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Don't annoy your readers, Part 4. Plot Armor.

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

There are some pretty fine lines at times between plot armor, world building and genre, so before we dive into them, let's define plot armor.

Plot Armor

Plot Armor: A phenomenon in fiction whereby a main character is allowed to survive dangerous situations because they are needed for the plot to continue.

This can be done to the primary protagonist, the antagonist, secondary characters, love interests, anyone.

Why do I say that this is a surprisingly fine line? Shouldn’t it stand out as obvious when an author or creator of a story bends the rules to make someone live? Yes and no. The author is the god of their world, they bend the rules, make the rules and determine what is going to happen all the time. Readers don’t need much to suspend disbelief, so long as it is in line with the genre’s expectations and the book’s expectations set up to that point.

Some particularly bad plot armor happens in comic books:

Broken Catwoman's foot anyone?

There are scenes from a justice league comic in which Cat Woman, a non-superpowered individual takes out three versions of the Flash, simultaneously. To accept this, we must believe she can punch and kick faster than Mach 1, and has no harm from impacting a moving mass at the other end of such an acceleration. It breaks the rules of the comic book world that was established.

Here is another from the same. Harlequin escaped from Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman all at once. Wonder woman, who can be hit by superman and keep on fighting, gets knocked off balance and taken back by an average size woman. This is passed off by saying she is as good as Bruce. Which brings up a secondary point we are trying to make.

Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman Foiled...

Why is Bruce Wayne, as Batman, going toe to toe with these super gods not plot armor?

Well, it is plot armor, but its plot armor woven into the story structure such that it has literally become world building and lore. Entire story lines have been written about how Batman would try to fight the entire justice league. Insane of course, but that’s the world building and people accept it. So, there are lines that are not 100 % clear.

The plot armor holes above are pointed out by other readers too. They annoy people, but perhaps not everyone. It is what keeps some readers out of certain comic book franchises and focused on more other comics.

Examples abound: Sterling Archer is a character built out of the tropes of plot armor. Walking Dead is replete with statistical plot armor. They should all have died.

Even the seminal work of modern fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, is replete with just enough “almost,” to make a person have a moment’s thought. While no one of Frodo Baggin’s close calls are enough to make you call plot armor, it is possible to ask the question in aggregate:

He is almost killed on the way to Bree by Nazgul, almost stabbed in his sleep in Bree, almost killed by Nazgul at weather top, almost killed by Nazgul on way to Rivendell, almost killed by Morgul Blade's poison, almost eaten by Guardian of the Waters… He decides to keep on traveling and then… is almost skewered by a cave troll, almost killed by insurmountable numbers of orcs in Dwarrowdelf, almost falls off the stairs in Khazad-dum, almost is killed by a Balrog, almost gets killed by Uruk-Hai, almost gets captured by Uruk-Hai, almost drowned in the Dead Marshes, almost discovered by Nazgul fly-by in Dead Marshes, almost got discovered by Easterlings outside Black Gate, is almost devoured by Shelob… and I’m only half way through…

So why do we accept this as NOT plot armor? Part of it is the genre. Fantasy as an offshoot of mythology is there to show people being heroes and heroines, and overcoming odds and doing what we can’t, to grow and save the world or create it as we know it. It gave opportunity for character growth and frankly, was just better written than some plot armor, so… we go along with it. To a degree all literature is this. It is a small false reality we use to escape or learn or discover, filled with the fantastical in every genre.

But these examples have focused on the good guys. What about villains? Entire horror movie franchises have been built on the plot armor of the villains. Freddy Krueger, and Michael Meyers and Jason Vorhees are guaranteed to come back until we stop giving them our money. We expect this as part of the genre to a degree.

The same is true of action pieces. Indiana Jones has survived based entirely on plot armor. Sure, he is fast thinking and experienced, but we are even offered a scene of someone who is better trained failing at the very task Indiana Jones just succeeded at. The soldier dies when he tries to climb under a moving truck, as well he should. Why do we accept this? Because action protagonists and pulp action ones specifically are expected to have plot armor in their genre.

Indiana Jones Plot Armor

After these examples, what is my point?

Know your genre.

Pay attention in your genre to what constitutes plot armor and avoid it when you can. Understanding that you have to cleave to the rules as closely as your genre expects and the rules you have set in your world. Anything else, lacks verisimilitude.

Always remember, writers write. Go get writing.

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