Plot armour.


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Thread: Plot armour.

  1. #1

    Plot armour.

    We have all seen this both in movies, as well as books where time and again the main characters or primary protagonist seems
    to be insulated from any kind of harm. While I get the fact that some characters are obviously important to make it to the end
    for the plot's sake, why make them almost invulnerable?

    Some superhero movies are good at showing how the hero can take a beating and almost die, yet make a comeback in the most
    agonizing way possible. In my opinion, it makes the character more relatable to ourselves, and we can better empathize with
    them and get behind them.

    When I create/write for a character, they are no way invulnerable even if they are the hero or protagonist. Examples:

    - The protagonist in my 'Urban Sentinel' series (a vigilante) has nearly died on a couple occasions, and this has given
    him pause as to how fragile he really is. Both instances served to 'bring him back down to Earth' so to speak and help him
    to look at problems he faces from a different direction.
    - Darius (my protagonist from 'Darksword') came up against a foe in one installment that he could have killed and ended
    the danger. Because he will not do something dishonourable, he chose to take extreme damage, and ended up sacrificing his
    own life to save everyone else. (He was later brought back by the Gods for his selfless act)
    - I always try to keep the human element as part of the story, so as not to have the reader at some point go, "Oh this. Yup,
    the hero will somehow come out unscathed, and bye bye baddie!" I see this as bad writing and too easy an out. Much
    character development can come from extreme perils, and a great deal of injury to the hero.

    I am interested to know what everyone thinks of 'plot armour' and the tools the rest of you use to keep your characters
    relatable, and how they grow in the process.

    -JJB
    ​"Strong convictions precede great actions....."

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  2. #2
    As readers, we all know it's rare for protagonists to get killed off, although some writers create a group of protagonists so they can kill some off without completely deep-sixing the story. Our typical strategy is to put characters in a dangerous situation that only heroics of a surprise nature rescue them from, hopefully without resorting to coincidence or deus ex machina.

    My first novel follows a group of characters, but two main ones ... the leader of a mercenary organization based in a haunted castle, and a young man who comes to the castle hoping to join up. The leader of the group, easily the "alpha hero" in the book, leads members of a mission into an ambush and takes a crippling cut across the leg. In the second book, he's still lame, demands a quick fix because of an emergency, is warned it's a bad idea, and winds up even more lame than before. He'll probably stay lame for as long as the series lasts. In the first book, another heroic character gets drugged unconscious, and is only saved by the heroics of his steed. He wakes up to find his deceased enemy with a horseshoe imprint on his face. Another character gets ridden down by a group of enemies, is in a coma for days, saved only by the herbal remedies of his elven partner. In that same battle, a second tier character is killed by a lance, and the "good guys" unit takes heavy casualties.

    Early in the first book, an assassin meant for the leader kills one of the mercenaries in a way that emphasizes his expertise, so when he then encounters the leader for a sword fight, hopefully the reader is concerned. This is actually a fairly typical device in books and movies to worry the reader. Kill off a supporting character and then have the hero face that same danger.

    My most popular way to "save" my protagonists is to drop hints along in the book that give the reader an idea of things which could happen, then bring those things into play in unexpected ways. In the manuscript I just finished, the hero faces a villain he doesn't have the tools to defeat ... who almost killed him once already. I then use a device I've shown the reader three times before to trap the villain, but (hopefully) in a way the reader doesn't anticipate. In fact, I used it in another unanticipated way just before the climactic encounter so the reader might think that was it's purpose all along, and not expect it again. So I haven't pulled a rabbit out of the hat. If I did it right, the reader is wondering why they didn't think of that themselves.

    I believe the most important thing is to mix it up. Never use the same "save" twice, and try to avoid "saves" you've seen a lot in books you read. You can't have the cavalry ride over the hill. You can't have the hero suddenly display a hitherto unknown ability. Display the tools, then use them in a surprising way. If the reader is too busy being impressed at how clever the solution is, the last thing they're thinking about is plot armor.

    Plus, they don't really want the hero(s) to die, anyway.

  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by JJBuchholz View Post
    We have all seen this both in movies, as well as books where time and again the main characters or primary protagonist seems
    to be insulated from any kind of harm. While I get the fact that some characters are obviously important to make it to the end
    for the plot's sake, why make them almost invulnerable?
    I consider this generally the hallmark of bad writing, or at least lazy/amateurish writing.

    It's not the principle that's the problem, though. It makes sense for the protagonist to have some form of 'plot armor'. Otherwise, in a critical, dangerous moment they will die or be maimed and then no story. So obviously this exists. It needs to exist.

    The problem is when, like you illustrate, it's detectable by the reader. The whole Rambo/James Bond/Indiana Jones type ridiculousness. And superheroes, sure. Well, I guess in certain types of media this kind of goes with the territory. But I don't think readers like it much.

    One reason the Game Of Thrones series and books were so popular is there was a strong sense that ANY of the major characters could die at ANY moment for ANY reason, even an infuriating one. Martin made that sort of his trademark.

