indeed, there are cases in which even the political legitimacy of the leader is not entirely straightforward. In other words, heroic plots often involve some degree of ambiguity and ambivalence. When a heroic story has social authority, however, both the ambiguity and ambivalence may be widely denied—or, rather, excluded without comment. A good example of this is the Mahābhārata in India. The superiority of the Pāṇḍavas over the Kauravas usually goes unquestioned. But the text itself is much more equivocal—a point recognized in literary reworkings of the poem (e.g., in the representations of the character Karṇa, from Bhāsa to Tagore). Another complication of the heroic plot is that the story may not concern the leader himself or herself, but a loyal soldier or advisor. (This might result in part from an attempt to avoid offending rulers in the real world—for example, the monarch of a nation in which a play is enacted.)

The main action of the usurpation story begins when the legitimate leader (or related authority, such as a particularly loyal and brave soldier or a wise and benevolent advisor) is dislodged from his or her position and replaced by a rival. That rival is typically villainous (it is difficult to usurp a kingship by accident). Moreover, he or she is often a family member and the displacement commonly entails exile, as we would expect. During this period, the legitimate leader may be linked with imagery or rumors of death; indeed, he or she may literally die, being replaced in the remainder of the story by a son or daughter. In exile, the leader (or his or her son or daughter) gains the support of helpers and often manages to accomplish some remarkable feat that leads to his or her restoration. The restoration is partially idealized in that the peace and stability of the society appear to be established even into the distant future.

The remarkable accomplishment of the leader is often connected with the invasion (alternatively, threat and defense) sequence. The invasion sequence begins with a peaceful, autonomous society defined by some social identity category (e.g., a nation). That society is overrun by an antagonistic out-group, which ends the in-group autonomy. That invasion is often facilitated by an in-group collaborator, who may in turn serve as the usurper in the usurpation sequence. For example, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Antonio joins with Alonso to enable the latter’s invasion of Milan, which in turn allows Antonio to usurp his brother’s position as Duke of Milan. When the usurper does not collaborate with the enemy, he or she may prove to be incompetent or cowardly in the defense of the home society. Despite the failings of the usurper, the home society struggles against the invaders, with much death and destruction in the tragic middle. It may recruit a helper, specifically a collaborator, from the enemy camp. This is often a character with moral authority who rejects the practices of his or her own group, condemning them as immoral, thus further legitimating the in-group of the main hero or heroes. More importantly, the usurped, legitimate ruler may return and successfully oppose the enemy. In the full, comic version, the home society eventually expels the invader, establishing a sort of utopia.

Here, as with the romantic genre, most points follow from the general story prototype, along with some common social phenomena bearing on social authority. The specificity of the genre derives principally from the emotion systems defining the hero’s goals. The main emotion involved in the heroic story is pride, both a sense of accomplishment (a matter of satisfying standards) and a sense of social status (a matter of inspiring esteem). The usurpation sequence concerns individual pride. The threat and defense sequence concerns in-group pride for some social identity category (such as a nation). Indeed, the psychological importance of both individual and social pride makes the duality of the heroic story, if not predictable, then at least unsurprising in retrospect. Like the romantic genre, the heroic plot commonly involves not only an affirmation of positive goals, but also a response to the emotional pains associated with those goals. Again, romantic love may be disturbed by insecurity, including jealousy. Pride is undermined most fully by (private) shame or (public) humiliation. Indeed, these are related disturbances as jealousy is often associated with shame, and public knowledge of a lover’s infidelity is probably the prototypical case of romantic humiliation. In heroic narratives, the shame and humiliation come in the tragic middle with the deposing of the leader and the defeat of the home society. They are overcome in the idealized conclusion.

Two things are particularly worth noting about the heroic genre. First, it is the predominant genre defining and organizing group identity, particularly national identity. As such, it is widely and deeply consequential for politics (a point I have discussed at length in Understanding Nationalism). At the same time, it is a highly ambivalent and ambiguous genre, as already indicated. Romantic plots are almost always straightforward. We want the lovers to be united, full stop. But things are messy in heroic stories. People are killed, mutilated, deprived of loved ones. Even when the suffering is experienced by the out-group, authors and readers typically do not feel good about this, or they do not only feel good about it.

