I hear this discussed a lot and used in many YouTube Videos, articles, and reviews when talking about fiction, usually in conjunction with how “believable” either the story was or the character involved. So what exactly IS “Plot Armor”, and why is it so important to understand?
Let’s start with some basics: At some point in writing about characters, especially heroes, they are going to have to use their wits, their guts, and their skills to save the day. Good writers manage to make it all seem plausible… and as the audience, we suspend our disbelief. This is typically when we don’t see “plot armor” be apparent around a character because the method the character used to get through their jam made sense according to the setting and what we know of the character.
However, when circumstances in the plot seem to bend in order to get the character through their jam, it becomes obvious that the writer is protecting the character; when it’s done BADLY though, we can’t suspend our disbelief. The plot armor is so obvious that it takes us OUT of the experience, and we might become resentful for it.
For instance, this is Arnold in “Commando”:
He’s one guy with no support, cover, camouflage, body armor, or cover of darkness. He’s fighting about 300 trained soldiers with automatic weapons, and he’s mowing them down, while none of these soldiers hit him… ever. This is a good example of plot armor that was so overused in 80’s action films that even if it got a pass then, it typically gets a big eyeroll now. This is a signature example of “plot armor”, when there is no logical reason for this to work and suddenly, all the supposedly somewhat capable soldiers who are also firing guns can’t seem to land a single hit.
This is Rey in “The Force Awakens”:
She’s been captured by the villains, the First Order, and because the writers want her to escape, she’s suddenly pulls off a Jedi Mind Trick… despite never having even heard of one before. For references, that would be like spontaneously developing the knowledge on how to pull off a perfect jump spin kick, weave an expertly crafted rug, or solve complex algebra when you’ve only ever heard of martial arts, rug weaving, and numbers.
We had six movies that pounded into the audience that people could be Force Sensitive, but that mastery of The Force required training and hard work, even for exceptionally powerful or talented pupils. That makes this scene stick out in a really bad way as a contrivance to get Rey out of her predicament.
This character only got shot or wounded in the shoulder, which means they are hardly hurt, it’s not life threatening, and they can keep going.
Strangely, this is so common in TV and Film that people don’t even post pictures of it on the internet. But I’m sure you can think of many, many, MANY examples. This is an example of plot armor that is so common it almost never rings a bell for the audience or takes them out of their suspension because we are conditioned to give it a pass. Except, of course, to people who have been seriously wounded in the shoulder, who roll their eyes and shake their head. Or if you’re me, because I’m seriously critical of that writing technique.
I think of it as, “the Hollywood Shoulder Wound,” which is almost a universal cop out in fiction writing to “wound” your character so that they still seem mortal, yet somehow are still okay. That’s not true to life at all, but it’s so ingrained in fiction we actually suspend our disbelief and give it a pass… even when we probably shouldn’t.
(Note: If you’re going to wound your character, please try not to make it a shoulder wound. Be more creative.)
Plot armor falls into a few different categories:
- The situation, circumstance, event, or device that would normally kill a character in reality… now does not.
- The laws of the universe bend to give this character success when otherwise, they would fail. Extreme luck can be an example of this. (Think: Hitting things to make them work.)
- The characters spontaneously generate skill or expertise that they normally would not, should not, or could not have in order for the plot to keep moving forward.
These are just a few examples. Bad guys who were shown as ruthless suddenly become incompetent, or mobs of goons who wait around to fight the good guy one-on-one, or seemingly are taken out by some crazy circumstance.
One of my favorites is, “hitting it to make it work”.
Mary McFly famously headbutts the steering wheel of the DeLorean out of frustration at that end of the film when it won’t start… and suddenly, it does. Headbutts don’t typically fix mechanical issues.
Another one is when a non-expert diffuses a bomb, lands a plane, or delivers a baby. Some of these things *might* be possible, but in each situation, we’re demanding a lot from the audience in terms of their suspension of disbelief.
Most video game characters are layered in plot armor. Mostly because they have to be; video games are about trial-and-error, combined with a fantasy of being in that character’s situation or shoes. Instantly dying and not being able to continue playing the game is a serious bummer, so plot armor is typically built-in to keep the player going despite the circumstances. So, plot armor when tied to gameplay mechanics typically are usually acceptable to make the game more interesting or keep a more exciting pace.
Regenerating health? Shields? Super Strength? Super Durability? Yeah… we pretty much just run with it.
A lot of modern fiction revolves around the “super” hero: Someone who, despite the odds, manages to overcome what’s ahead of them. Video Games tend to have a lot of plot armor baked in that is easy to understand, so I like bringing it up as a way to show that not all plot armor is bad; the key difference is whether the armor the writers have given the character(s) is BELIEVABLE to the setting the story is taking place in. Even video games have their fair share of missing the mark and screwing it up, and it’s typically for the same reason a TV show, movie, or novel might fail: He writer(s) take too big a leap in logic and simply push the character through a bad moment in the plot by protecting the character from what should have ended their story.
A little bit of plot armor isn’t a bad thing. Batman getting the stuffing beat out of him in a comic book and in the next issue, patrolling the streets of Gotham with only a little wear-and-tear helps the story and fits the genre. But Batman finding out a way to punch out a god? Now we’re really pushing it, especially if that character is known for fighting insane people in Gotham, not invincible extra-terrestrials with the power to destroy planets.
If you’re writing your story, stick to what is believable to the setting. Obi-Wan needs to save Luke in a bar fight because Luke doesn’t know how to fight, AND because protecting Luke is exactly what a kind, older mentor would do for his new pupil. Rey escaping captivity in the most hardened facility in the universe by herself, using Force powers she never even knew existed, with no explanation as to how is pushing it, and the audience will likely take the wrong kind of notice.
Let’s wrap this up and summarize: Plot armor is a mixed bag. As a writer or audience member, there’s a certain amount of suspension of disbelief that we should adhere to when writing or viewing fiction. That’s all part of the fun.
Plot armor really only becomes “bad” when it’s used really badly and no matter how much you suspend your disbelief, you still can’t justify what you’re watching.