    It shouldn't be a trademark though. It should be the norm, or at least common enough. I think it would lead to better plotting and certainly better characterization. I don't want to know who lives and dies in the first few pages. I want to feel my character's mortality, even if they are the hero.
    Deactivated due to staff trolling. Bye!

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by luckyscars View Post
    I consider this generally the hallmark of bad writing, or at least lazy/amateurish writing.

    It's not the principle that's the problem, though. It makes sense for the protagonist to have some form of 'plot armor'. Otherwise, in a critical, dangerous moment they will die or be maimed and then no story. So obviously this exists. It needs to exist.

    The problem is when, like you illustrate, it's detectable by the reader. The whole Rambo/James Bond/Indiana Jones type ridiculousness. And superheroes, sure. Well, I guess in certain types of media this kind of goes with the territory. But I don't think readers like it much.

    One reason the Game Of Thrones series and books were so popular is there was a strong sense that ANY of the major characters could die at ANY moment for ANY reason, even an infuriating one. Martin made that sort of his trademark.

    It shouldn't be a trademark though. It should be the norm, or at least common enough. I think it would lead to better plotting and certainly better characterization. I don't want to know who lives and dies in the first few pages. I want to feel my character's mortality, even if they are the hero.
    You know what rolls my eyes even worse? Characters who have plot armor, but the author is so determined to show the reader how dangerous life is, they ignore things the hero can do and make the hero look stupid ... or make themselves look bad. You can't ignore things the reader already knows the character has available. The author has to craft situations which make those tools useless or inadequate, not simply ignore them.
    Last edited by vranger; March 3rd, 2021 at 12:22 AM.

  5. #5
    Member JBF's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JJBuchholz View Post
    While I get the fact that some characters are obviously important to make it to the end
    for the plot's sake, why make them almost invulnerable?
    Short answer: lack of confidence or skill as pertains to the writer.

    A competent writer can start a character lucky, but they'll understand that anybody who's going to be front and center in dangerous situations is going to be tough, smart, or skilled enough to justify their continued existence.

    The more they rely on intangibles for a character's survival, the less likely I am to finish reading.

    I am interested to know what everyone thinks of 'plot armour' and the tools the rest of you use to keep your characters
    relatable, and how they grow in the process.
    I kill my protag. Twice. At the end of the first book.

  6. #6
    The plot armour debate is silly. Do you know what makes most stories fun to read? The protagonist lives, but only after they've gone through a story that entertains. No shit, Sherlock.
    Craft / Draft / Graft And Write To Entertain.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by TheMightyAz View Post
    The plot armour debate is silly. Do you know what makes most stories fun to read? The protagonist lives, but only after they've gone through a story that entertains. No shit, Sherlock.
    I think the contentious part is how obvious it is and what effect, if any, that has on the overall experience.

    In a movie like Indiana Jones, we know Indiana Jones is going to get out of the snake-ridden temple. The only really major question --where the creativity lies -- is how.

    You can absolutely write that way, plenty of authors do, it just means you're putting all your proverbial eggs into the basket of 'how' the scene happens rather than what it means. In other words, you already know the conclusion, or at least the most important aspect of it -- the hero triumphs. We just want to see him sling the whip and bust through the snake-infested wall. I am watching that scene to see the snake-infested wall.

    The real issue arises when the book or movie in question isn't as well-written as Indiana Jones. Then you have not only a lack of mystery about the fate of the characters but not a whole lot of interesting 'journey'.

    I call it lazy writing because it isn't usually necessary. It has been proven over and over that a single invincible protagonist who is present, prominent and untouchable from Chapter One through Fifty is not usually necessary. Often, protagonists can change through the narrative. So can antagonists. Compare who the protagonists were at the start of Game Of Thrones versus it's ending and I can't think of many who didn't 'rise and fall'...or vice versa.

    I consider that good writing. I consider that good writing because it more closely mirrors real life. There are no consistent heroes in real life. The very existence of 'heroes' and 'villains' has always been a literary conceit. Like 'faster than light' travel or 'love at first sight', the idea of a person who is consistently on the right side of the equation has always been a necessary lie.

    But, let's say it was necessary. Even if plot armor must exist (and I allow that it should) the idea that it should be something the reader is well-aware of while reading, to me, indicates some level of failure. It's a failure of suspension of disbelief because I am now considering the book from a meta standpoint. I mean, yeah you can do that for anything, but it shouldn't be a distraction, which is essentially what OP is stating.
    Deactivated due to staff trolling. Bye!

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by luckyscars View Post
    I think the contentious part is how obvious it is and what effect, if any, that has on the overall experience.

    In a movie like Indiana Jones, we know Indiana Jones is going to get out of the snake-ridden temple. The only really major question --where the creativity lies -- is how.

    You can absolutely write that way, plenty of authors do, it just means you're putting all your proverbial eggs into the basket of 'how' the scene happens rather than what it means. In other words, you already know the conclusion, or at least the most important aspect of it -- the hero triumphs. We just want to see him sling the whip and bust through the snake-infested wall. I am watching that scene to see the snake-infested wall.

