We talk a lot about what our characters are trying to do, but just as important is what they are trying to avoid (emotionally).
They want to avoid missing an opportunity.
They want to avoid losing someone dear.
And they want to avoid getting their heart broken.
Today, we're talking about the four different strategies our heroes (and antagonists) can use to protect themselves from emotional harm. "Character Armor" is only one of those ways, part of the group of four that I call Augmentations.
But just as goals, needs, fears, and motivations evolve throughout a story, so do protective mechanisms. And at the end of this article, I'll talk about how we can strip away those protections to squeeze our heroes.
Then we'll wrap up today's discussion with some insight on why character Augmentations should be used as a temporary tool in your writing skillset and how you can use them to layer depth into your story.
Augmentations: What character armor really is
I know that the term "augmentation" might at first seem strange. Why not just call it a character's armor?
Physical armor protects a person in a specific way, but absorbing impacts isn't the only way a person can avoid bodily harm. We can also deflect blows, distract our opponent into missing, or trick them into not attacking.
Merriam-Webster defines "augment" as:
to make greater, more numerous, larger, or more intense; OR to supplement
Picture your favorite superhero or comic book character. They may wear a bulky suit of armor. They might use a holo-shield that protects only the front of their body. They may wear a mask to conceal their identity. Or they may use verbal banter and physical misdirection to confuse and delay their opponents.
These are all ways a person can supplement whatever protections they already have in place. And adding one of these types of emotional protections brings an extra layer of intensity to your story that can be stripped away later to reveal a juicy vulnerability. (More on that later.)
The four types of character Augmentation are Armor, Shield, Mask, and Flair.
A character's armor is probably the easiest Augmentation to envision and understand. Armor fully encases a person in a hardened shell or protective suit.
Armor is built to take hits and to absorb and lessen those impacts.
If you've ever been told that you need "thick skin" to be an author, then you're already familiar with what Armor is as an emotional Augmentation.
Armor tends to slow down the wearer, so it's more appropriate for standing your ground than evading hits.
Even the strongest armor won't fully protect you from pain. It lessens it, but you have to be willing to take the hits when you don your armor.
So in what circumstances might a character choose to armor up emotionally?
- A heated debate
- A break-up confrontation
- Getting through a day at a job they hate
But all armor has at least one weakness, so if you set up your character's early story arc with the Armor Augmentation, be sure you understand how to punch through that armor and sprinkle in story threads to set up this risk.
A shield prevents and redirect attacks that come from a single direction (or perspective).
In emotional terms, this is like talking to someone who is happy and welcoming one second, then shuts down and closes off the next. They're willing to be vulnerable to everything except this one trigger.
Shields are only effective if they are placed in the attack path, so the wielder must be aware of a threat and ready to defend against it or their shield is worthless.
Here are some situations where a character may opt for an emotional shield:
- Still triggered by memories of childhood abuse
- Avoiding talking about a specific subject
- They believe they know what sort of threat to expect (like loss of job if they don't do as asked)
Where Shields and Armor are fairly straightforward, Masks can give you more creative license as a storyteller.
Your character may wear a literal mask (or even prosthetics) to hide their identity.
But emotionally, the Mask is meant to deceive. It is meant to convince people that the character is either not a threat or is capable of more than they truly are.
Masks hide the wearer's true feelings and beliefs behind a persona intended to give a specific impression.
And sometimes, the person wearing the Mask may have worn it so long they've deceived even themselves.
A character might wear an emotional Mask if they are trying to:
- Fake it 'til they make it
- Forget or hide a past sin
- Convince another character they are trustworthy in a particular aspect of the plot's events
If you've ever heard a Southern woman say "bless your heart" and thought that maybe it meant something else (and it probably did), then you've witnessed a Mask in action. That famed Southern grace is sometimes used as a way to subvert social threats by appearing harmless or to deliver subtle insults that are difficult to defend against without breaking accepted social expectations.
Masks and Flair (up next) involve some sort of deception (sometimes even straight-up lying), so if you choose one of these Augmentations for your character, be sure you set it up in a way that your target audience will accept.
Flair, when used as an intentional Augmentation, is the art of misdirection. Like a magician who gestures with one hand and hides a trick with the other, people use Flair to avoid (or delay) conflict by putting on a show.
Adding Flair to a character can really amp up their characterization. Characters who use Flair might be considered magnetic or charismatic or even just entertaining. But as we've seen with professional comedians, people who shine the brightest are often hiding a much darker, deeper wound they want to keep secret (or that they're trying to compensate for).
Here are some examples of a character using Flair:
- Sarcasm to avoid or redirect sensitive conversation topics
- Humor to charm people into not challenging them
- An eye-catching appearance or unexpected behavior to divert (or attract) attention
Why should character augmentations be only temporary? (And how do we negate them in a story?)
You can use Augmentations strategically to flesh out your hero's characterization.
- If they use Flair, show them as a devil-may-care free spirit.
- If they use armor, depict them as solid, grounded, immovable.
- If they prefer to "wear' a mask, paint them as mysterious and secretive.
- If they shield against specific topics, make them seem personable and reasonable until they're threatened.
But part of what makes character-driven fiction so powerful is peeling away a character's layers of protection until we understand the raw vulnerability at their core. Which means that at some point in your story—probably around or just after the 2/3 mark if you're writing a 3-act story—your hero needs to either take off their Augmentation or have it stripped from them.
If you're writing a fall arc, like for an antagonist, consider starting the story with them in their vulnerable, unprotected state, then having them Augment up when they feel threatened. This might be somewhere in the first third or half of the story for a 3-act structure.
So, then, how do we negate a character's Augmentation(s) and bring them to their most vulnerable emotional place?
Questions and comments
I hope you enjoyed reading this article as much as I did writing it! Augmentations are one of my favorite character elements to analyze when I'm doing an edit, because there are so many creative ways layer them into a character and engage the reader with believability.
Leave a comment below to let me know what questions you have about Augmentations.
Or, tell me some ways you like to use Character Augmentations in your own stories.