One striking result of the ambiguity and ambivalence of heroic plots is the recurrence of what may be called an epilogue of suffering. We would expect a heroic story to stop with the restoration of the legitimate leader and the decisive defeat of the enemy. But often this is not the case. Rather, something frequently happens after the expected ending. This epilogue may take one of two forms. In its simple form, it is merely a lament, a sort of threnody for the dead. Surprisingly, the lament may focus on the defeated enemy, exposing us to the pain of the out-group and evoking sympathy for people that the entire work seemed designed to oppose. The more complex form is even more surprising. This is a mini-narrative of guilt and reparation, often involving a second degradation of the hero, where he or she goes through a sort of punishment for the cruelties of the war. The punishment may be divine, but it may also be self-inflicted, an expression of piercing remorse. The reparation implied by this epilogue serves in principle to make the idealized community possible, freeing it from the sins that are inevitable in warfare. But it is not that simple and there is often something disturbing about the conclusion of heroic stories. Again, this is surprising in that it runs counter to the in-group jingoism that is so often a central part of heroic narrative. But, considered from another angle, it becomes less surprising, indeed perfectly explicable. The very nature of literary simulation encourages us to imagine the subjectivity of other people in detail. That makes it difficult to accept their suffering, even when they are enemies. This operation of simulation is perhaps the main reason that literature is thought to have humanizing effects.

The introduction of guilt brings us to our third “major” genre—sacrificial tragi-comedy. The goal in sacrificial tragi-comedy is physical well-being generally, but most prototypically the acquisition of food. This goal is defined by the hunger system. In an age of supermarkets and widespread obesity, it may seem that acquiring food does not constitute much of a goal. But, for most of human history, satisfying hunger was a pressing task virtually every day. Such satisfaction was continually threatened by environmental dangers, prominently drought and ensuing famine. (Parallel points hold for general health and ravaging diseases, such as smallpox.) When famine came, it was not easy to explain. When an enemy invades one’s territory, the cause of one’s suffering is clear—the greed of the invaders. When society prevents the union of lovers, the source of pain is straightforward—commonly, the identity categories of the lovers. But famine seemed explicable only by reference to divine displeasure at social violation. It was thus a matter of guilt. The sacrificial story begins with some violation of divine precepts. That violation may be widespread within the society or it may have been committed by one or more members of the society who may be seen as representing the society as a whole—for example, the ruler. In either case, the violation is commonly understood as resulting not from spontaneous faults of the in-group, but from the seductive manipulations of some internal enemy, some out-group member within the society. The violation leads to divine punishment of the group—the tragic middle in which we find the opposite of the goal (thus here famine rather than the satiation of hunger).

The devastation found in the tragic middle can be reversed by placating the offended deity. That can be done only by reparation, some reversal of the original sin. Since sin involves self-indulgence, reparation is often understood as a matter of self-sacrifice. (I do not find the cognitive and emotional reasons for this to be entirely transparent. It is a topic for further study.) In this case, the sacrifice is social rather than individual. There are two ways in which such sacrifice commonly proceeds. In the “purgative” version of the story, it is the guilty parties who are punished—often purged from society through exile or death. In contrast, the “penitential” version commonly presents the sacrifice of an innocent scapegoat, someone who is pointedly not guilty of this or any other sin. The suggestion in this case seems to be that this is a pure self-sacrifice, since it is not required as reparation for any individual sins. The sacrifice leads to the restoration of natural well-being, usually in an idealized form of abundance.

Many elements of the sacrificial plot are well explained by the story prototype—for example, the contrast between devastation in the tragic middle and plenty in the idealized conclusion. Others, including the specification of the devastation as famine, are a function of the motivation system of hunger. Still others are a matter of overcoming the aversive emotion of guilt. Finally, there are contributions from cognitive processes of causal inference. On the other hand, there appear to be more features of the sacrificial plot that call out for further study, such as the precise relation between the sacrifice of innocents and the overcoming of collective guilt—or for that matter the relation between the emotion of remorseful guilt and other emotions connected with being “guilty” (i.e., being responsible for a moral violation), but not necessarily feeling guilt.

Minor Genres: Familial, Seduction, Revenge, and Criminal Investigation

In The Mind and Its Stories, I identified only these three genres—romantic, heroic, and sacrificial. In connection with this, I argued that prototypes are context sensitive and that there are three important contexts for happiness goals: physical, personal (or inter-personal), and social. Drawing on empirical research, as well as the literary data, I argued that the prototype for physical happiness is plenty, abundance of food; the prototype for personal or inter-personal happiness is romantic union; and the prototype for social happiness is domination or authority within the in-group and domination of out-groups by the in-group. This helped to account for the place of these genres in distinct literary traditions.

However, this did not imply that there would be no other cross-cultural genres. Indeed, the explanations for these genres seemed to suggest that there would be further patterns, though perhaps with less frequency. For example, the fact that romantic stories combine attachment goals with sexual goals might lead us to expect that there would be stories with attachment goals or sexual goals alone. Similarly, we might expect stories of individual pride, shame, and humiliation to occur, dissociated from national government or warfare.

