I want to ask about a certain style on how to present a character. I know Jack Sparrow is from a movie (and I've only watched the movies too) but I want to integrate in my writing how he was presented in the movies.

To be short, he's a protagonist but his screen time is less than the other characters. And also, in every Pirates of the Carribean movie, it's like there is a whole different "arc" for each movie, and it doesn't revolve around "main Jack Sparrow arc" or something like that.

I feel like Jack Sparrow is more of a side character but his presence has a huge impact on each movie arc. And the audience is always waiting for Jack Sparrow to come, even though there is an ongoing story parallel to whatever Jack is doing.

In other words, it's like he's a main character but he's not, because in every arc, he just pops in, contributes something, and pops out. And the other "main characters" progress with the story.

Is there a name for this kind of trope, or style, or like the literary device on how to present a character?

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    Maybe TV Trope's Supporting Protagonist provides an adequate explanation? – Alexander Sep 17 at 18:46
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    You forgot one thing: in the first movie, JACK SPARROW IS NOT A MAIN CHARACTER! Even though he is the most memorable, from how and when he is introduced to what parts in the plot he plays: he is a side character. Hard to believe but true – Hobbamok Sep 18 at 8:02
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    "and I've only watched the movies too" → Well, to be fair, the movies aren't based on any book, but on the general theme behind Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. There are books, yes, but they were written after the first movie's success. So I'd say that, when it comes to analyzing the characters, the movies are the original and best source (even if it doesn't help much with the "integrate in my writing" part). – walen Sep 18 at 8:03
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    Compare and contrast Jack Burton in Big trouble in Little China, who thinks he's the main character action hero, but in actual fact is the comic relief sidekick – Wenlocke Sep 18 at 10:32
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    And it's Captain Jack Sparrow – Alexander von Wernherr Sep 19 at 8:51
up vote 104 down vote accepted

There are several ways to think of Jack because he takes on many, many roles depending on what the movie needs. In general, he's a walking plot device and only very rarely does he develop anything along a character arc. If he does develop, he may not be faithful to it. And his role changes from point to point as the movie has different demands.

Primarily: Jack is an Iconic Character (Hero and Villain)

An Iconic Character is a known entity. They have a very, very strong personality that is largely set in stone. Within any given episode they may explore some of that territory you didn't understand previously; but they always revert back to the mean. Most super heroes are Iconic characters. Who they are is recognized, loved and adored. Anything they go through may be challenging, but it's what they do to the world around them that is interesting; not what they do to themselves. Mad Max is another very good example of an iconic character. Max does not change, he changes his world. And this can be compelling if the world is interesting and needs to change.

Iconic Characters, chemically, are catalysts. They bring to the world something that is different, that inspires chemical change around them, but not within themselves.

Please note there is that one arc with Swan where Jack looks like he's having an arc. It turns out he doesn't; it's all for Swan's character development in the end.

Jack is a McGuffin

A McGuffin is the thing you want to find because as soon as you do you'll get the next piece you need to solve the big problem; whatever it is. Jack often takes on this role, even though he often is rarely pivotal in solving whatever the problem is. He is known to the audience, they feel something about him, they usually want to see him and so just teasing that what you're after is getting Jack Sparrow on the case is enough to hook an audience while you develop the rest of your arc.

Jack as Strange

A thing you like to have in genre fiction, fantasy especially, is a touch of the strange. Jack is usually the character used to introduce and interact with that strangeness. He is usually strongly related to "element x". Access to him grants access to the larger world: one that is scary and exciting. This is not the McGuffin. No one goes out to find the strange. This is a cost of him showing up in your character's lives.

Jack as Antagonist

The antagonist is the one who stands in the way of the primary characters getting what they want. While Jack rarely holds this role the entire movie and is often not thought of as the bad guy; he often is the thing standing in the way of others happiness. Jack becomes an antagonist when a scene needs one. Most often this is because he's after something, usually something very unclear, and it's not until he and the main characters reconcile their directions that they can move forward.

Jack as Problematic Protagonist

Jack is never the protagonist that you root for in the long run, but when he does advance his own agenda it almost always causes problems for others to deal with. This is a classic part of his antagonistic role; but it also sometimes knocks down walls, open doors or initiates the role of a true antagonist to come onto the scene. This is usually a very engaging scene, whenever it happens, because it's usually full of crazy. The point is that it's baked into the character that you expect him to do something for his own reasons that make everything worse. This is very valuable as a plotting device because it often feels organic. Jack is just being Jack again.

