There’s something about pirates that disarms us. Har de har har. My favourite characters are pirates, and who doesn’t love Jack Sparrow? But I find it hard to reconcile the truth of what I know – scurvy, diseases, general lack of hygiene, ruthlessness and often a death at sea – with the image I wish were true.
Looking at writing another story, I’ve come to the line where I can no longer dance a merry peg-legged jig around the line between fantasy and accuracy. ‘Why bother?’ you may wonder. Because, most precious reader, if the reader has to believe an untruth, the closer the rest of the world is to what they know, the more willing they will be to accept your lie. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, you must first know this : all stories are lies. The extent of the lie determines its believability. Never forget that it is the willing suspension of disbelief that sustains your audience’s interest. To tell a convincing lie, you must include some element of the truth, twisted or not.
If I want to have fantasy-land pirates, what does it take away from my story elsewhere? What other untruth will I have to forego in order to keep my pirates firmly in place? And what does it add to or remove from my story if I have one type of pirate or another? Perhaps nothing but my enjoyment, but perhaps whole issues of tone and pacing. Real world pirates are not so interesting for me to write, so if they intend to feature as a large element of my story, they certainly can’t. There’s nothing so boring as reading a piece of writing written by a bored author. I mark student assignments. I can tell the difference. If the pirates are grand and grandiose, however, and were meant to feature within certain bounds, how do I stop them overflowing those bounds to insinuate themselves into the rest of the story?
I suppose the real question there is : should I? If something is interesting for me, and for my audience, need I cut it short? Perhaps not. Maybe these pirates will find their way into the rest of the story, and that’s not especially a bad thing. Much like Dustin Hoffman as the pirate captain in Stardust became one of my most beloved characters instantly, and Captain Kenneth from the Liveship Traders series my most reviled, they have taken over my recollections of both of those works, and ones I immensely enjoyed. None of the other characters are as memorable for me. ‘But what about the main characters?’ you may ask, ever eager to question my decisions. Well, they carry the story along favourably, and come to a resolution. But it’s the story, not the main characters, that I remember, and both pirates feature strongly. The acceptance of Dustin Hoffman’s character by his crew is heart-warming. The moment between Captain Kenneth and Paragon is sublime. I couldn’t explain why I cried, save that I did.
So do I have the right to dictate to my audience how much time they spend, and with which characters? Absolutely. Do I have the ability to dictate who they find the most likeable or memorable? Not a chance. Good characterisation, touching backstories and believable motivations are all aspects I can provide, but they’re only stepping stones for the imagination. I can only write characters that I like and understand, whether from the standpoint of villain or hero and hope the audience will fall into alignment with my beliefs, but it’s never a sure thing. There’s as much fanart for Voldemort as there is for Harry Potter. There’s probably more slash fiction about Snape than any other character, as far as I can tell from my memories of a misspent “youth”. There will always be people who sympathise with Wormtongue, as there should be. We cannot know what will appeal to any given person at any given time. The things we hate when we’re younger we can grow to love in old age, and one character will speak more strongly to your reader than anyone else. Can you define what experience your reader has?
No, but you can give them the best one possible. Know your characters, know their motivations and know their reactions, and you’ll be one step closer to writing something your audience can believe in. If that involves bending a few rules, bend the heck out of them, and smooth things over by flying straight elsewhere. Your audience may not explicitly thank you for excellent characterisation, but they’ll sure put your book down if it’s boring. Help them give you the benefit of the doubt.
And as for me, I’ve decided to take my own advice and go with then fun pirates. What could possibly go wrong?