In Affective Narratology, I took up these theoretical issues and also expanded my study of literary traditions, considering further story patterns. I argued that there are other cross-cultural genres. However, they do not appear to recur with the same frequency or prominence in different traditions. By frequency, I mean the number of occurrences of a given genre within the larger body of literature. By prominence, I mean the social importance of instances of the genre. The sacrificial genre, for example, has enormous prominence in the Judeo-Christian tradition due to the story of Jesus; it also has great frequency, in part due to retellings of that story. The minor genres also appear to be less autonomous. In other words, when they do appear, they are more likely to form subplots, dependent on heroic, romantic, or sacrificial main stories. The minor genres also seem to be more diffuse, with greater variability in elements, and fewer standard characteristics. A possible exception to these limitations is the family separation and reunion genre, which may belong in the major genre category. It appears to occur frequently, though it does not seem to have the prominence of the other genres, and its autonomy seems less clear. (This is a point for future research.)

The family separation and reunion genre involves just what the name suggests. A family is together. Parents and children or siblings are separated in the tragic middle. This may be due to the actions of one or the other party (e.g., the parents may abandon the children, sometimes in the belief that this will benefit the children). Alternatively, this may be the result of some villainous behavior, such as kidnapping, by a blocking figure. The separation may be quite enduring, extending over the children’s growth to adulthood. It may be associated with imagery of death or rumors of death. It clearly involves the displacement of some characters from home, even if we would not necessarily refer to this as “exile.” Commonly, one party seeks the other and, often with the aid of some helping figure, the family is reunited. An interesting twist in this story occurs when the final reunion is preceded by misidentification of the parent or child (e.g., when the child takes someone unrelated to be his or her long-lost father).

Most features of this genre are explained by the story prototype plus the specific features of the attachment system—its relation to family bonds, its goal of proximity to and accessibility of the attachment object, and so on. The negative emotion treated by the genre is simple and straightforward—attachment insecurity. Again, such insecurity has two sources, the attachment object and the world. This difference accounts for the division of familial narratives into those where one of the parties (e.g., a parent) is responsible for the separation and those where some third party (or a force of nature, such as a shipwreck) is responsible. Moreover, the resolution of the aversive emotion is achieved not only by the final reunion, but also by sometimes making parental love and self-sacrifice the motivation for the initial separation.

The motif of mistaken identification may be related to a developmental fact. Specifically, it may derive from our propensity to find substitutes for our parents in other people—for example, teachers or political leaders—whom we idealize. On the other hand, “misrecognition” occurs in many cases of the minor genres. This suggests some more general explanation. The obvious candidate is emotion intensification. Misrecognition may make it seem that the final goal of the hero is less likely to be achieved. But if this is the case, one might wonder why misrecognition does not appear to be an important motif in the major genres. But that might simply be a matter of how misrecognition would work its way into the narrative. Shakespeare uses misrecognition in partially romantic sequences in All’s Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure, as well as The Comedy of Errors. It may simply be that some sequences make such misrecognition plausible while others do not. Even so, it seems that the motif is less common in the major genres than one might expect. It is yet another topic for further research.

A final point to make about family separation and reunion stories is that the idealization of their conclusions is often limited or absent. This is in part a matter of the family genre itself. Parents and children are, obviously, not the same age. Especially after years of separation, they cannot necessarily anticipate many years together. The attachment insecurity imposed by the span of human life is not readily erased. On the other hand, there is a degree of ambivalence in most genres. In this way, it seems that most goal achievement involves ambivalence—due either to the nature of the achievement itself (e.g., the late reunion with parents in familial narratives) or the way in which the goal is achieved (e.g., through violence in heroic narratives). In this way, the question is rather why the romantic genre especially seems so rarely affected by ambivalence and why the sacrificial genre may involve less than the usual ambivalence as well.

As noted above, along with an attachment-based genre, we might expect a genre based on sexual motivations. We find this in seduction narratives. Seduction narratives prototypically involve a man deceitfully seducing a woman, often misidentifying himself in the process. The woman may agree for reasons of sexual pleasure. However, it seems more common that she agrees in order to have a child (sometimes as a means of achieving power or status in a patriarchal society). In other words, the genre based on the sexual desire system involves both hedonistic and fertility concerns. The seducer abandons the woman, who pursues him. One or both may die, or they may be united in a marriage that is likely to leave readers troubled—though pregnancy tends to make the marriage resolution less disturbing, if hardly unambivalent. One unusual aspect of the seduction genre is that the sexual goal is achieved relatively early in the story and what follows treats only the associated aversive emotions. Specifically, death often punishes one or both parties for their guilt, while marriage resolves the woman’s social humiliation and sexual shame. This development is hardly surprising, given the nature of sexual desire, its resolution, and its consequences. Again, it seems that the main features of the genre are explained by the interaction of the specific emotion systems (especially sexual desire, in this case) along with the common features of the story prototype.

