Effective Protagonists, Part II: Pirates of the Caribbean

In my last entry, I introduced this fascinating and radical new series on Effective Protagonists with an examination of Luke Skywalker in the context of the first Star Wars film. In analyzing his hopes, frustrations, uncertainties, conflicts, and growth from angsty farm boy to dapper rebel hero, we determined that it is his innate relatability that makes him an effective character, and until somebody proves me wrong in the comments section (which I moderate like a KGB postal censor) my words shall be taken as gospel.

POTC 1

In this entry we’ll be delving a little further by analyzing the importance of Character wants. Last time I detailed the following series of questions my writing mentor taught me to ask when developing characters: “What do they want?”, “Why do they want it?”, “Why can’t they get it?”, “What are they going to do about it?”, and “What are the consequences?” No, my mentor wasn’t Robert McKee – but he did pass along to me my copy of his famous book (along with his penchant for calling useless people ‘schmucks’).

As a writer, it’s imperative that one be mindful of these questions during the development process, because beyond merely being relatable a protagonist must actively want something – something clear and universal that any viewer anywhere can identify with. It can be something tangible like a lost treasure or a magic MacGuffin or intangible like justice or the respect of a father. The point is, the desire to satisfy this want (some call it a driving need) must be both strong enough to launch the character into the story and meaningful enough to resonate with the viewer.

Relatable as he certainly is, Luke Skywalker doesn’t have a specific want in the first Star Wars beyond being somewhere besides Tatooine. He gazes out at the binary sunset with longing smeared all over his face, sure, but where would he rather be exactly? At Space School? Celebrating Spring Break on Naboo? Retiring comfortably on… {checks Wookiepedia} Ahch-To?? We never find out.

So, in this entry we’ll be looking at not one, but two characters with clear-cut, personal wants that are central to their respective arcs. Not only will we be assessing the strengths of those wants, we’ll also be conducting a thorough analysis of the manner in which these characters are introduced to the viewer and their wants are established. We find these characters in one of my favourite adventure films of all time, which incidentally spawned some of the worst sequels ever made – Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

The first character is our protagonist, William Turner, and the second is our deuteragonist, Captain Jack Sparrow. To be clear, the dictionary app on my Apple iPhone X defines ‘deuteragonist’ as “Could not sign in to iDictionary. Please check your network connection and try again.”

INTRODUCING WILLIAM TURNER

As far as protagonists are concerned, Will Turner’s characterization is fairly elementary – so much so that we learn everything we need to know about him in the span of his very first scene.

POTC 2

One of the elements I love so much about Curse of the Black Pearl – besides its memorable characters, energetic score, and graphics that make me nostalgic for my PlayStation 2 – is the wonderful manner in which it establishes its heroes. If first impressions are everything, then the reveal of the protagonist is one of the most critical moments in the entire film, and Black Pearl executes these reveals masterfully by establishing everything we need to know about these characters in their entrance scene alone. Let’s break it down –

Okay, technically, we first meet William Turner in the opening scene after he’s pulled from the sea onto Jonathan Pryce’s ship, but we’re not counting this scene because he’s only a boy and thus not yet played by Orlando Bloom. Besides, he doesn’t even do anything except introduce himself to Elizabeth Swann and then pass out – which is exactly what happened to me on my last date.

POTC 3

When we do meet Turner for real, the film wastes no time in establishing his character. The reveal is of him waiting in the foyer of Jonathan Pryce’s stately manor with a delivery in hand. He looks a little awkward and out of place, and the immediate implication is that he’s been waiting long enough to start poking around. When he casually examines an ornate wall-mounted candlestick he inadvertently snaps one of the arms off with a booming thud, which cues a raucous outburst of laughter from the studio audience of a nearby Chuck Lorre sitcom. Turner freezes, shoulder-checks, and dumps the incriminating arm in a vase before failing to safe face in front of a butler. Beyond being an amusing shot, this tells us immediately that Will is not at ease in the governor’s house and thus probably not from the same upscale end of town. This, of course, establishes common ground with the viewer, who can easily sympathize with Turner’s apparent low social standing and situational embarrassment.

