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:
- 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.
- 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?