I have a main character. I am attempting to disguise this fact, but it is tricky. Out of nowhere, the character rises up as a successful military leader. The events that lead up to that are plausible enough, but the focus on that military victory and the character leading it will be likely to brand them the main character. With that comes the expected safety and attachment of plot armour.

Question being how to prevent the plot armour.


One idea is to de-emphasize their main character status, have the story told mainly from other characters' PoVs after the battle.

Another way is to set up a secondary main character (or more than one,) give the impression the present one can be replaced (as has happened before.)

I could just give the impression this is the kind of story where the main character can die, whether at the end or sooner.

A final method would be to have the main character isolated from other character deaths. You don't put them in the thick of it where everyone else is dying so it stands out that the main character is still alive, but have them in safe places where death is rare. This makes sense for a military general character. When death and danger does suddenly come to them, you can make it feel much more dangerous (where the emphasis isn't on being the big damn hero, but on surviving.)

If others could give advice on this, I would be much obliged.

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    Why would you want to do that? From your questions I get the impression that you want to break reader expectation just to break reader expectation. When I began writing thirty years ago, I felt the same: I wanted to break conventions. Over the years, I learned two things: I did not like to read the kind of story I wrote. As a reader, I thoroughly enjoyed conventional stories. So breaking conventions was just a pose. And: I didn't ever get any of my writing published. So I grew up and started to write what I was looking for as a reader. Originality of content, not of form.
    – user5645
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 7:15
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    @what I do not think I am breaking convention for the sake of it, nor that what I suggested really breaks convention even in a very mainstream sense. "Anyone can die," is a popular trope, and many of my favourite series use that trope, and I enjoy writing such and working out the best way to write such.
    – J. Doe
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 9:09
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    That is good. I just wanted to get you to self-reflect. Writing involves personal growth, and most first novels are published by people of advanced age (see writers.stackexchange.com/questions/3245/…). As for your two character questions, while I concede that there is an audience for such writing, what I miss is a plot-level motivation for obscuring the protagonist and the deaths. Probably you just did not explain it, but as my answer to your other question suggests, it may appear random, and you might want to avoid that.
    – user5645
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 9:20
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    Make sure that all the deaths and the hidden protagonist are meaningful in relation to the theme, message, and/or story of your text, and not just devices without a function.
    – user5645
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 9:22
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    But then maybe, in a way, or in the beginning of your narrative, your protagonist is war, as I suggested in my other answer: "Exceptions are "greater" stories that are told through the eyes of multiple characters (these are not protagonists), such as Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, where the real protagonist is (the terraforming of) Mars."
    – user5645
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 10:22

6 Answers 6


It sounds like you want the readers to genuinely believe the character is in jeopardy, including potentially lethal jeopardy.

To accomplish this, you need a story where people can die, so I'd say you need to kill off at least one other character.

You also need to establish that suitably bad things can happen to this particular character and perhaps even things that happen and can potentially get worse (e.g. an arm is injured during a swordfight and it looks to be potentially infected, putting the entire arm or their life at risk).

You essentially need to show the reader that people can die and bad things can happen to characters, and you need to point a 'gun' at this character in a way that's potentially less dangerous than a 'gun' that's already gone off pointed at another character.

Thirdly, you'll need to do your best to ensure that the average reader has no idea that you're giving a particular character special treatment in terms of focused attention in the story - if a reader catches on that this is a 'pet character', the threat is empty.

Of course, you should also call into question the reasons you might be wanting this scenario in the first place - is it for shock value? Is there a better way of achieving this effect? Does your story require this twist? etc.

  • Yeah, there's no point in doing it just for the sake of it. The main incentive I feel is to keep things feeling tense. The theme of the whole story is tension, uncertainty, unease, and everyone being in genuine danger. For this reason, I don't want there to be too much of a hero complex that dulls that with certain characters. A number of characters survive the whole book, which in a way makes them immortal as they're fated to succeed, but you don't want the readers to grasp that, to know which ones are "safe".
    – J. Doe
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 21:15
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    The novel Starship Troopers handles this concern quite well. In hindsight it might look like Johnny had plot armor, but it is simply the case of his being the one who survived. Heinlein established this by killing off Johnny's friends and loved ones left, right, and center.
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 2:01

The problem with plot armor is not false safety, but false peril.

The central peril of a story is always moral, not physical. It is about what a character wants and what they are willing to do to get it. Physical danger may test the character's resolve or complicate their plans, but the real heart of the story is what choices they make in the face of those dangers and in pursuit of their goals.

If the only peril driving the story is whether the central character will or will not die, the story is a weak one with no moral core. Concealing who the main character is to make their death seem more possible does not in any way change this. The reader's anxiety about the possible death of a character depends on how much they care about them and how much the root for them (or how much they hope for their salvation). But all that goes with being the main character. Every character should have an arc, but the main character is the character whose arc is the main arc of the story. If there is no arc, they are a red shirt and their death does not matter.

(Actually, for from being more unexpected, the death of a red shirt is incredibly obvious. You could set your watch by it.)

In a good story, even a suspense story, the reader's pleasure does not depend on surprise. We can read good suspense stories multiple times and they are just as suspenseful each time. A good author can have the reader's heart in their throat for a character even on the tenth reading. It is always about engagement, never surprise.

If plot armor is a concern, therefore, it is because the engagement is not sufficient. If the engagement is not sufficient, chances are it is because the reader is not engaged by the moral peril of the story. The fix is not obfuscation. The fix is to find the character's true peril.