Next, Turner presents Jonathan Pryce with the sword he had been commissioned to forge and extols its virtues with ardency. This exchange tells us two additional things – he’s a blacksmith by trade, and he possesses a high level of familiarity with swords that will probably come in handy once the inevitable swashbuckling starts. Pryce then mistakenly gives credit for the sword to Turner’s master, which gives our hero momentary pause before he submissively rolls with the error. Any other man might have corrected Pryce and demanded the proper recognition for his work, but not Turner – he’s meek and mild-mannered and thus wrought of quality moral fiber. This is another important Character detail, as it establishes that our protagonist is not only humble (and thus good) but also something of an underdog (therefore enhancing his relatability).

Finally, Elizabeth Swann descends the grand staircase and Turner does his impression of a cartoon donkey caught in the headlights of a lingerie delivery van. This tells us with no measure of subtlety that Turner is enamored with Elizabeth, but because he’s from the less-ritzy side of town and the eighteenth-century equivalent of a sword nerd, he is too awkward to even call her by her first name, much less confess that he loves her. As she departs in her carriage, he whispers her name under his breath, and we understand in that moment that his love for her will be his primary motivator throughout the film.

As you can see, in the span of a single, short scene we learn everything we need to know about Will Turner to dive headlong into the plot – he’s unacquainted with high society and thus from a low social standing; he’s a blacksmith by trade and can handle swords with skill and ease; he’s humble and good-hearted but gets less respect than Rodney Dangerfield in his prime; and most important of all, he’s in love with a woman out of his league. This is pitch-perfect ‘show, don’t tell,’ as we are given a wealth of crucial information through seemingly trivial details that all serve to build an impression on a subconscious level. To paraphrase film critic Mike Stoklasa, “You may not have noticed any of this, but your brain did.”

POTC 4
Well, maybe not my brain…

BOY WANTS GIRL – THE POWER OF LOVE

Turner’s reveal effectively establishes the want that will drive him through the film – his unexpressed love for Elizabeth Swann. It’s sort of appropriate that Curse of the Black Pearl is a Disney production, because the romantic dynamic between Will and Elizabeth is fundamentally no different than that of, say, Aladdin and Princess Jasmine (except they wear more clothing… which is sort of disturbing when you think about it). Love stories are as simple in the telling as they are universal in the comprehension. They transcend race, nationality, culture, and creed. Really, the story of the lovelorn peasant boy who pines for the beautiful noble woman is a tale as old as time – and a patent that’s probably owned wholly by Disney.

However, one could argue that it’s a tale that’s a little too simplistic, especially in this case. We understand clearly that Turner loves Elizabeth, but the matter of why he doesn’t express it is vague. Is it awkwardness on his part? Shyness? Fear? A misplaced sense of propriety? Embarrassment over his scurvy? We never find out because it’s never addressed. Hell, even Aladdin expresses dismay that Jasmine could never love a lowly street rat like him, but Turner just bumbles over his words and hides his feelings for no apparent reason. When you think about it, he’s kind of a schmuck.

Still, the film doesn’t exactly suffer for this lack of development, even if Turner’s want doesn’t necessarily hold up under scrutiny. It’s important to note that his love for Elizabeth compels him to action after she’s abducted by the crew of the Black Pearl. On his own impetus he springs Captain Jack Sparrow from jail, helps him commandeer a vessel, and sets off into pirate territory to rescue her – crossing the threshold into the unknown and Act II. He remains an active player throughout the story, undermining Sparrow’s manipulative machinations to stage his own rescue of Elizabeth and eventually trading his life to Barbossa for her freedom. He may not be the most fleshed-out character, but he’s proactive, which is another vitally important element of Character that we’ll address in Part XVII.

Perhaps to compensate for his relatively simplistic want, Turner’s time on the high seas with Sparrow introduces a new element to his character – his hatred of piracy. Turner may not be the most dominant personality in the room, but he’s an upright man who upholds the law while Captain Jack Sparrow is a notorious pirate, a contrast that infuses the narrative with glorious conflict. When Sparrow divulges that he not only knew Turner’s long-lost father but actually employed him on his crew, Turner is shocked and angry. His arc then incorporates a new component – coming to terms with his father and his pirate heritage. Turner’s external conflict with piracy becomes an internal conflict, which is the sort of narrative poetry George Lucas would mumble flatly over.

