Plot-Vital Possessions: Why We Plot Around Them

Cursed swords. Magic rings. Amulets whose purposes take half the plot to get explained. Funny coins. How many different stories have you seen that were set up by somebody finding an item that looked interesting, pocketing it, and moving on? How about an item that was a gift from someone important enough that the character wouldn’t want to lose it? Or ones that get picked up once and refuse to be thrown away after? And if it isn’t something that someone else wants, it’s something that’s dangerous in its own right….

Quite a few, right? There are a lot of advantages to centering a plot around keeping a thing (as opposed to a person or a place) out of enemy hands, or discovering that the thing is in some way enemy hands.

Mobility. The plot-vital possession is something you can (and probably should) take with you. That means that the plot isn’t limited to one place, like it is if the object of the plot is to protect a location. For the scenery buff, this is a godsend—sure, you can do lots of different splashy backdrops in one place, but the larger the place is, the harder it is to properly protect, creating potential plotholes. It’s easier to be able to roam about the world and pick up nifty vistas that way.

Power. Many people explain their characters being The Ones Who Deserve Main Character Status by giving them some sort of unique ability or unique twist on relatively common abilities. But the difficulty with that is that uniqueness is one of the qualities that sets off Mary Sue radar like nobody’s business, and usually requires a certain amount of explaining in its own right. But if the powers are attached to an item, it raises fewer eyebrows—presumably, that’s what that item’s for, and it explains why half the known world is trying to steal it. (It also makes it easier to take away the powers temporarily, which brings us to…)

Separability. Mobility was about a plot-vital possession’s advantages over a plot-vital place; this is about the plot-vital possession’s advantage over a plot-vital person. And that advantage is in the infamous rescue-plot. Think about professionally distressed characters, the ones who just scream out rescuebait. It’s bad enough when they’re not ready to be on their own yet or annoyingly prone to self-sacrifice; at least it makes sense that if that kind of character leaves the scene he’s going to have an enemy’s knife to his throat the next time you see him. But then you have the ones who at least theoretically are intelligent, capable—or experienced enough with this that you’d think they’d’ve learned a few tricks. Sure, there might be some reason why the heroes go back for them, but the whole mess makes them very hard to take seriously, and easy to be labeled Too Stupid To Live despite their informed intelligence. But a plot-vital possession is an inanimate object, people probably want it anyway, even intelligent ones aren’t that likely to be able to wield themselves out of trouble, so it doesn’t lose respect for always being on the wrong end of the plot. (For plot-vital places, of course, this situation isn’t really relevant, unless the villain took lessons from Carmen Sandiego or is in the habit of stealing the heroes away instead.)

Subtlety. Sure, this can be interpreted as “You can hide it, you can disguise it, you can make something else look like it” and allow for the protection of plot-vital possessions, but it’s also about setting up one of those item-as-antagonist stories. Since it’s a lot harder for an inanimate object to betray its holder than for one member of a group of travelers to betray another, even the canny and the paranoid are likelier to be caught flat-footed by the item enemy among them than the flesh-and-blood traitor—moreso if the item hasn’t shown any signs that they can interpret as marks of intelligent or cursed swag.

With all these advantages, is it any wonder that the plot-vital possession is so common?

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