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    +1 - If you can read the story again and be just as afraid for the main character, this is being done right. If not, it's being done wrong. Commented Oct 10, 2017 at 16:58

I'm thinking of this question in context of your other question. As you know from my answer there and my comments above, I am a sucker for identifying with a protagonist and a happy end for him. Nevertheless a story of a group of people who die off one by one, with one or a few survivors reaching the end of the tale, could be satisfying to me. To achieve that, you could try one or all of the following:

Readers will identify with whichever characters appear to be central to the narrative. Readers expect the "lives" of these central characters to be meaningful. If they just randomly die, that is like a slap in the face of the reader's trust. Nevertheless that is life. It is realistic that people die randomly. There is no divine plan to my grandmother's death. What makes it bearable is my perception that her live has been meaningful for her and that I remember her and learn something from her death. My grandmother's death is something that makes me grow as a person. It also makes me love and appreciate the other people in my life more: my son, my girl friend, and in fact everyone I meet or just pass by on the street. The death of my grandmother makes life valuable and meaningful.

So if you have a group of central characters, and your readers do not know which one of them will survive, what makes their deaths a "positive" experience for the readers is if the narrator or the other characters reflect on that "person"'s life, their achievements and failures, and if that reflection causes them to grow.

For example, a fighter could have an opponent whom he manages to kill. But instead of simply turning the narration to other matters, the fighter could have a moment (or many moments spread over the following narration) where he thinks about the opponent, how he had a life and a goal that were just as valid as his own, and what it means for his life and goals that he thinks he can just reach them by killing that person. And he might come to the point where his goals no longer appear valid to him. In that story, the opponent was not just an obstacle that looses all relevance once it is overcome, but a person. Similarly, the fighter is not just a plot device, but a person with feelings and emotions whom killing someone does not leave unaffected. Or if it does, then that is that person's growth and development.

If you have a number of characters, who all go through the same story in one way or another, they are probably in some kind of relationship with each other. They may be a team, a family, friends, enemies, people on the same bus, whatever, but their relationship through being part of the same events will make them care about each other. This care can be negative (glad he's gone) or positive (sad he's gone) or without direction (shocked at the death), but that does not matter for the death having an influence on them and changing them.

For example, if you have people on a bus, who don't know each other at the outset, and they are caught up in some plot and they start to die off, the people begin to care about each other. A common enemy may bring them together; an enemy hidden among them may cause them to turn upon each other. In any way, they will relate.

So if you have a tale of a group of people, and at the outset you want it to be not clear who is the final protagonist, and you want most of the people to die during the story, then begin the story without a protagonist. Give equal weight to all characters. And when they begin to die, start to have the deaths change the relationships among the people, and the people themselves. And slowly, over the course of the narrative, bring certain survivors more to the front of the narrative, show how their outset-personality and their changes helped or hindered them in their attempts to get through whatever is going on. And integrate the dying somehow into the surviving. Make what the dead did meaningful to those that survived.

  • This is good advice. Thank you, What. I hope I can make all of the central characters interesting enough for the reader.
    – J. Doe
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 13:10

So, if I got this right, you want your main character to be "The Great War Hero" who commands the respect of his men for his "heroic" deeds in the past great war.

One way I would suggest this is to have the story set in the future where he is in command and a new Ensign (sorry, I'm a Trekie, so new Ensign on the ship is a general starting point). Ensign Neo Guy is on the ship and learns The Captain is the great War Hero known far and wide as "The Hero of (insert famous battle here)" or some such nickname. Ensign Guy refers to The Captain by his nickname and the bridge crew falls silent. The Captain says he prefers not to be called that, or outright dismisses the notion that he's as important as his nickname implies and leaves it at that. Later, in the mess, Ensign Guy is approached by the XO, who happened to be in the very same battle and fought alongside the great war hero and saw everything. He'll tell you the real story.

This is where your story comes into play... We have X number of characters in the unit, not including the young XO. As the reader, we know that the XO is going to live, but he's not the protaganist... he's the POV. If you only refer to the protaganist as "The Captain" or "The War Hero" than you now have a scenario where one of the X characters is the young Captain... but since he doesn't hold that rank, he'll never be referred to as such. Since this is the start of the action that will earn him his fame, he isn't yet referred to as "The Hero". You as the writer know who he is, but to the reader, it's one of these characters from the XO's story... and our mystery is who do we think will be the Captain.

Re-Rank to flavor.


Avoid Contrivances

The concept of "Plot Armour" - that which "pulls the reader out" so to speak, is when the character's survival feels contrived or unlikely and it gives the reader the impression that they only survived because of their status as the main character, or "if they died there would be no story", when their death would have seemed more likely.

So you should avoid such contrivances. For example - if he is a military leader, he would not necessarily be on the front lines, but directing things from the safety of his tent. Then, if he is to be put in mortal danger, perhaps he escapes death due to the training or skills he learned on his way up, or is saved by someone he previously saved or did some favour for (and even they should not just suddenly appear out of nowhere just in time to save him).

He shouldn't survive because of some sneaky unspoken magic, like James Bond's bullet dodging skills, or Iron Man's collision resistance, and if he's given unlikely odds (e.g. Han Solo navigating the asteroid field) he should be shown doing something to overcome those odds or mitigate the unlikelihood rather than just surviving because he's the hero.

Foreshadowing is key, you want to set up the reason for his survival early on.


There is a way to achieve uncertainty:

Everyone is a rabbit

The prime example is Watership Down, a movie about rabbits that kills characters left and right like there's no tomorrow, but so does nature. Everybody knows that rabbits are nature's fluffy popcorn, right?

Other examples include: All-guardsman party, The Walking Game of Dead Thrones

Based upon the underlying logic of these, you can achieve uncertainty.

Let me elaborate: Game of Thrones works because it's "realistic", and in real life, there are no plot armors. In real life, Zrínyi Miklós had the best chances of driving the kebab off from Hungary, and he was killed by a boar. The truth is that nothing is certain, in fact, our universe had likely come into existence by chance, by a large quantum fluctuation.

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