But like his want, Turner’s conflict is also a little pedestrian. I mean, what reasons does he have to hate pirates, exactly? Besides the obvious reason that they commit heinous crimes, he doesn’t have one. It’s like if a non-orphaned Bruce Wayne decided to become Batman on the merits of hating the bad guys on Saturday-morning cartoons. In this sense, Turner’s feelings toward piracy are pretty impersonal and could have benefitted from further development – perhaps pirates could have killed his mother or he could have innocently believed that his father died hunting them. All that was needed was a single line or minor detail somewhere in Act I to make his hatred fitting.

POTC 5

At the end of the day, though, Turner’s journey to save Elizabeth and his time with Sparrow does change him as a character. Throughout the film we see him evolve from a naïve, lovelorn schmuck who staunchly believes in the law into an experienced, confident man who will break the law, if necessary, for something he knows to be right. In the end, he declares his love for Elizabeth at long last while simultaneously saving Sparrow from the noose. Not only does get the girl, he also comes to terms with his pirate legacy and even receives proper credit for the sword he forged – setup and payoff.

In all, Will Turner is a bit of an everyman with a universal albeit underdeveloped want, with his proactivity and role in driving the plot forward tipping the effectiveness scales mostly in his favour. It also helps that Black Pearl is jolly good fun and that both Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley are so beautiful it distracts from most shortcomings.

Speaking of distracting –

INTRODUCING CAPTAIN JACK SPARROW

Like Turner, Captain Jack Sparrow’s entrance tells us everything we need to know to establish his character, though what exactly it is he wants is initially enigmatic and unfolds as the film progresses.

The reveal shot is of Sparrow at the top of his ship’s mast making a grand entrance into Port Royal. The wind is blowing through his hair, Hans Zimmer’s lively theme is rising, and his piercing eyes are intent on the harbor before him. Our immediate impression is that this is a man of style and panache, and we deduce from his swashbuckling garb that he may be one of these pirate folks suggested in the title.

However, we soon see that this reveal is but a trick of the camera, for Sparrow’s supposedly grandiose vessel is but a mere dinghy – a swiftly sinking dingy, at that. Like Turner breaking the candlestick, this is more than just a sight gag and tells us a few things about Sparrow’s character. First and foremost, he’s a man of appearances and not one to let a sinking feeling tarnish his image. However, stylish though he may be, he’s clearly down on his luck and therefore relatable to any viewer whose Chevy Impala breaks down on the way to work eight times a month. Moreover, being a pirate in a film called Pirates of the Caribbean but not having a pirate ship to helm immediately cultivates interest in who he is and why he’s curiously ship-less.

As he bails out his vessel, he spots a trio of corpses noosed in an alcove alongside a posting for pirates to be warned, and the score transitions to softer, more somber notes. Sparrow swiftly removes his tricorn cap and salutes the bodies, and we receive even more data. First, the pirate nature that was implied by his garb is confirmed. Second, pirate though he may be, he is still human enough to pay respects to his fallen comrades, which tells us that he possesses at least a semblance of decency and is probably not a villainous character (the notion that a pirate can still be a good man will be reiterated often throughout the film).

The final leg of Sparrow’s entrance turns a lot of a heads as he effortlessly guides his nearly sunken boat up to the nearest dock and waltzes onto dry land without a moment’s loss of composure. From this, we intuit that this man is not so different from a cat who always lands on his feet, no matter how ill-fated the fall. When the dockmaster asks for a shilling and his name, Sparrow gives three shillings in lieu of not providing a name – implying that he’s wanted by the law. The film is now practically screaming “He’s a pirate!” to everyone in the audience who had been paying more attention to their date’s lips than the film.

POTC 6

Finally, as he leaves the docks he spies an unattended coin purse and swiftly snatches it up. This seemingly insignificant action tells us something far more important about Sparrow’s character than his status as a thief – he’s an opportunist, a trait that is more integral to his character than his piracy.