    The real issue arises when the book or movie in question isn't as well-written as Indiana Jones. Then you have not only a lack of mystery about the fate of the characters but not a whole lot of interesting 'journey'.

    I call it lazy writing because it isn't usually necessary. It has been proven over and over that a single invincible protagonist who is present, prominent and untouchable from Chapter One through Fifty is not usually necessary. Often, protagonists can change through the narrative. So can antagonists. Compare who the protagonists were at the start of Game Of Thrones versus it's ending and I can't think of many who didn't 'rise and fall'...or vice versa.

    I consider that good writing. I consider that good writing because it more closely mirrors real life. There are no consistent heroes in real life. The very existence of 'heroes' and 'villains' has always been a literary conceit. Like 'faster than light' travel or 'love at first sight', the idea of a person who is consistently on the right side of the equation has always been a necessary lie.

    But, let's say it was necessary. Even if plot armor must exist (and I allow that it should) the idea that it should be something the reader is well-aware of while reading, to me, indicates some level of failure. It's a failure of suspension of disbelief because I am now considering the book from a meta standpoint. I mean, yeah you can do that for anything, but it shouldn't be a distraction, which is essentially what OP is stating.
    But only one side of the debate has garnered a negative identification. Does killing some of your main characters have a negative label? No. And that's the problem. Debates like this can only lead to thinking what they're doing is wrong in some way, forcing writers to see what they're doing as negative or start adding characters simply so they can kill them off to avoid the 'plot armour' accusations. It's too one sided. Let's imagine eventually all authors decide they're not going to have 'plot armour' due to the pressure of being accused of having 'plot armour'. What do you have then? A new cliche. Everyone guessing who's going to die next. It's the blue shirts in Star Trek but on a monumental scale.

    Writing Game Of Thrones is GREAT. Writing James Bond is GREAT. There's nothing wrong with either.

    What matters is the journey, the trials and tribulations, how events change the protagonist/antagonist, the twists and turns, the unforeseen.
    Craft / Draft / Graft And Write To Entertain.

  9. #9
    Member JBF's Avatar
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    You could fairly make the argument that plot armor short-circuits the point of storytelling.

    It's no sin for readers to know that the protag will still be among the living when the last page rolls around. I know a fair numbers of readers who won't, for whatever reason, pick up a book where they know the main character doesn't make it. Seems odd to me; sometimes the story demands the blood of the hero to be a satisfying journey and all that. In that kind of the book, whether knowing or expecting that the hero does make it...like Lucky says, we're along to see the how.

    This is why people love Q's gadgetry in the Bond franchise. We know that the flamethrower ring or the exploding sandwich is going to bear on the plot somehow. Finding out how Bond uses it (whether or not it's the intended use) is part of the appeal. We also know that Bond is certain to face enemies who hold trump cards of their own, and watching him figure a way out when it all goes sideways isn't plot armor even when we know he survives. The threat is assumed (usually by demonstrating on under-performing henchmen, other double-0 agents, or Bond's outside associates) and we watch to see him succeed where another failed.

    Having the hero alive at the end because they're sharp, prepared, and able to deal with the unforeseen is what we pay for in that circumstance.

    Having the hero alive at the end because they're impervious to hazard and comfortably above danger is why we sometimes throw things.

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by JBF View Post
    You could fairly make the argument that plot armor short-circuits the point of storytelling.

    It's no sin for readers to know that the protag will still be among the living when the last page rolls around. I know a fair numbers of readers who won't, for whatever reason, pick up a book where they know the main character doesn't make it. Seems odd to me; sometimes the story demands the blood of the hero to be a satisfying journey and all that. In that kind of the book, whether knowing or expecting that the hero does make it...like Lucky says, we're along to see the how.

    This is why people love Q's gadgetry in the Bond franchise. We know that the flamethrower ring or the exploding sandwich is going to bear on the plot somehow. Find out how Bond uses it (whether or not it's the intended use) is part of the appeal. We also know that Bond is certain to face enemies who hold trump cards of their own, and watching him figure a way out when it all goes sideways isn't plot armor even when we know he survives. The threat is assumed (usually by demonstrating on under-performing henchmen, other double-0 agents, or Bond's outside associates) and we watch to see him succeed where another failed.

    Having the hero alive at the end because they're sharp, prepared, and able to deal with the unforeseen is what we pay for in that circumstance.
    Having the hero alive at the end because they're impervious to hazard and comfortably above danger is why we sometimes throw things.
    Well, exactly. My objections to questions like this are there's never an alternative negative spin. We're drawn into a discussion with only one inevitable conclusion, hence the end and locking of 'another' thread recently. Of course you're going to do all you can to make the survival of your main character/s as viable as possible, even if it's sometimes extraordinary and relatively impossible in the real world, such as James Bond. You create that world. You create the rules for your world. If it's consistent, it works, if it's not, it doesn't. That's ALL you need to consider when writing a Game Of Thrones or a James Bond.

    If you don't, it ends up being a destructive conversation.
    Craft / Draft / Graft And Write To Entertain.

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