Jack as Skeleton Key

I've already alluded to this, but Jack is the one that opens very specific doors. This is a minor part that he plays, but it's important to understand as a facet of his character. At some point he opens a door that otherwise could not be opened. He is one of those items you pick up in a dungeon to get to the mini boss. This is like the McGuffin, but also sometimes something more. Rather than being a boring item sitting in a chest somewhere he walks around, does his own thing and causes problems. So he is a more interesting skeleton key, especially when the things he's doing and the problems he cause factor into solving the character development problem of others. It's very hard to cause character development with a latent prop.

It's easier when your prop walks around and pushes your character past their breaking point, or puts them into a situation where they must make a decision. Jack is ultimately the one who figures out how to do that and the movies occasionally imply he does this intentionally.

Jack as the Lucky Fool

There are lots of characters who only succeed because they are lucky. Chaos can occur all around them and they walk through it unscathed. Occasionally Jack is this person.

Jack as Trickster

This is one of the standard character archetypes. Essentially tricksters have other-worldly or super human knowledge that allows them to deceive others, take what they want or operate within the world by a different set of rules that often seem convenient, contrived, or godly.

Tricksters often do many of the things described above. Getting them to do the thing that is helpful for you when all they are interested is making problems or getting what they want out of the world is a puzzle for others to solve.

Jack as Rogue

A rogue is bad guy who steals from bad people to help themselves and sometimes others. You like them because they do unto worse what you can't. Robin Hood, Guardians of the Galaxy, Indiana Jones, Ocean's 11, and Han Solo. All of these are rogue stories. Rogues are usually thieves because stealing from bad people is easy and appears to be victimless. People naturally like rogues, and they are interesting to tell stories about, because it's easy to have them change their mind or do something awful that has to be dealt with. It’s easy to root for and against them. They live in a narrative gray space that you can play with.

Jack as Comedic Relief

Jack often is only in a scene to lighten the tension or make a joke. Be it about a “thump-thump” or not getting eaten. Jack is the punch line to the joke. If scenes get too tense you usually want an escape release in a movie like pirates to keep the thing fun and light. Without the joke you can easily slip in to Darkness the Darkening. Since Jack does not take the world seriously and at times appears to be slightly insane, it's relatively easy to use him for this; that also makes him fun to watch.

He's not the only character with this feature, and it's not unique to him. It's a part of the world, something in everyone at different times. But he does take it to his own personal extremes and it is used to emphasize all of the other types of roles he has.

It's also the thing that makes you realize he's not going to be the one to save the day. He can't be. He's not focused enough or serious enough. This leaves space for the true hero to step forward and solve the problem. It also leaves space for the reversal, because once the audience doesn't trust him he can actually do something and surprise them.

Jack as Foil

Jack represents those things others want to be and don't want to be at various points. He does this largely without changing himself. He acts as an example of what others could be and choose not to be, or choose to be. How people feel about him is often more important than how he feels about others.

Jack as Failure

Jack is the thing no one wants to be at the end of the day, but everyone wants to be for a day. He had no friends. He has no love. He has none of the things he wants. He's extremely capable, and almost never permanently successful.

He lets everyone see what fun is, but he ultimately conveys to the audience and to the other characters that you don't want fun at the end of the day; you want satisfaction, contentment, acceptance, and fulfilment. (And ok, if the characters are stuck in a rut, sometimes the thing you need is Adventure).

Jack shows others what it means to fail, even if he fails spectacularly.

Jack is a Toolbox, a Jack of all Trades

His primary point of existence is to change the world around him and the narrative. He provides obstacles, reasons to do things, ideas about the world he understands, and brings in the strange. He escalates small problems into large ones. He can't be trusted, but he is needed.

Most importantly. If you have Jack in a scene that's not working, you can do just about anything to make it more interesting and get to the next scene. This was probably important since they largely filmed all of the battles before writing down why they were having them. Which brings up the last and final important point. Used poorly Jack is the cheat sheet the teacher discovers you're using that ruins the rest of your year. The movies that lean harder on Jack are ultimately the ones that suck just a bit more than the rest. Toolbox characters need to be used lightly and with precision or you risk diluting their effect.

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    @ArcanistLupus You can, by awarding a 50-point bounty. – Davislor Sep 18 at 12:53
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    Great answer! A couple of random others like this: Captain Planet, Dumbledore, Falstaff, Santa Claus, Aslan, and Jar-Jar Binks. – elliot svensson Sep 18 at 14:50
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    Would you say Captain Jack could be described as a Deuteragonist? (also: +1) – Pahlavan Sep 19 at 8:33
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    @vaxquis read up on Max's development. Miller intentionally writes him to always return to wondering hero at the end of every movie. He has been quoted, on record, that Max's stories are about the people he runs into, more than himself. If you want an argument, go find Miller as he's the one who intentionally wrote Max this way. (The first movie positions him in this role) – Kirk Sep 19 at 13:54
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    @Kirk The fact that he changes both ways and goes back to starting point doesn't mean he doesn't change. Also, he doesn't start like that in the first movie. Miller made the first movie in completely different circumstances than the later ones, and it follows that the continuity was broken many times in the series (that's not only my opinion, see e.g. birthmoviesdeath.com/2015/05/13/…). Also, I never said that the stories ain't about the people - I only said that, in order to be "[a] myth to comfort kids around campfires", he changes. – vaxquis Sep 20 at 11:18

