Have you heard of Plot Armour? (also called, according to Dr. Google, script immunity or a character shield) Plot armour is the idea that because a main character is the main character a reader never really has to feel truly worried about their health and wellbeing because obviously the story isn’t going to abruptly end with them getting ganked halfway through.
While it obviously tends to apply to more action adventure type genres, similar concepts can be applied for romances and general fiction too, i.e. the idea that you never have too worry too much about say the MC ending up alone, unsuccessful or whatever because the story is about them right?
But back to action, plot armour is the bain of many an aspiring writer because action a common element in our writing, and putting the MC in harms way seems the obvious choice for good action. But is it? I’m going to talk about some ways plot armour can be avoided or otherwise managed to still create a tense story.
The GRR Martin approach.
It just wouldn’t be a good discussion about the danger of main characters without mentioning this brilliant author. Martin is somewhat renowned for killing of characters, favoured and unfavoured. And while one of his claimed intents was to make a reader truly worry about their MC its important to note that this isn’t just achieved by being merciless with one’s characters. Martin’s deadly writing is about more than just being willing to slaughter characters on page, after all there are many sprawling epic fantasies that do the same (but are no-where near as popular) where Martin differs is that he puts immaculate effort into the intertwined actions of the characters in Game of Thrones so it would be inaccurate to say characters are killed randomly, while Martin subverts many genre tropes his character deaths are planned and meaningful (unlike say Lost where actors quit the show so characters had to be axed to suit).
I guess my point is that The Song of Fire and Ice series is probably an exception to the rule of plot armour only in part because of careful intricate plotting across many characters and many books, not all stories can afford to be bloated with multiple MC’s or installments so my advice is not to emulate Martin just to avoid plot armour.
So what else is there?
Death isn’t the only tension
A problem I see in many less awesome action driven plots is that danger and fights are presented simplistically as a risk to the Main Character – for example most superhero fights – there is a reason that many action flicks include a damsel in distress, hostage situations or bombs about to explode in populated areas.
My point is that not all stakes should be danger to the MC, not only will the natural inclination of the reader be to assume that they will survive (as the MC) but also repetitive stakes get boring. Having nuanced consequences makes for good storytelling anyway. For example in many movie fight scenes element of time-limits are included in a conflict, cheesy as it often seems it successfully adds tension because plot armour doesn’t aways mean that the MC will defeat their foes quickly.
(admittedly there probably needs to be some term like “plot sword” describing the fact that we assume the plot will resolve happily)
“How” can be a tenser question than “will”
This may be a good time to point out that most readers will assume a safe conclusion to the story they are reading. Obviously there are plenty of exceptions to that rule, but my point is that people enjoy stories for more than just wondering if their is going to be a happier ending. Thus when challenges face characters readers tend to think “how are they going to get past this one?” not “Will they survive”. The reason I point this out is I’ve noticed that writers can get myopic about convincing a reader that their MC might get killed, forgetting that isn’t the only reason readers find themselves on the edge of their seats.
Achieving this ‘how?’ questions is very much about setup of antagonism. As mentioned earlier many aspiring writers seems to throw enemies at their MC’s and hope that something about this fight will convince the reader to worry that their hero might get slain. I’ve noticed in popular and well written books (fantasy in particular) action and fight scenes are actually relatively scarce, or not always portrayed dramatically. This is because a good writer knows how to emphasize a powerful scene, and not seeing a character in danger every five minutes can increase the tension as the reader isn’t bombarded with constant wins from the MC.
I’m not trying to completely dissuade that lethal danger is a no-go for plot tension. It can be extremely harrowing at times reading about a character being put at risk. One way I’ve noticed skilled writers avoid plot armour while there is a mortal threat is using what I’ve started calling ‘reasonable doubt’. Taken from the idea of putting reasonable doubt in jurors minds during a murder, I believe that readers can be convinced to have reasonable doubt that the main character will survive, whether its by having Iron Man getting his actual armour bashed and battered, a character doubting their own success or perhaps there being just a hint of the story still being able to continue should the MC perish often this is enough to worry a reader.
It’s a little ironic that when a reader picks a story up its implied that a main character will be the chosen one, or the hero, or the saviour, by the mere fact they are being written about, but I think its worth considering how to manipulate or manage those expectation to create a tense story.
What ways do you avoid/manage plot armour around your characters?