Have you ever had a moment while watching a show or movie or reading a book and saw a character surviving something impossible? If yes, then you just witnessed a plot armor. Plot armor is the nonsensical and inconsistent part of the plot that defies the rules established in the story just to make the story work. It is when the author feels lazy and lets something unrealistic happen (according to the story’s established rules) just because he/she cannot find a sensible way to advance the story.
Most of the time, plot armor involves the main character or prominent characters surviving the impossible or doing something ridiculous and the author suggests it as “luck”. This means that there is no proper reason as to why the characters survived. Plot armor is also called script immunity or character shield and usually are present to cover plot holes.
So if you are watching a movie and the main character has been established, you can take a sigh of relief for the main character will not die. This simple requisite condition for any story to work is fine until the authors start doing reckless things just to make the story interesting. More on that later.
Is plot armor bad?
Plot armor is a very distracting oddity in any story and can bring down the quality of the story below the Mariana trench. The goal of any story, be it written or shown, is to indulge the audience or readers into it. It is to make them believe that it isn’t a fictional story. Plot armor does the exact opposite of that. It pulls the readers out of the story.
There are some genres of stories where some plot armor does not degrade the quality of the story, sometimes even increasing it. But that is only applicable to genres like parody, comedy, etc and only the plot armor is minimal and deliberate. Add too much plot armor and it’s called lazy writing, making the story boring.
Why do authors use plot armor?
If plot armor is so detrimental to the story, then why do authors use plot armor? This question begs a brief explanation. See, plot armor is a side-effect of a much more important element of any story; narrative tension.
Narrative tension is when you want to raise the stakes high and make the readers feel the tension. This cannot be done by putting minor, unimportant characters in danger because the readers have no connection with them. You make the readers interested by putting the main characters in danger. And this is where the problem starts.
Putting the main characters in a tough spot is easy, and it makes the story interesting. But getting the character out of that situation is as tough as the situation the character is in. The author must give a logical, detailed, and consistent explanation as to how the character overcame the situation (which mostly is a defying death). Failure to do so will result in plot armoring.
No matter how good a story gets, there will always be some amount of plot armor in it. But when the intensity of it is extreme and/or the plot armor occurs too often, the story crumbles under its weight.
Some examples of plot armor
All the stories have plot armor, be it books, TV shows, or movies. Even some of the greatest and most loved stories are filled with plot armors. Needless to say, there will be many spoilers ahead, so if you see the name of a book/show/movie that you are yet to watch, I’d suggest you skip it.
A Game of Thrones: Perhaps the only show in this list with so much plot armor that we won’t be able to mention it all. There’s so much plot armoring in this show that it needs a separate article. Here are some examples. Spoilers ahead:
Arya Stark is invincible: Game of Thrones was interesting because of how it kept the stakes high by killing major characters so easily. No one was safe, except Arya Stark. Even after being stabbed multiple times, almost drowning, and then getting drugged, she was able to kill her attacker. She also ran through King’s Landing when it was being pretty much nuked by a dragon. The whole city was destroyed except Arya Stark.
Also, in the scene where she kills the entire family of Walder Frey, it is never shown how an assassin (who is trained to silently kill usually a single target) was able to kill hundreds of people and cook them.
Then there are scenes where one of the White Walkers just pushes and hits Jon Snow while he has a spear and can easily kill him. And don’t get me started on the last battle with the White Walkers where all the main characters are pretty much covered with zombies yet they come out unscathed.
Harry Potter: I love the Harry Potter series. Those movies and books made my childhood magical. But just because there’s magic in the story, a lack of sensible explanation will always take the magic away. Some of the plot armor in the movies were;
Harry is the chosen one and can never die because he is the main character in the movie. We also see that Ron and Hermione have this “luck” of not dying because they are the major characters.
How Harry and Ron are punished for jeopardizing the Wizarding world by using the “flying car” over the city of London. But what about the platform “nine three quarter” which is in the middle of a busy station? Is no one seeing kids going through a solid wall? But from what I have seen in New York’s busy stations, people are so in a rush that they’ll miss something like that.
Another plot armor is how Peter Pettigrew was always with Harry and Ron and never tried to kill Harry. Peter served the Dark Lord and the Dark Lord wanted to kill Harry but he failed. So don’t you think Peter should try to do that? And what was he doing all the time? Eating snacks and living with the Weasley family?
Also, how Voldemort prevented anyone else from killing Harry because he wants to be the one to do that. But why would he knowingly do something so stupid? There’s only a tiny bit of connection between Harry and Voldemort from Voldemort’s perspective. And the Dark Lord’s ambition was to rule over the wizarding world, not to kill some teenage boy.
