Chris A. Jackson is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novels Pirate’s Honor and Pirate’s Promise. His self-published and small-press work includes the Scimitar Seas and Weapon of Flesh series, which have won three consecutive gold medals in the Foreword Reviews Book of the Year awards, as well as becoming Kindle best sellers. Jackson has also written a novella set in Privateer Press’s RPG fiction line. He lives on a sailboat in the Caribbean.
Let’s face it, pirates make much better villains than protagonists. There’s not much redeeming or sympathetic in a violent career criminal. There’s that whole burn, pillage, murder thing, right? Historically, pirates were not nice folks, certainly not by today’s standards. Crafting one into a viable protagonist is no small chore.
Starting from the basics, a protagonist must have laudable qualities. If they don’t, your reader won’t give a damn if they live or die. First, let’s give our pirate protagonist something to stand for, some great love. With my Pathfinder pirate hero, Torius Vin, I didn’t stray too far from historical accuracy: freedom and independence, being one’s own master, and avoiding living under the yoke of servitude. Pitting a pirate against an “oppressive evil empire” also works. Everyone loves an underdog, after all. It’s probably best not to create a protagonist as noble as Robin Hood, but something nearer Malcolm Reynolds of the short-lived and much-loved Firefly series works. A pirate who robs because this is the only way to survive, make a living, and remain free is less evil. Even better if they regret where circumstances have put them.
There is also the issue of the sanctity of human life. If your pirates pirate, it would be best to limit their acts of murder and mayhem to that which are directly opposed to the aforementioned evil empire, or create a “code of conduct” that avoids the loss of human life to the absolute minimum to get the job done. With Torius, I made it clear that he would not kill unnecessarily, and would never *ever* sell sailors into slavery. You can also direct the piratical activities against greater evils like slavery, the overt or oppressive greed of the wealthy, or what I used initially for Torius, other criminals. Remember also, loyalty is a virtue. I made Torius intensely loyal to his crew. This, of course, does not mean that their loyalty can’t be betrayed by others.
So, why is your pirate a pirate? Let’s add some backstory, some event in your pirate’s past that threw them into this renegade trade. Just some examples: Your protagonist could have been unjustly accused of a heinous crime, mutiny, or treason. I made Torius a former slave, escaped from his piratical master and knowing no other trade. Perhaps even a simple merchant captain is forced into piracy by the aforementioned “evil empire” that is strangling the little entrepreneur to death. We could even go with the “post apocalypse” theme, where piracy is the only means of survival, or the only way for the common folk to strike back at the perpetrators of the apocalypse.
Good so far, but now we need to lighten up the very grim profession of stealing other people’s stuff for profit. There’s not a lot of humor to be had in outright plunder on the high seas, so you have to make some. Here’s where it’s fun to start throwing twists into the support characters, situational setting, or plot. I’d caution against creating a “Jack Sparrow” but a little piratical humor is not difficult to achieve. Oddball crew members or ulterior motives for plundering (Paying off student loans perhaps?) can add a laugh. There is also much to be said for the colorful language of the ne’er-do-well. One should probably stay away from “pirate speak”, but there’s plenty of room for original quips and descriptive expletives. This is where, for me, hanging around salty old fishermen throughout my youth paid off in a treasure trove of old saws. Get imaginative, get a little raunchy without being outright crude, and get hilarious. After all, someone who makes you laugh can’t be all bad. But remember, being funny doesn’t mean your protagonist is “all good” either. We all loved Jayne’s line in Serenity, “I’ll kill a man in a fair fight…or if he’s thinking about starting a fair fight…or if there’s a woman.” right? So, the good-hearted bad guy is workable, just don’t make your pirate too bad—your reader won’t like them— or too good—your reader won’t believe the character is realistic.
Lastly, remember that people change, and a protagonist can start out bad and turn toward loftier goals when something drives them to great things. Think of Han Solo, self-serving smuggler and scoundrel, driven to heroism through love of and loyalty to his more heroic friends. Remember, tropes are tropes because they work. Don’t be afraid to rework a classic with your own twists.
Most of all, make your pirate a real person with faults and foibles, dreams and goals, loves and hates. Make them fallible. Let them screw up occasionally. Let them fall in love and be betrayed. Let them get mad, and then get even.
In other words, make your pirate protagonist human.