We all know the drill. The main character has been trampled to the ground by an overwhelmingly powerful enemy, and he looks totally beat. All of a sudden, he gets a rush of energy from nowhere, and he defeats the enemy in one massive hit with the power of friendship! Where did he get this power? Why was the enemy so easy to beat? It would be a pretty poor sight if the main character died in such a scenario, and so the creators need ‘plot armour’ to keep him in play. Is this a necessity, or is it merely a cover-up for over-ambitious storytelling?
An explanation: Plot armour is when a protagonist is, essentially, immune from death because they are too important to the plot. This leaves death to the side characters— these deaths are often either meaningless (because no-one gives two hoots about them) or only a device to further the arc of the protagonist. This is also known as ‘script immunity’ or ‘character shield’. Other instances of plot armour could be like the scene described above, in which the power of friendship/will/love takes down the bad guy. It’s most often seen in shounen, since the risk to the lives of their characters is higher than in, say, romances.
It’s a trope that many of us are used to. In Naruto, Naruto always finds himself face-to-face with an extremely powerful enemy in a dramatic final confrontation. After much trickery, fighting (interspersed with intense backstory) and minor scratches to the face, he begins his greatest move, what fans like to call ‘Talk no jutsu’. He’ll talk and talk and talk until the enemy accepts that Naruto just isn’t going to give up, and then promptly croaks. Otherwise, the enemy surely would have beaten our hero to a pulp. If this isn’t plot armour, I don’t know what is. And it’s not only ‘talk no jutsu’ that gives Naruto his impenetrable shield, but the demon fox residing inside him (‘Kyuubi’) gives him its awesome power at some incredibly opportune moments, allowing Naruto to decimate everything in his path. This occurs with many characters in this series, where life-threatening situations, well, really don’t feel that life-threatening. Mainly because— unless you’re a beloved teacher, a self-sacrificing enemy or a main character’s parent, you are immune from severe harm.
We find it not only in the big shounen names, but in almost every show in which life-threatening situations are commonplace. What’s refreshing is when plot armour really is restricted to the main character, and even then we are worrying for their life. It also helps that the main character isn’t constantly screaming ‘never give up!’ mantras at the audience. An example would be Assassination Classroom; Koro-sensei is an incredible alien who moves at mach-20 and is seemingly impossible to beat – yet he isn’t the main character. Though he does pull random super powers out the bag to use against his students, the main focus is not on him. The focus is on the hilarious contrast between Koro-sensei the evil alien, and Koro-sensei the devoted teacher of class 3-E. The protagonist Nagisa uses his brains to figure out ways to beat him.
So, keeping all this in mind, is plot armour a bad thing, or is it a necessity to further a plot?
Think about it. If plot armour wasn’t there, the protagonist would never get their power boost. They would die at the hands of the enemy, thus ending the plot altogether. Of course, the solution can be prevention rather than cure; the writers could simply avoid putting the character in these situations at all. It’s okay to do it once, but anyone will admit that seeing the same plot point used over and over again can become boring.
Character deaths need to further the plot. They need to be significant enough to have a profound effect on the main characters who are left behind. You could say that plot armour for protagonists is a necessity, simply because without it, there would be no story. The life of the protagonist is a necessity, while the deaths of minor characters can also be seen as such.
Saying this, creators do have a bad habit of overusing this device in order create some sort of ‘shock value’ to their hero’s sudden victory. It isn’t plot armour itself that is the bad thing, it’s the overuse and overcompensation for poor storytelling. Series that do plot armour well use the device cleverly. They don’t place all of their focus on the power of the main character. In One Punch Man, Saitama’s very existence is plot armour, yet the focus of his character is getting people to believe and accept him for who he is. Series that use plot armour badly do so in total absence of a solution to a problem. Can’t think of a way to defeat the enemy you created? POWER BOOST!
It’s hard to strike a balance. Too much plot armour, and you run the risk of boring the audience with a predictable plot. Too little, and all the characters die needlessly and their deaths are cheapened.
Where do you stand? Is plot armour a useful tool, or just another yawn-worthy plot device that needs to go?