Have you ever read a book where a character survives injuries that should have caused severe damage?
Are they able to walk away from combat wholly unscathed?
Do they inexplicably make it out alive of something that would have surely killed anyone who is not a fictional character landing in the safety net that is suspension of disbelief?
Chances are, they're wearing plot armor.
Plot armor refers to how characters manage to come out of dangerous scenarios with minimal damage if any because they need to be kept alive for the sake of the plot.
For example, a character might fall a good distance and manage to shake it off, walking away with only a few bruises and scratches from the impact.
If your story revolves around a particular character, their ending up in a cast or worse would make embarking on an epic quest to save the realm a little more challenging if not stall the plot entirely.
For example, let's say someone ends up in a non-fatal car crash. In a real-life example, the person might have some broken bones and be really shaken up, likely en route to the ER in an ambulance. Fictionally speaking, a protagonist might have a few bruises and a concussion but, by some miracle, may even be able to speak with police on the scene, calm and composed as they do so.
Plot armor comes in a variety of thicknesses.
The heaviest and sturdiest is given to protagonists since the story depends on them to keep going. At the center of the action and driving the plot forth as they run into the fray, these folks typically take minimal damage.
Secondary characters may have some plot armor because of their proximity to the main character, and how much damage they can withstand might relate to their specific role. A love interest might have increasingly strong armor to ensure the characters end up together when the dust settles, while the frienemy might have theirs chipped away over time as their relationship with the main character crumbles.
And then you have your "Redshirts," who don't get to live long and prosper, so to speak. They're dispensable characters whose job is solely to prove the validity of threats or perilous environments, usually ending up dead or worse—so the MC can learn about the danger lying ahead without experiencing it for themselves.
Plot armor lets your characters take risks and go on adventures people in real life could only dream of. Fear of harm can still be prevalent, but they won't sustain any damage what would inhibit their carrying on.
In some instances, however, characters can be garbed in too much plot armor—and that can cause a few problems.
Too much plot armor can feel unbelievable. Readers might be left thinking yeah, right after the hero takes a punch in the jaw like a playful flick on the chin simply because they're a strong hero type or when a character walks out of something that should have absolutely killed them.
Suspension of disbelief can only protect your character from so much.
A reduced worry of the character meeting an untimely demise can lessen the stakes. Readers might assume a protagonist entering into combat on page 184 of 309 will take a few hits but will make it out well enough to carry on. They may not worry about their fate because there's still so much story to tell and there's probably no way the story could continue without the protagonist.
Playing with the liberties of fiction while also being reasonably realistic is a delicate balance to maintain.
In this post, we're looking at ways to make sure your characters' plot armor does its job without going overboard—and why that armor should be a little rusted.
Make It Make Sense
In fiction, it's not uncommon to find characters capable of doing more than the average joe despite their being an average joe. They might sprint five miles without losing their breath or lift a hundred pounds without breaking a sweat.
You can chalk some of it up to adrenaline in tense situations. But when your character is simply going about their day or hasn't undergone any significant training yet, seeing them perform these feats without significant difficulty can come across as unbelievable.
Contextualizing plot armor as it relates to your characters and their world can blur the lines between the reader's reality and that of your story.
Superman has a host of abilities including flight, super strength, speed, and is virtually untouchable (a point I'll be circling back to later in this post). The Man of Steel's abilities, were he presented just as Clark Kent, would come off as being unrealistic to a lot of us. But because we know his origins on Krypton and know he isn't one of us, we can accept he is capable of such things. We don't have to question it the way we would be tilting our heads at just-Clark-Kent performing the same feats.
On a similar note, it's almost a running joke that films starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson need to give his character a justifiable backstory accounting for having his physique, usually being involved with the Armed Forces or a similar field in the past.
Hypothetically, if he were cast in a typical Hallmark Christmas movie as a bakery owner in a small New England town, there would likely be a line saying he was in the Navy for thirty years to explain why this cinnamon roll character is so buff.
If someone like Patrick Dempsey were in the same role, this Navy backstory would not need to be present, at least not for the same reason.
Characters can be strong physically and do incredible things—especially when they are fictional and not stuck with the limitations many of us face.
But when they go beyond what is considered believable, it can cause a disconnect.
