by Lisa Hall Wilson
Captain Jack Sparrow, love him or hate him, most people FEEL something for the irascible pirate. What is it about Captain Jack that makes him so memorable? Anti-hero. Failed pirate. I mean, I find Jack hilarious, but would I necessarily want him in my life…. Not really. In every movie, his goal is entirely self-centred. Some have labelled him as having antisocial personality disorder, which basically means he’s reliable in only one way: he’ll only do what’s good for him regardless of the rules/legality, of what’s best for others, or the harm he causes.
So why do we love him? I mean, for a number of years, Captain Jack would make appearances at children’s hospitals and such. This character isn’t just for kids, isn’t just for adults.
Quite a few might say that it’s less about the writing and more about the acting – the physicality of the character that doesn’t translate for written fiction, and fair enough – Johnny Depp has breathed incredible 3-dimensional life into this character, but what is it about this character that might be replicable for fiction writers -- what can we borrow? What can we glean from that character and the portrayal of that character, to help us create emotional connections with readers and our own work?
In some way, many of us are able to put ourselves in Jack’s boots situationally. Giving your characters traits that your reader might share is an easy win. It’s hard to put yourself into a story, into someone’s shoes, if you can’t see yourself in any of their character traits or decisions. And often, Jack does what many of us would like to do, says things we’re thinking but would never let ourselves say out loud. And then Jack uses humour and charm to avoid the consequences.
“Did everyone see that? Because I will not be doing that again.” Jack Sparrow
We love Jack because we have a lot of things in common with him. No, really – we do. He prefers to talk his way out of trouble instead of using brute force, even though he has the sword skills to do great injury. He’s witty and creative, and uses those strengths to his advantage, and though at times his intelligence seems questionable (a bit addled from the rum), he thinks outside the box. He’s impulsive, but that means he isn’t afraid to jump at an opportunity and many of us wish we had that kind of courage.
“He’s able to get away with things we’d love to be able to get away with.” Johnny Depp
Jack is OK with ambiguity. Today’s enemy could be tomorrow’s ally. He’ll steal your rum one day and shake your hand the next. Jack’s morality tends to be situational, but isn’t that also true of our own society where little white lies, no harm no foul, and other such sayings are held as truth. A person might never steal a chocolate bar or clothing from a retail store, but they’ll pirate movies or music or ebooks without thought. We might say we value honesty, but we’ll lie when the truth might hurt feelings or jeopardize relationships that are important. The character who always chooses the moral right, who’s never dishonest or corruptible in any way, is hard to relate to.
Your character needs to stand for something. They have to draw a line in the sand — this far and no farther. That line will look different for every character and that line doesn’t have to be one that readers necessarily would choose for themselves, but it’s one they can cheer for. Readers connect emotionally with characters who have a code of ethics they won’t violate–an ethic the reader can cheer for.
Jack always chooses himself, and yet… he attempted to rescue Gibbs.
He does nothing but fight with Elizabeth, and yet when the opportunity arose, he chooses to kiss her and show a glimpse of his true emotions regardless of the consequences.
Jack is a complicated character and whether he’s good or bad is often up for interpretation. Jack isn’t a pacifist, but he often steps in and tries to de-escalate an impending conflict (often for self-interested reasons) by suggesting a negotiation. When he does draw his sword, it’s in self-defence.
“Why fight when you can negotiate?” Jack Sparrow
Let’s not forget that the reason Jack was branded a pirate was because instead of delivering a shipment of slaves, he set them free. Jack, in the end, often chooses the morally right thing to do at his own personal sacrifice, even if he’s doing it for selfish reasons. He rescued his friends from the Kraaken (and the Pearl), he walked away from the fountain of youth, and he helped break the curse of the The Flying Dutchman to free Will Turner.
“Not all treasure is silver and gold, mate.” Jack Sparrow
Readers love to cheer on the come-from-behind-kid, the one who succeeds against all odds, the David in a David-and-Goliath story, the nerd fighting against the schoolyard bully. When a character faces overwhelming odds, when they choose to step into a hard thing when they could walk away, readers get behind that. They want the character to win, but the odds need to be overwhelming and preferably the stakes are life and death. I don’t mean only literal life and death stakes, but identity-ending, career-suicide, life-is-no-longer-worth-living kind of stakes.
In every movie, Jack has a goal–there’s something he wants. His motivations aren’t always obvious or clear, sometimes even to himself, but he presses on even though the odds of him succeeding are fairly remote (hello – finding the fountain of youth??).
Readers want entertainment AND they want an emotional journey. They want to immerse themselves in a fictive dream and become a character, live vicariously through them, for a short period of time. Fiction helps challenge people’s thinking and offers new perspectives and paths for readers in a non-threatening way. It’s OK if you only want to entertain with your writing, but it’s OK if you want to use if for more than entertainment too.
“If you choose to lock your heart away, you’ll lose it for certain.” Jack Sparrow
Jack is a character a lot of people wish they could be more like (in certain ways). Jack is comfortable in his own skin, in the expression of his personality, and doesn’t care too much what other people think of him. He doesn’t take offense easily and doesn’t hold a grudge.
He doesn’t concern himself with a five year plan or even where he’ll sleep that night. Jack embodies freedom.
“Wherever we want to go, we’ll go. That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and hull and deck and sails–that’s what a ship needs. But what a ship is–what the Black Pearl really is–is freedom.” Jack Sparrow
Most of us, in some way, long for that kind of free-spirited freedom, ability to laugh at ourselves, own our eccentricities and quirks, and care less what people think of us.
Writing that has readers leaning in, afraid to put the book down because they have to know what happens next — that’s the goal, right? That’s my goal. The surprises have to be true to the character and the storyworld, and when the surprise causes the main character even more trouble, we cheer them on even harder.
He’s funny. His wit and charm are disarming and the way he plays with the truth makes you feel like you’re inner circle sharing an inside joke. His antics, his flailings, his reliance on rum, it all adds up to entertainment and surprise. A joke isn’t funny if you already know the punchline, right. Sometimes his wit is full of great truth. Sometimes you have to repeat what he’s said to yourself a few times and then it hits you — ooooh, that’s deep.
“You’ve stolen me and I’m here to take myself back.” Jack Sparrow
“The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem. Understand me?” Jack Sparrow
In what ways did you connect with Jack Sparrow? Do you use any of these tips in your writing?
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Lisa Hall-Wilson is a writing teacher and award-winning writer and author. She’s the author of Method Acting For Writers: Learn Deep Point Of View Using Emotional Layers. Her blog, Beyond Basics For Writers, explores all facets of the popular writing style deep point of view and offers practical tips for writers.
She runs the free Facebook group Going Deeper With Emotions where she shares tips and videos on writing in deep point of view.
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