You’ve seen it before and you groaned with incredulity.
Deus ex machina, also known as Plot Armor is a term used to describe instances in fiction where a character should be killed or severely injured or steeped in deep awfulness but something dramatic happens to prevent that.
Several instances from Harry Potter come to mind. I won’t relate the entirety of these stories but let me throw a few terms out there. If you’ve read the books or seen the movies you’ll know exactly what I mean.
- Gillyweed (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)
- Firenze, the centaur (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)
- Fawks, the sorting hat, the sword of Gryffindor (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets)
- invisibility cloak
- Time-Turner (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkarban)
- Harry’s own patronus (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkarban)
- Buckbeak (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkarban)
I could go on. Allow me to add as well that Hermione Granger is one big walking breathing example of plot armor. If not for her quick thinking and intelligence Harry and Ron would have been splat before the second book was written.
But I digress…a little.
Plot armor, while it makes us groan with exasperation, is a necessary element in fiction and without it I think many of our favorite tales would lose their verve and interest. But it must be done well. We need to see our characters in tough, seemingly impossible situations, but we also don’t want them to die, or be otherwise put out of commission. I mean, how awesome was it when Treebeard the Ent stomped on the Orc and saved Frodo and Sam just when we were beginning to think that all was lost? We loved that and I’d wager none of you grumbled and rolled your eyes at the preposterousness of it all. You didn’t, because it was great. It was done well.
We relate to characters we like most and seeing them extricate themselves from bad situations, even if amazingly unlikely, gives us hope. I can think back to many situations in my own life where I’ve managed to shimmy out of a challenge that seemed insurmountable. I look back and think, that wasn’t my doing. That was divine intervention. That was God’s hand.
Plot armor can definitely be done wrong. In this instance, I believe bad plot armor speaks to a weakness in the entirety of the tale. The writer or filmmaker didn’t do a good job convincing us to suspend disbelief. If you can convince an audience to throw out the laws of reality for the duration of the story, you can introduce amazing saves without inciting disgust or driving away the audience altogether.
Can you think of instances of plot armor in your favorite or least favorite stories?
Do you utilize this plot device in your writing?
Tell me something.
This site gives in depth examples of Plot Armor in some our favorite stories: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/PlotArmor