What is Plot Armor?

Batman & Darkseid

I was surprised when I ran into people who had never heard of ‘Plot Armor’.  It’s been around for a while and gets tossed about the Internet fairly often.  It shows up a lot when it comes to action adventure, superhero, horror, fantasy, and science fiction stories.  Maybe crime dramas too.  If you haven’t heard of it then you have probably seen it in action without realizing it.  So, what is it?

Plot Armor–  A character, typically main protagonist, is protected from harm and death due to being essential to the plot.  They don’t have any magical items or special skills to avoid these death-defying scenarios.  It’s simply that they’re needed for the story to keep going.

Is this a bad thing?  No because you can destroy a story by wiping out a main character.  If the story is about a hero finding an herb to save their mother then you need to keep them alive to finish that quest.  That is unless the point of the story is that they fail and the author is trying to make a dark point about helping others.  Beyond that, one tends to keep the characters safe instead of offing them on whims.  Well, that’s how it should normally go in my opinion.

Yes, I know there’s a trend of murdering characters like a serial killer and gleefully enjoying the shocking gasps of the audience. Although, even those stories have plot armor characters.  Think of any one of them and you’ll notice that there are a handful of heroes and villains who always seem to survive.  It doesn’t matter if the odds were against them because they get out either on or off page.  This is another aspect of plot armor in which a character in peril will survive regardless of the situation.  If it’s too dire then it happens out of sight with no explanation.

This is what makes plot armor so difficult and gives it a negative context.  Readers and authors look at it as lazy.  Either that you’re too afraid to kill a character or not good enough to come up with a real survival plan.  The hero simply makes it out alive and that’s it.  Both accusations can be unfair though:

  1. First, an author knows if a death will ruin the story while others might not realize the issue.  A reader could have a favorite who isn’t the main one, so they aren’t invested in the one whose existence keeps the story together.  Plot armor is almost necessary here unless you keep the hero out of danger, but then they don’t grow.  So, it becomes a double-edged sword in this scenario.  The events help explain development, but their survival can be seen as stretched.
  2. Second issue is the lack of a real survival plan.  This can be true, but it can also be a misunderstanding, especially if the hero is rescued by a third party.  The author may see this as a great introduction or return of the rescuer while a reader sees it as Deus Ex Machina level plot armor.  The hero should be dead, but this timely interference saved them.  For this, I would recommend being careful with how you get characters out of situations.  Either make them work for survival or foreshadow that they’re about to get help.

Plot armor seems to appear unconsciously.  An author rarely sets out to keep their heroes safe from harm and failure.  Those who do mistake such things for being awesome or think a few ‘arrogant events’ will cover it.  Here is where you can really see the plot armor come about because these heroes tend to be surrounded by other characters who suffer losses and die.  In this way, an author may make up for the inability to punish the hero by overdoing it with the supporting cast.  You really see the plot armor glistening in this scenario, which is why one needs to be more subtle.

Subtlety with plot armor is fairly easy.  The character can survive everything, but they can still suffer failures and fall back a bit.  Scars are acceptable results for mistakes, which makes the hero appear more realistic than a pure ideal.  Failure also means they get to do the very human activity of picking themselves back up and continuing forward.  Plot armor doesn’t have be shining and unblemished.  It can be dented and scuffed by the end of the adventure, which I think would make it more acceptable.

Have you ever heard of plot armor?  What do you think of it?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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15 Responses to What is Plot Armor?

  1. L. Marie says:

    I I hadn’t heard the term before, though I have seen the results of it. George RR Martin’s style seems to be anti-plot armor the way he kills off his characters.
    You’ve made some great points here to alleviate the penchant toward protecting a character. There are so many movies nowadays where the hero defies death in an unnatural way, thus making the stakes we’re told about seem very low. I wonder if some of that is to placate the audience who will be vocal in their negative opinions if a beloved character is hurt in some way or killed.

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    • Plot armor is actually more common in older stories where heroes always won. I think we see it otherwise because of a long run of ‘surprise death’ trends. Now, we see heroes survive even believably and think it’s a cop out. Also, most movies are Disney or try to emulate Disney, which isn’t known for killing heroes. They aim more at murdering parents in the first 10 minutes. 😁

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      • Jean Lamb says:

        Snape. After a while, I expect he’s tired of saving the lives of people who set him on fire, knock him out, try to blow up the potions class, and treat him like crap at Order meetings.

        In a slightly more real universe, Snape would blow off both sides and disappear into the Muggle world.

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      • I think I’m the only person in the world who thinks Snape was just a creepy asshole that didn’t make much sense as the series progressed. I mean, he seemed petty for hating Harry over the death of Lily then they said he really didn’t because he loved her and protected him. I mean, it kind of came off as the character starting off as being a jerk who does his job then he was altered as his popularity increased. To be fair, I’m not that attached to the series.

        By the way, do people really disrespect him in the story? The kids make sense since he’s a jerk to them and he’s a strict authority figure. His coworkers seem to treat him with respect and dignity.

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  2. noelleg44 says:

    I never heard this term before,Charles, but I’ve thrown plenty of danger, oain and woe at my character with the plot armor. I kill other darlings!

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  3. Jean Lamb says:

    The Harry Potter series abounds with plot armor in several ways–Harry is *always* rescued, and there is one character who *always* rescues the very people who spit on him, when you would think that he’d long for a vacation in sunny Spain rather than put up with it any more.

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  4. I had not heard of plot armor but have seen it in place several times. The best of the authors make the death escape very subtle, so it is very plausible. Usually, there is a pretty good reason while the antagonist has escaped. I think it is a good idea, especially if the antagonist is on a quest.

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  5. Cool term. It looks like it could be easily abused by accusers. Anytime the hero wins they could use the term dismissively. I’m sure I’ve done it without thinking about it, and probably will again. It has me thinking about it, and that’s a good thing.

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  6. It can be fun to tease readers that a main character might die, but you are right — they also want to see HOW the character escapes or battles their way through.

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