What we learn from this introductory sequence is that this man is a wanted pirate without a ship due to a recent run of bad luck; he’s stylish and savvy and something of a cool cat who prioritizes his image over his footing; he can make the best of a bad situation and rolls with life’s punches in ways other men probably couldn’t; and he has something of a code of honor while still being quick to capitalize on opportunities as they present themselves. And that’s before we even learn his bloody name!

Again – a highly effective introduction that gives all the base information we need to understand the character in faithful adherence to the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule of writing.

In contrast to Turner – who as the protagonist must be somewhat serviceable as a placeholder for the viewer – Sparrow is more complex and is thus explored in more depth throughout the film. For instance, in Act I he saves Elizabeth from drowning without hesitation – but then takes her hostage to facilitate his escape. After dueling with Turner he threatens him at pistol-point, but practically begs the young blacksmith to stand aside instead of pulling the trigger. Throughout Act II he displays Machiavellian behavior mixed with strains of human decency, such as endeavoring to get the Pearl back from Barbossa without permanently betraying Turner. Barbossa even mocks Sparrow at one for being unwilling to shed innocent blood, stating it was the reason they mutinied against him in the first place. When Sparrow’s crimes are being recited in Act III, truly heinous ones like rape and murder are not listed – instead we get non-lethal crimes like smuggling and outlandish ones like impersonating a cleric.

Naturally, unravelling the intrigue of who Captain Jack Sparrow is allows us to uncover what the bloody hell it is he wants. Whereas Turner’s want is so universal it barely needs to be justified, Sparrow’s is a bit more abstract – and far more interesting.

A MAN AND HIS BOAT – THE YEARNING OF THE SOUL

We see early in the film that Sparrow displays an unusual interest in the supposedly mythical Black Pearl, and it doesn’t take long for his connection to the ghostly ship to be established. After they set out from Tortuga to rescue Elizabeth, Turner learns that Sparrow was the original captain of the Pearl until his first mate Barbossa led a mutiny and marooned him on a deserted island. From this revelation Sparrow’s want is seemingly established – revenge against Barbossa for stealing his ship and leaving him to die.

However, this is only Sparrow’s surface motivation, for what he really desires more than anything in the Seven Seas is something far closer to his heart – his old ship, the Black Pearl. One might think that he could simply find another ship somewhere in the vast expanse of the Caribbean – he certainly steals enough of them to be considered a playable character in Grand Theft Ocean – but no. No other ship than his beloved Black Pearl will satisfy, and not just because it’s the fastest ship on the seas and probably instrumental in picking up wenches.

POTC 7

The true value of the Pearl to Sparrow is unveiled in his defining scene toward the end of Act II, when Barbossa again maroons him on the same island as before, this time with Elizabeth Swann. As they drink rum in excess around their beach bonfire, Sparrow confesses his true love for the Black Pearl and that to him, she’s more than just a ship – she represents freedom and the ability to chart his own way in the world. We understand in this scene that the Pearl is Sparrow’s very heart and soul. “…it’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails,” he slurs drunkenly to Elizabeth. “That’s what a ship needs. But what a ship is… what the Black Pearl really is, is freedom.”

It’s a poignant scene, and one that shows Sparrow to be more than just a thieving pirate who’s motivated by greed or lust for treasure – he’s a man looking for completion, a wayward bird trying to regain his wings. That ship is a part of who Sparrow is, perhaps no different than the Starship Enterprise to Captain Kirk or the Millennium Falcon to Han Solo. It’s all he wants and he won’t be complete until he’s at her helm again with the wind at his back and the horizon before him, and because this is a Disney film and, you know, Mickey Mouse magic, this is exactly how his journey ends.

Sparrow’s want works effectively for two reasons. First, it has emotional resonance for his character, and second, there’s an initial element of mystery to it. Really, his entire character is an enigma for most of the film – from the moment we meet him we’re questioning what he wants and why. His motivations are murky and his allegiances are even murkier. These questions are eventually answered and the murkiness clears, which makes Sparrow’s journey interesting for the pure exploration aspect of it, especially once we realize he’s both a pirate and a good man. As a supporting character he’s permitted to be more cryptic than Turner, though in all actuality he’s less dynamic.

