Writing Villains: Barbossa
For many reasons, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is one of my all time favorite films. It’s shaped my childhood, inspired dreams of swashbuckling, and continues to influence my writing today.
While the later movies in the series were entertaining, they don’t quite measure up to the careful craft and brilliance of the first film. And while I could go on about William and Elizabeth and the quirky pirate-rockstar Captain Jack Sparrow, the character that made this movie legendary to me was Captain Barbossa.
“There are a lot of long words there miss. We're naught but humble pirates.”
As writers, we often spend a lot of time agonizing over how to introduce our heroes in a way that gets the reader to instantly like them and form a connection. Without that connection, a reader is likely to put down the book and a viewer to stop watching.
The Curse of the Black Pearl introduces its heroes perfectly. In his first scene, William (the adult character) is shown as awkward, proud, unappreciated, skilled in both craftsmanship and swordplay, in love with Elizabeth, and too much of a gentleman to say anything about it. And no one will ever forget Captain Jack Sparrow riding in on the top sail of his sinking boat and stepping off onto the docks like that was his plan all along.
This film puts the same care and attention to detail in introducing Barbossa. He is as much a main character as the heroes are. In the Pearl’s raid on Port Royal, they could have had Barbossa leading the charge on the governor’s mansion. But instead he’s revealed after the raid is over when Elizabeth asks to be taken to the captain. This builds anticipation before we meet him.
When Barbossa first appears on screen, he is a shadow of a man with a wide hat standing at the helm of his ship, black torn sails above him confirming the legends of the Pearl. A monkey swings up to his shoulder to complete the image. Barbossa is the picture of a mythic pirate captain.
At first, he has all the control in a power play against Elizabeth. He acts as a gentleman as an intentional move to prove his power, stepping in to stop his crew from striking Elizabeth when she’s under the protection of Parley. Elizabeth bargains for the pirates to leave, and Barbossa proves that he’s smart enough to play her game when he says, “I’m disinclined to acquiesce your request. Means ‘no.’”
It’s not until Elizabeth threatens to drop the medallion overboard that we see who Barbossa really is. He’s not a man who holds all the power. He’s a desperate man surrounded by desperate people. Readers/viewers tend to quickly connect to someone with a desire. He wants something—the gold. This builds even more mystery, because as Barbossa said himself, they’re pirates, one piece of gold shouldn’t matter. But it does, and that makes us curious.
“You best start believing in ghost stories, Ms. Turner. You’re in one.”
Ultimately, Barbossa’s desire and the way he gets it is what makes him one of the greatest villains for me.
Barbossa is under an ancient curse for stealing Aztec gold which makes him and his crew immortal. But it also makes them inhuman, living cursed lives as half dead. Barbossa tells Elizabeth, “For too long I’ve been parched of thirst and unable to quench it. Too long I’ve been starving to death and haven’t died. I feel nothing. Not the wind on my face, nor the spray of the sea, nor the warmth of a woman’s flesh.”
Barbossa is tormented. His suffering is supernatural but relatable. We all know what it’s like to be parched, what agonizing hunger feels like. Barbossa is hungry. He wants to feel. (There’s a strange inconsistency with his curse: how can he feel the pain of starving if he can’t feel? But since his curse is supernatural I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and accept that he’s suffering from starvation and unable to feel at the same time.) What matters is his existence is miserable and he just wants to be human again.
Barbossa is the villain, but he’s not motivated by greed or power, even if he once was in the past. Now he just wants to be mortal. The tragedy of Barbossa is that the heroes really don’t have anything against him completing his goal. No one is invested in stopping him from becoming human again. They actually ensure it happens at the most opportune moment. It’s the way Barbossa goes about accomplishing his goal—kidnapping Elizabeth and threatening to kill Will—that puts him at odds with the heroes.
The brilliance of Barbossa’s desire is that his suffering is symbolically everywhere. He surrounds himself with food, presenting Elizabeth with a feast fit for kings, but he cannot eat it. His cabin is full of light and warmth, but he cannot feel it. He carries an apple around with him and even grimaces when Jack takes a bite of it. And he tells Elizabeth that once the curse is lifted, he’s going to eat a whole bushel of apples.
No one can judge him for wanting to eat a bushel of apples. That’s not a villainous desire. That’s a human desire.
“So what now, Jack Sparrow? We to be two immortals locked in an epic battle until Judgement Day and trumpet sound?”
But then Barbossa gets exactly what he wants in the most tragic way. In the end he’s doubled-crossed by Jack, enters an immortal sword fight, and finally aims to shoot Elizabeth. But Jack fires first (using the very pistol Barbossa gave Jack to kill himself when he marooned him), and a moment later William spills his blood and returns the last of the Aztec gold.
Barbossa sees that the curse is lifted. He’s human again, finally. And he’s just been shot.
“I feel,” he says, almost smiling. It’s his greatest desire, to feel again. But then his face drops and he says, “Cold.” He dies, dropping the apple he’s been waiting to finally taste. It’s uneaten.
Barbossa gets what he wants. The very moment he is mortal at last, he dies. There’s tragic poetry to that. His desire is fulfilled, but instead of finding life, he finds death. Instead of feeling warmth, he feels cold. Every element of his character comes together in this final moment, and it’s one of the best death scenes I’ve seen.
“The Code is more what you call guidelines than actual rules.”
Unfortunately Pirates of the Caribbean was such a success that it became a franchise, and Disney brought Barbossa back. Even if his resurrection undermines the brilliance of his character in the first movie, I still believe that the Barbossa in the first movie is one of the most well-crafted villains with the most poetic deaths.
When working at a literary agency and as an editor today, I often see one-dimensional villains. Finding a fresh villain is exciting, adding dynamic layers to your story. It gets publishers and readers invested, too.
In The Curse of the Black Pearl, Barbossa was more than just an evil pirate captain threatening the heroes, more than just an obstacle to overcome or a bad guy to stop. Barbossa was a character of his own. While he still has that dangerous villainous swagger, he also has dimensions and desires that make us sympathize.
Barbossa’s goals, desire, humanity, and death elevated him to a different level. Don’t let your villains be stereotypical or flat. Take that same level of careful attention to character and apply it to your villains. See what works, see what they might be missing, and find ways to tie all aspects of their character together to create a dynamic, developed villain.