Offering an explanation can smooth this out. This could be a magic system, training, or simply their upbringing. If you have a character jumping to a distant ledge, you could reveal they took ballet growing up.
Granted, some people are practically built for athleticism. There's a clip of Michael Phelps that aired during Olympics coverage that analyzed his wingspan and how far his shoulders could rotate.
In short, it's no surprise he won as many medals as he did during his Olympics years. He was quite literally made for swimming.
That's not the case for everyone, however. For many, it can take considerable practice to hone in their skills, including those that help them bulk up their plot armor enough to make it out of sticky if not life-threatening situations.
Which brings me to my next point...
Zero To Hero In 3.5
Stories following an underdog or characters in situations where they need to toughen up physically to take on the conflict at hand can sometimes feel rushed. It's not as easy to include a training montage in a book compared to a movie.
Sometimes, a character will go from a scrawny little weakling hardly capable of lifting twenty pounds to becoming a force to be reckoned with in a matter of pages, with little time spent explaining how this happened. There might be a throwaway line of how they trained, but it can feel too quick to be believed.
This can be a side effect of plot armor. Not only is this character able to withstand significant blows without consequence, it doesn't take more than a few days for them to get into shape.
Divergent is a fair example of building up a character's plot armor.
When Tris leaves Abnegation and joins the Dauntless faction, she is among the weaker initiates. She often loses fights and struggles with some of the training exercises whereas those born into Dauntless excel.
By the end of the first book, she improves her skills and is able to climb through the ranks, earning her place in the faction.
It doesn't happen overnight.
Tris remarks on the aches throughout her body and needing to purchase new clothes later on because the changes in her muscles mean she can no longer fit into her old ones.
While there is some suspension of disbelief at play, as the span between the Choosing Ceremony and the end of training is only a few weeks, the gradual progression of Tris's strength is done in a way that feels makes it seem believable.
And more importantly, it feels earned.
Readers see how much she's put into it, her struggles compared to initiates who grew up in Dauntless and spent their whole lives strength-training and jumping from moving trains as if it were child's play.
Spend more than a couple pages describing the process of building up their plot armor. Get into their head and explore how they're handling it emotionally. Go into how they're feeling physically.
Even when there isn't much time for your character to build up their skills, you can show the progression, making their newfound capabilities not just impressive, but plausible.
Giving Plot Armor Rust
As is the case with flawless love interests in romantic fiction, characters with impervious plot armor can make them harder to connect to. We don't have to worry about them entering perilous situations because we know they won't be harmed too badly and therefore might struggle to invest in their story.
When there are no stakes, we don't care.
So how do we as writers make our readers give two sticks about characters without completely stripping them of their plot armor?
Give them weaknesses.
Circling back to Superman, as promised.
For all his powers, Superman is not immune to every threat.
Kryptonite's radiation weakens Kryptonians and can even kill them—Superman included.
We are so familiar with kryptonite, to the point it's a synonym in everyday conversation for weaknesses. Be it cupcakes, cigarettes, or tuning in for yet another episode of trash reality TV, we all have things that we feel make us weak. Though not necessarily as intense of a threat to us as a radiating mineral, it makes Superman relatable. He, too, is not immune to everything.
And, more importantly, it establishes a feeling of suspense. When there is kryptonite around, we cannot be entirely confident in Superman's fate. His making it out alive is no longer guaranteed. It creates this chance of his defeat that has us pulling comics up to our noses or leaning on the very edge of our seats as we worry for him.
Loosening your character's plot armor, finding things that can do them harm, humanizes them. It connects them to the reader. Even when they need to be wearing it to advance the story, find ways to break and break it a bit.
Give it some rust.
Characters in fiction have abilities that us readers do not. They aren't tethered to the confinements of reality that we are. Going on epic quests, learning magic, or just being good at something is all within the realm of possibility for them.
A lot of this has to do with plot armor. That invisible forcefield granting protagonists a level of immunity in the face of danger. Injuries are not as severe and recovery is swift.
As much of a lifesaver as plot armor can be for your main character, it can all spell doom for your story.
That doesn't mean you need to strip your characters of plot armor. Rather, craft it in a way that gives them a reasonable amount of protection.
Let your character's plot armor be a little rusty. That will make them stronger in the end.