If you want to create a notable pirate character, there is some good news and some bad news. The good news is that many other writers have done, or tried to do, the same thing and you can learn from their triumphs and mistakes. The bad news is that your character will be competing with some of the most famous and iconic characters of all time.
Let us start with the earliest example of a famous pirate – Long John Silver from Treasure Island. He’s one of the most well-known of pirates, and also the guy who began the image of the pirate with a peg-leg (thought Silver never actually had a peg, using a crutch to walk instead).
Silver is famous for both his ruthlessness and his humor. He is a man dedicated to one goal – the retrieval of Captain Flint’s buried treasure. He will do anything to get it…. He starts off by selling his prosperous business. He lies, cheats, bullies men stronger than himself, stands down a mutiny, all in the name of the buried gold.
But at the same time, Silver is everybody’s friend, at least on the surface. As the ship’s cook, he has opportunity to pass out treats and extra food rations to both his compatriot pirates and his young protégé, Jim Hawkins. He is subservient to Lord Trelawney and the ship’s officers, even as he is plotting to kill them. And he comes to genuinely love Jim.
So, like a real person, Silver is a mass of contradictions. Kind but ruthless, intelligent, but with limited goals, a leader with no official title, a terrifying bad-guy who is also a cripple. (It should be noted that Silver was based on a real person, a man of great character, who had lost a leg to disease.) These should be the rules for creating any fictional character- or at least one that you intend to be a star. Build in contradictions. Somehow, if he had not been missing a leg, Silver would not have been so frightening.
And yet, I believe that even these contradictions are not the final touch that seals Sliver as such a great pirate. What makes him stand out is his softness for Jim Hawkins. He gives up everything, simply because Jim is a young man who has looked up to Silver, and Silver sees the good in the boy. That’s the moment – when the one-legged pirate pulls his pistols and stands up to his own men, for the sake of a boy who cannot help him at all, that Silver wins out heats.
To put it simply, Silver’s greatest strength – his ruthlessness – is overcome by his greatest weakness – his love for Jim.
Remember that – a really good pirate is neither all good not all bad.
But what about Captain Hook? This is a bad guy. His nemesis is an innocent child. He kidnaps an Indian princess, threatens to murder the Darling children, captures and nearly kills Tinkerbell. (Murdering fairies, for heaven’s sake!). Where is the redeeming feature that makes Captain Hook more than a cartoon bad-guy?
Because, like so many people in the audience, Hook can never have what her really wants. Hook wants to be a proper English gentleman. He shows us this by his insistence on “good form”, by his careful diction, his immaculate clothing. Hook went to Eaton, and sets a great importance on this (his dying works are Eaton’s motto).
Hook is, in some ways, the ultimate Adult to peter’s ultimate Child. Like adults (especially adults as seen by children) Hook is all hung up on appearances. He needs to dress right, use the right manners, to always be in control. Unlike the “Indians” who admit they are playing a long-running game with Peter and the Lost Boys, Hook is serious.
But Hook’s problem is that his is, at heart, a coward. And he hates himself for it. He’s not only defeated by a child – Peter – but he is humiliated by him. Hook admits to being a “codfish” and weeps with terror when his own life is on the line. This turns his elegance and self-possession on its head.
Hook has a lot in common with Daffy Duck. They both care much-too-much about winning, and as a result, they fail. Daffy’s comic failures make us love him; Hook’s failures take some of the bite out of his truly frightening and horrible behavior.
Hook also has Smee, another of our famous pirates. Smee is the opposite of Hook. Where Hook is formal and passionate, Smee is easy-going; when Hook is well-dressed, Smee is comfortable. They complement each other. Smee is a good reminder to all writers that no pirate stands alone, and that a single well-drawn side-kick can stand in for a whole crew. Imagine for a moment if Smee was a heartless killer like Hook? The pirates would lose all their humor and be too frightening, rather than frightening and fun.
And speaking of “fun pirates”, what can we learn from Captain Jack Sparrow? It’s interesting to note that all of the pirates on this list have a simple theme behind them. Long John Silver is a ruthless killer with a heart of gold. Hook is a fearsome pirate with perfect manners, who conceals his own cowardice. And Smee is the perfect sidekick, the guy who keeps Hook form being too scary. Captain Sparrow also has a simple concept – he is a pirate who lives like a rock-star.
How does Captain Sparrow accomplish this? Well, for one thing, he reads his own reviews and writes his own press releases. Jack takes his reputation very seriously. His pronouncements –You will remember this as the day that you almost caught Captain Jack Sparrow…- are funny, but they also tell us a lot about what Jack cares about. And what he cares about his being famous. This is a relatable goal, especially for modern audiences. We’d like to be famous, too.
The fact that Jack doesn’t quite succeed in his plans for fame – even as he’s being hanged, the authorities refuse to acknowledge his as “Captain” – makes us care for him more. He’s got our sympathy.
But Johnny Depp did one more thing that cemented Jack as a pirate of historic significance… When confronting Will Turner in the blacksmith shop, Johnny was supposed to tell Will “This shot is not for you” and then cock the pistol. Jack Sparrow cocked the pistol first, then said the line. This is important, because it sent a message that Jack was serious. He didn’t WANT to kill Will, but he would, if necessary. The threat was real. And the threat of actually killing Will keeps all of Sparrow’s other problems… His wandering walk, his issues with the authorities, his loss of the rum… He will kill people, even an innocent like Will. Without the threat, he’s no fun.
What have we learned? A memorable pirate character needs to have a good mix of threat and sympathy. It should be well-rounded, having the kind of internal contradictions that real people have. The pirate should not exist alone… One pirate needs other pirates to be an effective character, and the contrasts between pirates offer depth and interest. And last of all, it’s a wonderful touch to have the pirate’s greatest strength also be his or her greatest liability.
I have high hopes for my own character, Scarlet MacGrath. As a female pirate captain, she stands out from the crowd. But she also faces problems caused by her gender. She a realistic woman in that she can’t go toe-to-toe with a man in a fist fight. The men around her are too strong. But she makes her weakness into strength by out-thinking her opponents.
Scarlet means business… She will kill if she has to. But she doesn’t want to. In fact, my fearsome, treasure-loving, pistol-shooting, sword-carrying Irishwoman secretly longs for a home, a husband, and a couple of kids.
See how that’s working out for her in my pirate novels, Gentlemen and Fortune, in which Scarlet meets old enemies and new lovers, and handles treasures of many kinds. And in Bloody Seas, where she confronts bloodthirsty natives, old enemies, and a Royal Navy Captain that she doesn’t know if she’d like to kill or kiss…