Sir Terry Pratchett had several characters who, like Jack Sparrow, were used sparingly in the stories of others, but had a strong presence both in terms of their impact on the story, and in terms of the way the audience saw them. Pratchett wrote:

Like Death and the Librarian, I tend to use Vetinari sparingly, lest he take over every plot. (The Art of Discworld)

So what is it that gives a character such a presence that they have a strong impact on the story without having a lot of presence, and in their brief time in the limelight they attract a following easily comparable to the main protagonists'?

  • The first thing, I think is charisma. They are compelling personalities. In fact, if you think about it, Jack Sparrow is particularly known for his outrageous charisma.
  • Second, they are extreme in some way, compared to the more balanced protagonist. They are not bound by rules that most characters in the same story consider binding. They stand out.
  • Third, they're badass in whatever it is they do.

Such characters are "too much" for the focus of the story - they are too big, too outrageous. So they are used sparingly, like strong spice.

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    He had a similar problem with the Watch in Ankh-Morpork. I don't have the quote to hand, but he said something about how he created Moist because any time the Watch showed up in a story, the story inevitably became about the Watch. Moist, by virtue (by vice?) of being a crook, would want to avoid the Watch, and kept the Watch either just in the wings or out of the stories altogether. – Richard Ward Sep 18 at 12:36

Great answers from @Kirk and @Galastel. Just wanted to note a few things about Tricksters that you may find helpful.

In the first movie, Sparrow is primarily a Trickster. But he gets to wear different masks and change archetypes in the series. For instance, Sparrow mentors Will Turner about his father. As @Kirk noted, Sparrow serves the story in many capacities. According to the screenwriters (in the Blu-Ray commentary), the protagonist in the original Pirates of the Caribbean is Elizabeth Swann.

Generally, Tricksters don't arc. They arrive fully formed, and confidently thumb their noses at authority. That's why they can speak their minds and say funny things, because they frankly don't care about or don't fear repercussions.

The character arc, the inner journey, will happen to your protagonist who actually needs the seemingly random interference that the Trickster provides. So the Trickster serves your hero by shaking up their world or their world-view, and also serves your audience by relieving tension through comedy.

For most viewers, Sparrow is so captivating he just dominates those films. That's a tribute to Johnny Depp, the screenwriters, and to the Pirates of the Caribbean filmmakers.

I really liked what @Galastel said, namely:

  • they are extreme in some way, compared to the more balanced protagonist. They are not bound by rules that most characters in the same story consider binding.

  • Such characters are "too much" for the focus of the story - they are too big, too outrageous.

However I would like to disagree a little as well.

As I see it, the main characteristic Bwrites is focusing on is "being protagonist behind the scenes" and one does not have to be charismatic or a trickster for that. They just need to have a big influence on the plot. Their actions may not be directly tied to plot development, but they influence it at every step.

Such a protagonist (or an antagonist) can not act alone, otherwise the plot will be defined entirely by their actions and they will lose that air of "uninvolvement", so there's a secondary, "main" protagonist. As that protagonist follows the plot they usually encounter obstacles and overcome them. Sometimes introducing a reasonable obstacle or a solution is hard and the way writers handle that is often what makes books good or bad.

In case of a background protagonist or antagonist, both obstacles and solutions can be introduced through them. Character falls into an unexpected trap? It wasn't actually meant for them, they are insignificant, big bad was trying to catch the background protagonist. Character miraculously avoids being chased? It was because big bad was distracted by a more significant prey. The background protagonist.

And that's why it is useful: you do not have to explain how the background protagonist gets out of these tight situations. He can escape inescapable situation and be convincingly far smarter, than the writer itself, because the writer doesn't have to explain how he does things or prove his intelect or ability.

Basically as a personification of A Wizard Did It trope. I think that is what makes him so important, despite being a background character. Gandalf plays a somewhat similar role in LOTR, he is the one behind big events, though in his case, he gets the spotlight more often and acts from backround less. But then there's Ent forest and Balrog and all the negotiations and stuff.

As a side note about background antagonists: many cartoons (TMNT) have a scary background big bad and many little foreground baddies. Big bad's presence is always there, but the actual main antagonists change from episode to episode and are less important. Some cartoons don't do that (Spiderman probably).

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