You see, despite being proactive in pursuing his want, Sparrow doesn’t really grow or change – he’s merely discovered, or charted, if you will. His circumstances change, but he does not. As soon as his complexity is unraveled and his desires are fulfilled he ceases to be interesting for the same reason a mystery ceases to be gripping once it’s solved. Overall, he is an effective character in the context of a standalone film, but any effort to follow him beyond that would be a pointless, disappointing waste of—

pirates_of_the_caribbean_theatrical_posters_by_the_dark_mamba_995-db0v58o
Oh, son of a bitch…

SEQUELS – THE CURSE OF DIMINISHING EFFECTIVENESS

The fundamental problem with spinning a franchise out of Curse of the Black Pearl is that all its character arcs were concluded perfectly – Turner won Elizabeth’s heart and embraced his inner Errol Flynn, and Sparrow got both the Pearl and his mojo back. There was nowhere else for these characters to go – except downward.

I realize the sequels have their fans – I just have yet to meet one in person. I admit I liked certain parts of Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, messy as they are, but I wouldn’t ever call them good. I saw the fourth one just once in the theater, and all I can remember about that evening is that it had something to do with mermaids and Jack Sparrow gets dumped by his date in the parking lot—hang on… I might name Dead Men Tell No Tales the surprise hit comedy of 2017 because I laughed my ass off at it from start to finish.

You see, where the sequels failed most is in substituting clear and effective characterizations for convoluted lore and nauseating fight sequences. The characters that worked so well in Black Pearl became nonsensical ciphers and comical Flanderizations with ineffective or unintelligible wants.

The argument could be made that Will Turner wants to liberate Elizabeth from imprisonment and then his father from the Flying Dutchman. While these wants are certainly understandable, the problem is that freeing Elizabeth is a reactionary want that gets completely resolved without him, and his desire to free his father doesn’t actually change him as a character. Turner changed to win Elizabeth’s heart in Black Pearl, but from Dead Man’s Chest onwards he doesn’t change at all. He stagnates, becomes less and less relevant to the increasingly baffling mythology, and eventually gets booted from the franchise altogether and into the Hobbit movies – even if he doesn’t exactly fit there.

POTC 8

Still, he fared better than Sparrow, who becomes less interesting, relevant, and likeable with every outing. His intricacies and heart-felt desire aside, Sparrow works well in Black Pearl as a supporting character because he functions in service to Turner’s arc. Though they pursue different wants, they pursue them in tandem along the same path, even to the point of tag-teaming between who’s driving the plot forward. Their arcs become intertwined in a sort of dual journey – Sparrow’s pursuit of the Black Pearl allows Turner to pursue Elizabeth, and Turner winning Elizabeth’s heart allows Sparrow to win the Pearl. Once they both get what they want and go their separate ways they aren’t as interesting to watch, especially because their wants in the sequels are flimsy at best and self-serving at worst.

I mean, Sparrow’s sole motivation in Dead Man’s Chest is saving his own skin from Davy Jones. He becomes so selfish and cowardly he even barters Turner’s life for his own, apparently having forgotten the great lengths he made to protect him from Barbossa just last film. His desire to avoid death bloats into a hunger for immortality by the fourth movie, a want that A), comes pretty much out of nowhere, and B) is absolutely unbecoming of someone who’s now supposed to be the protagonist. I don’t even know what the hell he wanted in Number Five, though I strongly suspect it was out of his studio contract.

With each installment he becomes more cartoony and ridiculous, eschewing all the human traits that made him nuanced in Black Pearl. After four movies the once shrewd, calculating rogue is reduced to a bumbling, incoherent fool, a fall from grace that, sadly, reflects the man portraying him all too well.

CONCLUSION

I love Curse of the Black Pearl. It’s a fun adventure film with memorable characters, a rousing score, and some creative subversions of the genre (ever notice how the pirates are trying to return treasure instead of plunder it?). I could dedicate another eight pages to breaking down Captain Barbossa and Elizabeth Swann, but alas I have no time.

To close, a character needs to be relatable and have wants and needs that are clear, universal, and emotionally resonant to be effective. Will Turner and Captain Jack Sparrow largely meet these marks in Curse of the Black Pearl, which I personally like to pretend was the last time I ever saw either of them.

To be continued in Part III…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s