Batman: Both in the comics and movies we see a lot of plot armor when it comes to Batman. Batman is a very interesting character because he is a human, bound by all the mortal limitations. So it is cool to see him do the detective work, beat up thugs, and use some believable technologies. But when he is put in the ring with the likes of Doomsday or Darkseid, the plot armor starts to thicken.
Even if he wears armor made of metal, he cannot survive the impact of getting hit by a superhuman. But since he is Batman, he can do anything. And armoring the plot is one of those.
Superhero movies/shows: I don’t want to go into individual superhero movies and shows such as Ironman, Captain America, Superman, Hulk, etc because that would turn this article into a book. But here are some common plot armors in these superhero movies and shows.
How these superheroes who are very much prone to damage can suffer a collision or a blast that would at least put some hairline fractures in their bones but they remain unaffected. How Captain America prevents killing humans but kicks them with so much strength that it would put a hole in their bodies.
Ironman has a literal armor that also works as a plot armor. His suit is powered by a source that never runs out of power. And also how he manages to reach supersonic speed without feeling the crushing strength of G-force. And the most obvious; how Hulk’s pants never tear. How no one ever recognizes Clark Kent as Superman. The list goes on and on.
Anime: There are a lot of anime shows where major characters are killed just for the sake of the shock factor but then they are brought back. Shows such as Yu-Gi-Oh!, Dragon Ball Z, Sword Art Online, Naruto (Gaara and Rock Lee’s fight with Kimimaro), Seven Deadly Sins, etc. Bleach is also infamous for battles with little to no casualties.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: JBA is another popular anime with a lot of plot armors. Jotaro Kujo, the protagonist of the Stardust Crusaders chapter is capable of doing anything out of nowhere. He can elongate his finger which works like a bullet called Starfinger (How I have managed to stop myself from making a double entendre joke). He can also breathe in one of the most powerful stands which are also said to be undefeatable. And in the end, we get to know that he can also stop time.
How to plot armor can be used as an advantage.
Plot armor is not always bad. An author can use plot armor in parody form and create a brilliant story. There are multiple successful stories (movies and books) that have used this formula to present a coherent story. Usually, parody and satire stories are the ones that can benefit from an obvious plot armor.
Take Deadpool as an example. He cannot be killed. Is there any plot armor as strong and obvious as this? But here’s the thing. Deadpool does not try to be a grounded story. There’s a constant breaking of the fourth wall and the story and characters embrace the plot armor.
Take another example; the popular anime One Punch Man. Saitama (One Punch Man) is this unbeatable, indestructible superhero who is not affected by anything. The plot armor is used as a character trope where the main character is unbeatable. This creates new opportunities to explore the story and psychologies of the characters. And from what I’ve seen, One Punch Man is an extremely interesting and fun anime.
The bottom line is this: Plot armor is used when the author cannot properly provide a believable explanation for the unbelievable survival of the main character. This happens when the author wants to raise the stakes and make the story tense but fails to provide the means for it.
There are some stories like superhero stories, slapstick comedy, etc where plot armor will seep in, no matter how well the author writes the story. But unless and until the plot armor is painfully obvious and consistently present at crucial moments of the story, it won’t be a big issue.
How to avoid plot armor
Plot armor may be a necessary evil that is almost impossible to eliminate. But there are some ways you can reduce it to a minimum, taking the useful bits of it and discarding the detrimental parts.
The first and most effective way of avoiding plot armor is never to put the main characters (who are not going to be killed) into very dangerous situations. If the danger is moderate and a normal human can overcome it, then the readers will understand it. Always have a sensible, believable escape route for the main characters.
Never make “luck” as the explainer. If you don’t give any reason for the miraculous escape of the main character from a deadly situation. If there is a lack of explanation, it will be considered as plot armor and luck won’t be with you as an author.
Subvert the expectation by killing a major character who has been building for a long time. While you still need the main character to survive and the story to progress, killing some important characters (like the novels A Song of Ice and Fire) will introduce the tension in the readers without the risk of adding plot armor.
Make the main character fail now and then. Do not make him/her invincible. Show the readers that the protagonist does commit mistakes and has to pay for them. Then gradually make it a learning curve for the protagonist so that in the final battle, he/she can be a deserving winner.
This was all about plot armor and how it can be detrimental for your story and for your writing career. There are certainly some ways to use plot armor and in many genres like fantasy, plot armor is necessary up to a certain degree. Hope this article helped. If you want to know more about writing, here are some great articles for that. Take a look:
- How to create the best setting for your story: A Guide
- The major elements in a story: From the most important to the least
- Here are some of the most used character tropes and ways to give them a fresh twist…