The reference to shame or humiliation and guilt reminds us that stories treating these concerns are hardly confined to large social problems such as mutinies and famines. They occur at a more personal level all the time. As such, we would expect them to encourage the creation of other genres—and they do. Revenge narratives occur in different times and places, though again not with the frequency or prominence of the major genres. There are two common versions of the revenge story. One involves sexual violation; the other, murder. Both are highly ambivalent and commonly suggest that the actions of the revenger are, at best, only slightly less heinous than those he or she is revenging. This ambivalence is enhanced by the fact that the revenge often leads to the deaths of innocent bystanders as well, sometimes through misrecognition. In the sexual betrayal version, one spouse’s infidelity humiliates the other spouse, who takes revenge often by murdering the offending parties. In the murder version, someone has murdered an attachment figure of the hero (e.g., his or her spouse or father). The revenge is then a reciprocation of the murder—often following the killing of others due to confusion or accident. The outcome in both cases is typically far from idealized. Even in the best case, the protagonist finds himself or herself alone, still deprived of the attachment figure (e.g., the adulterous wife or murdered parent). He or she has not restored his or her own wellbeing, but merely extended the pain of grief to others in the society (e.g., the families of his or her victims, whether guilty or innocent). Here, again, we see elements of the story prototype integrated with particular emotion systems. The revenge plot is related to the heroic plot, but it is not underwritten by social ideology supporting the in-group’s hierarchy of authority or its autonomy (e.g., national integrity). Indeed, revenge is more appropriately set against the social necessity of law—a point made particularly clear in Aeschylus’s Eumenides. In this way, one would expect that revenge narratives would often be highly ambivalent, or even tragic.

A further, minor genre is that of criminal investigation. In some ways, this could be seen as a version of the revenge narrative, except that the offense and revenge are both understood as public or collective. The crime is against society, not an individual, and the punishment is enacted by society. This entails other differences. Emotionally, the action is not linked with attachment loss or betrayal, or with shame or humiliation. One problem with both the heroic and revenge narratives is that they involve action sustained by anger or rage, a standard response to shame or humiliation, and rage may lead to precipitate violence, thus the harming of innocents (see Walker and Knauer 725 on shame and violence; see also Scheff, and Scheff and Retzinger). This tendency is reduced in criminal investigation narratives, which may involve more deliberate and painstaking attempts to establish guilt. The principle emotion in these cases is something along the lines of indignation at antisocial behavior. This is not to say that there is no ambivalence in the criminal investigation narrative, though there is usually less ambivalence than in the other minor genres. One source of ambivalence comes with the possibility of corruption on the part of investigators—a recurring concern in this genre. This problem is compounded when the wrong person is punished for the crime, in this genre’s version of the mistaken identity motif. Another source of ambivalence is found in the recurring distinction between the hired henchmen, who are caught and punished, and the criminal masterminds, who often remain beyond the reach of the law. My inclination is to explain these recurring patterns simply by reference to things that happen cross-culturally in the real world when legal systems develop. Corruption occurs; false convictions take place; criminal bosses live in luxury while their hirelings languish in prison or die on the scaffold.

Future Research

Story genre is probably the most thoroughly investigated area in the study of literary universals. We have detailed and extensive hypotheses regarding a range of genres and the relation of these genres to one another. We also have considerable evidence for their cross-cultural recurrence. Finally, we have plausible explanations of these universals, based on—and at the same time partially extending—work in affective science, cognitive science, social psychology, and related fields. (For further discussion, see Hogan The Mind and Affective.) But this hardly means there is nothing more to be done.

First, the preceding analyses are undoubtedly mistaken in at least some respects. Even insofar as they are correct, all the preceding descriptions and explanations may be developed and extended by further research. Moreover, many of the specific claims are vague and should be made more precise. For example, what exactly is the relative frequency of the different genres, and their relative prominence? What is a good way of defining these concepts? A published work with few readers should presumably not weigh equally—even in frequency counts–with a work that is widely and repeatedly read. In connection with this, the distinction between major and minor genres should be made more precise and systematic. The study of both major and minor genres would also benefit from greater precision in determining what traditions do and do not have which genres and which versions of genres—and which do and do not have tragedy. We also need to consider what should constitute a tradition. In addition, we have treated some cross-cultural narrative motifs—types of narrative sequence that may be embedded in different genres. But clearly there are others. What are they? The same point holds for character types. Perhaps more significantly, we need to consider whether there are other cross-culturally recurring genres.

As indicated in the foregoing discussion, there are many specific questions that have arisen in relation to analyses that we have already undertaken. For example, we need to look more carefully at the relation of helping characters to social authority, to ascertain the strength of that relation, reasons for it, any variance it may have with genre, and so on. We need a better understanding of the psychology of sacrifice and reparation, both within and outside literature. Our current understanding of the motif of misrecognition seems too limited, and our explanations appear to fall short in accounting for its relation to genre. The list could be greatly extended.

Works Cited

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By: Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut