Wound, Shield, and Sword . . . or the Three most important Protagonist character traits
Whether triumph or tragedy, every great story is about one thing above all else: change.
And it all revolves around your Protagonist.
As well every Protagonist has two stories to tell that are intertwined: Internal Struggle and External Goal.
But story really begins with the three most important Protagonist character traits: Wound, Shield, and Sword.
Every great Protagonist has a Wound (something earned from suffering a past traumatic event that has left them emotionally, and sometimes also physically, scarred) which is the reason why they carry around their Shield (their defense mechanism they believe protects them from ever being wounded that way again), and their Shield provides them their dominant character flaw that is keeping them resistant to change as well preventing them from wielding their Sword (achieving their true potential).
You see, the entire point of your Protagonist’s Internal Struggle throughout their story is for them to learn to mend their Wound and thus stop carrying around their Shield so that they can brandish their Sword.
This can only happen through character growth. And character growth can only happen through adversity.
This adversity is necessary because change is never instant, and people are inherently resistant to change. We like and feel safe as who and how we are and that’s that so leave me alone, Buster Brown!
Though understand said adversity should not be random adversity, it must be linked in some way to the Protagonist’s Wound, Shield, and Sword. Otherwise you have an arbitrary collection of events that serve no true purpose and have nothing in common other than that they happen to the same character, and that’s boring bunk nobody wants to read because the story has no real reason to exist.
The point of the Protagonist’s Outer Struggle is to eventually confront the Antagonist (the obstacle standing in their way from completing their External Goal). But the flawed Protagonist doesn’t yet have what it takes to defeat the Antagonist until they achieve their true potential through character growth (mending their Wound while dropping their Shield and raising their Sword, thus relieving themselves from their dominant character flaw while embracing its opposite virtue) so the three go hand in hand for a complete and satisfying story.
Begin your next story not by plotting events but with cunning Protagonist design. Stab them with a Wound, hand them their burdening Shield because of it, then over the course of their story mend that Wound so they can throw their flawed Shield aside and raise their virtuous Sword to confront and defeat the Antagonist as only the changed Protagonist can.
Understand this most important distinction between Protagonist and Antagonist because 90% of great stories end in Protagonist triumph: the Protagonist represents the virtue of change while progressing farther away from their dominant character flaw, whereas the Antagonist represents the vice of resisting change while regressing deeper into their dominant character flaw. This key difference is what allows the Protagonist to eventually triumph over the Antagonist and is the moral point of your story. Flaw vs. Virtue, and the rewards or consequences earned by choosing either.
Also understand that your Protagonist has two Antagonists, not just one: the Internal Antagonist which is their dominant character flaw, and the External Antagonist which is the obstacle preventing them from completing their External Goal. And the Protagonist must overcome their Internal Antagonist before they can defeat their External Antagonist because overcoming their Internal Antagonist is what gives them the power to defeat their External Antagonist.
So many writers fail their story here because they focus on only the External Antagonist while not understanding how vital to the Protagonist’s journey of character growth the Internal Antagonist also is.
Anywho . . .
A Wound can be anything, really, so long as it’s emotionally scarring. A dead loved one. A childhood accident. An embarrassing public event. Barely surviving a traumatic situation such as with fire or drowning that leaves them stricken by phobia. Cheated on or betrayed by someone they trusted most.
A Shield is the Protagonist’s dominant character flaw and what they believe will ensure they won’t get wounded in that way ever again. It’s their instinctual defense mechanism to every situation until they discover and eventually embrace change. Never getting close to anyone out of fear from losing them. Staying clear of fire or water, or perhaps walking everywhere because they survived the car accident that killed their parents. Avoiding relationships so as to never be betrayed or cheated on again.
A Sword is the opposite virtue of the Protagonist’s dominant character flaw, and what allows them to achieve their true potential. Abandoning cowardice for bravery and finally standing up for themselves or others. A habitual liar realizing honesty is better than weaving a constant web of little white lies. Learning to trust again. A lonely widow accepting loss as a part of life and so enters a new relationship while leaving behind the baggage of the old one. Realizing hiding away from the world won’t heal their physical disfigurement so that they finally embrace it publicly.
The possibilities are endless.
And once you know your Protagonist’s Wound, Shield, and Sword, their story will practically write itself because all scenes in it must be connected to one of these three traits in some way.
Act 1: the flawed Protagonist living behind their Shield out of habitual practice because of their Wound.
Act 2A: the blossoming Protagonist learning of their Sword while considering the scary possibility of living without their Shield as their Wound mends slowly.
Act 2B: the regressing Protagonist returning behind their Shield because they endure more wounds worse than before, but now they recognize their Shield for the burden it truly is (usually because it causes great harm to someone they’ve come to care about).
Act 3: the changed Protagonist casting their flawed Shield aside and raising their virtuous Sword while waking to their full potential then proving its worth against the Antagonist.
Or to simplify the focus:
Act 1 = Shield
Act 2 = Shield vs. Sword
Act 3 = Sword
Change is scary but also a necessary part of life. That’s why it forms the foundation of the greatest stories ever told as well creates the best Protagonists.
As I’ve said, the three traits go hand in hand because they are linked. The Wound is the reason for the Shield, and the Sword is the virtue opposite of the Shield’s flaw. For example:
Here we have a wounded Protagonist whose husband cheated on her and so they get divorced. To protect herself from ever being wounded in this way again she hides behind a Shield of distrust with every reluctant relationship thereafter. But it’s only when she learns to abandon her Shield for her Sword of trust can she truly be happy and experience love again in all its glorious splendor.
Superhero movies make great examples of this process. The Hero lives stricken by their Wound and hides behind their Shield until they eventually cast it aside for their Sword and finally achieve their true potential as the Superhero they are meant to be.
Thor: Ragnarok. Thor’s Wound is loss (his dead mother Frigga and his exiled father Odin). Because of this Thor’s Shield is doubt, since he’s now king but he believes he’ll never live up to the expectations of being a great king as was Odin who is no longer there to advise him. And because of this doubt he believes his god of thunder powers reside in his hammer. It’s only when his sister Hela, the goddess of death, is released from imprisonment and wreaks havoc on their people after Odin dies and after Hela destroys Thor’s hammer does Thor, through a near-death vision with his dead father asking him if he’s the god of hammers then telling Thor he will be a better king than his father, realize his true god of thunder powers reside within himself and not his broken hammer. Thor casts aside his Shield of doubt, finally embraces his Sword of belief, achieves his true potential as the god of thunder and king of Asgard, and defeats Hela while saving his people from Ragnarok.
In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter Parker’s Wound is loss (his dead uncle Ben) and fear (of not being able to protect those he loves). This burdens him with the Shield of insecurity. Tony Stark provides him an awesome suit full of cool gadgets he’s not yet allowed to access. But Peter gets into trouble after hacking the suit so that Iron Man arrives on scene and cleans up Spider-Man’s mess. Angry, Tony demands the suit back, and Peter pleads that he needs the suit to be Spider-Man. Tony replies, “If you need the suit to be Spider-Man then you shouldn’t be wearing it.” Later, without the suit and after confronting the Vulture then buried under tons of rubble because of it, scared Peter Parker remembers Tony’s words about the suit. Peter, moments from dying and all by himself, realizes the suit is not what makes him Spider-Man, abandons his Shield of insecurity and brandishes his Sword of confidence, erupts from the rubble and as Spider-Man without the suit chases after then defeats the Vulture as only Spider-Man can.
The original The Matrix movie is another perfect example. Neo’s wound is disconnection (he endures a perpetual sense of loss that something is missing in and wrong with the world so he mires in loneliness as a cybercriminal while attempting to discover what is creating that inexplicable sense of loss), so he hides behind his Shield of distrust and disbelief, refusing to accept that he’s anything special or worthy of anything special, and certainly not the One even after meeting Morpheus and taking the red pill. But with Trinity’s help, because she loves him and refuses to accept that he’s not the One, Neo eventually casts aside his Shield and brandishes his Sword of trust and true belief, rising from the dead and defeating the agents as only the One can.
Notice something? A recurring theme in superhero movies is the hero’s Wound of loss, the Shield of doubt, and the Sword of belief in one’s self so that they can achieve their true superhero potential.
But don’t think Wound, Shield, and Sword are restricted to only superhero stories. They apply to every story of every genre. And they differ depending on the writer and their particular Protagonist.
For example, let us say you and I both start our Protagonist with the same Wound of loss (we’ll stick to the exampled theme above). This does not mean that they then must have a Shield of doubt and a Sword of belief. Loss can be anything, and we each deal with it in our own personal and private ways.
I’ll stricken my Protagonist with a loss of having survived the terrorist bombing attack that killed their parents. Then burden them with a Shield of anxiety in the form of agoraphobia (fear of public places) through crippling panic attacks. And their Sword will be courage so they can eventually overcome their agoraphobia to hunt down the terrorist organization responsible for their parents’ murder.
Whereas you might stricken your Protagonist with the loss of their children to disease. Maybe they’re religious and you burden them with a Shield of resentment so they blame God because of it and are jealous that their Atheist friends’ children are still alive and well. Then you give them a Sword of forgiveness so that they can eventually restore their Christian faith while regaining compassion for their fellow man despite the opposing beliefs involved.
See? Two completely different stories though both stem from the same Wound of loss.
Because in basic terms and regardless the fiction genre: the Wound provides an emotional detriment, the Shield an insecurity because of it, and the Sword a panacea to the Shield.
Again, the possibilities are endless!
Start with the Wound, then the Shield and Sword will arrive through natural conclusion.
And the best Protagonist wounds come from the writer themselves. So discover your personal Wound then give it to your Protagonist and write their story around it because this will provide your story and your Protagonist’s struggle precious honesty since you’ll be writing it from a place of personal experience.
We all love wounded Protagonists because we see them and say, “Hey, you’re like me. I feel your pain and so can relate to it on a personal level. Now I really want to know your story and how it turns out!”
And this establishes the most important Reader to Protagonist link: empathy.
Once you know your Protagonist’s Wound you can then write their story much easier because every scene should focus in some way on either tearing that Wound or mending it. Though this back-and-forth seesaw sequence of tearing and mending events and how you go about implementing them is entirely up to you and your Protagonist’s particular story.
Wound, Shield, and Sword . . . the three most important Protagonist character traits.