In general, it seems risky to put your protagonist in such eminent danger that there’s a strong possibility that they could die unless you use a Deus Ex Machina or other type of trope to constantly save them. That, or Plot Armor.
Plot Armor, as defined by tvtropes.com, which I will be using for general definitions in this blog series, is:
Sometimes referred to as “Script Immunity” or a “Character Shield”, Plot Armor is when a main character’s life and health are safeguarded by the fact that he’s the one person who can’t be removed from the story. Therefore, whenever Bob is in a situation where he could be killed (or at the least very seriously injured), he comes out unharmed with no logical, In-Universe explanation.tvtropes.org
With Plot Armor a main character (or other character that falls under this trope) could go through dozens of near-death experiences without ever actually dying. Or sometimes, even getting injured.
In a way, Plot Armor is an extreme version of protecting your story from ending. If your protagonist dies, doesn’t your story die?
Sometimes. If you have only one protagonist. Other times, the story shifts to a different protagonist, which can be risky, especially if the different protagonist is a new character.
Plot Armor is only essential in the sense of your story ending if your protagonist dies. However, I think it’s important to be aware of how much your Plot Armor protects your character. For instance, if there’s an explosion, and all of your characters survive, and are covered with cuts, bruises, or even burns – except your protagonist – then you might be using the trope in excess.
Using Plot Armor in Your Fiction
- Allow your protagonist to be harmed.
- Whether it’s physical harm, or emotional and mental harm, allow your protagonist to be hurt when in difficult situations. When you protect your protagonist from harm to the point where it’s unbelievable that they were not hurt, your story can suffer in the process. Readers can tell when a protagonist is protected by Plot Armor, and they can also tell when that ‘armor’ was not necessary
- If your protagonist avoiding death is only due to Plot Armor, rethink the scene.
- Perhaps have a secondary or minor character save them at the last second. Or, maybe, rethink the dangerous situation, and make the stakes less about character death and more about something else. Perhaps the possible loss of a limb or use of a limb. Or an emotional wound such as a betrayal. Not every dangerous situation has to lead to death. If death is a constant problem for your protagonist, make sure to make their constant survival make sense to who or what they are, and not just because they’re the protagonist.
- Use Plot Armor in only the most basic sense.
- If you’re writing a series, and you have one main character, or a few, most of the time you’re going to want to continue your story with those particular characters. Using Plot Armor in the most basic sense – creating your plots to ensure their survival – makes sense for the continuity of the series, and will make sense to your readers as well. In this way, Plot Armor has it’s uses. Beyond that, Plot Armor becomes a plot device that can weaken your story.
Plot Armor in Popular Culture
- Literally any movie or book where someone is forced out into space without a spacesuit for an extended period of time (more than two minutes) and survives. Think the most recent Star Wars movie. Here is an interesting article from Scientific America.
- Many of the main characters in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. While there were deaths of main characters, they often either came back from the dead, or it was retconned later that they did not die.
- Many of the websites I read researching this post mentioned James Bond, which makes sense. In spite of his many, many close-calls, he was rarely ever actually hurt.
- Supernatural. I mean, I love this show, but it got to the point where if Sam or Dean died, I was just like, “They’ll be back”. When an audience gets used to characters dying and coming back, it lessens the impact of the death.
Write a scene where your main character is in a near-death situation. In whatever way you write the character surviving, make sure it’s as far from Plot Armor as possible. Make the rescue by other characters or the self-rescue make sense to the plot, and who they are as a character. Write about the fall-out and trauma of the character after going through that experience and how it changed them going forward.