I be feeling a bit nostalgic today, mates. So let’s talk about one of my favorite scenes in film history. It’s not a particularly spectacular scene by most standards, but it encapsulates a concept that’s executed so beautifully, it makes my crusty writer’s heart weep with joy.
And possibly with a teensy bit of drunkenness, because rum.
Behold, ye scalawags!
Sometimes it can be difficult to pin down what exactly makes a character so compelling. Jack Sparrow is undeniably one of the great, iconic characters in cinema, but why? Is it Johnny Depp’s inspired insanity? The clever dialogue? Just a really good costume?
No, from a writer’s perspective, I think the answer in this case is simple: Jack Sparrow is singularly memorable because he is singularly motivated. He may seem to rapidly change sides as the balance of power shifts, but really, everything he does throughout the film–without exaggeration, every single move he makes and line he speaks–is all designed to bring him closer to his goal of recovering the Black Pearl. Even his desire for revenge on Barbossa is secondary and incidental to getting his ship.
That’s the beauty of this scene on the beach. In case you can’t watch, here’s the relevant bit:
JACK: Wherever we want to go, we’ll go. That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails, that’s what a ship needs but what a ship is… what the Black Pearl really is… is freedom.
Here, Jack’s given a moment to explain himself, to get to the underlying truth that really drives him. The Black Pearl is a tangible item rather unique to Jack, but the desire for freedom, that’s what Elizabeth, the sheltered rich girl with an adventurous heart, connects with. It’s what the audience connects with. It’s something primal, one of those lizard-brain truths that transcends circumstance to speak to a broader human experience. Those primal, basic motivations are hugely important in fiction, one of the reasons we tell stories and one of the things that make stories effective. Hell, it’s the reason that the damsel in distress keeps popping up even though we all know how problematic it is by now; the trope’s still bloody useful to writers, because what’s more primal than protecting someone you love?
This strong motivation also serves the structure of the script. Jack is an active character; his plots and counter-plots drive the story forward, lending urgency and tension even though he’s not, strictly speaking, the protagonist. True, most of his pivots are in reaction to the changing circumstances throughout the story, but crucially, he’s not purely reactionary: he walks into Port Royal with a plan, and that’s largely what he sticks to. He adapts as needed to get to the ultimate goal, but that goal never changes.
And, more importantly, it’s this trait that shows us why the sequels aren’t nearly as successful from a storytelling standpoint. In Dead Man’s Chest, Jack has his ship back and (somewhat contrivedly) lost the treasure at Isla de la Muerta, and thus doesn’t know what he wants anymore. They try to make it a plot point (his magic compass doesn’t work correctly because it’s motivated by his heart’s desire), but it doesn’t disguise or compensate for the fact that he’s a weaker character because of this development.
There’s a reason for that old cliche of actors asking about their motivation, and there’s a reason that the formula for a successful query or blurb boils down to “Who’s the hero, what do they want, what’s in their way.” The stuff that a character does simply doesn’t resonate with us as much as their reasons for doing it. People connect with a character they can relate to, no matter how fantastical and unfamiliar their circumstances.
If your story doesn’t have someone with a clear, strong motivation (and it doesn’t have to be the protagonist; this is a role frequently played by the villain, after all), perhaps you should dig a little deeper to see what makes them tick. Maybe get drunk on a deserted beach. Seems to help.