Introduction: Pirate vs. Privateer vs. Sailor
So I’m going to start this post with a quick and dirty rundown of what makes a pirate a pirate. Pirates are unauthorized crews that usually plunder other ships for their living. Pirates are distinct from privateers, who tend to do the same (plundering ships for a living) because privateers do so with permission from some government and as a result only target certain vessels. Sailors are generally the crew on board a private or naval vessel that earn their living “honestly,” meaning their vessel doesn’t usually plunder others and their paychecks are more based on actual sailing work.
Pirates as Antagonists
Pirates do make for great antagonists, even in stories that aren’t really about pirates. Pirates are outside of the law regardless of the moral compasses they carry, so law-abiding protagonists will naturally be opposed to a pirate in their story. Pirates can also easily and realistically be portrayed as violent, determined, rude, drunk, selfish, and downright evil. While there are pirates that are admired throughout history, there have been violent acts committed by pirates and if your story concerns someone who falls victim to those crimes then the pirates are the natural antagonists. Pirate ships did tend to be smaller faster sloops, and it was easy to overcome a slow and overburdened merchant ship on the water. Pirates also spent more time learning the hiding places and safe areas of islands in the Caribbean and off the coast of Africa. Pirates can seem absolutely terrifying if they’re hunting someone down, making for a good horrific antagonist as well.
Pirates as Protagonists
Pirates also make excellent protagonists because of how romanticized they’ve been in literature and history alike. I’ll get more into that in the next section. Pirates appeal to a sense of wanting freedom–the majority of pirate protagonists cite their love of freedom and the sea as the reason they became pirates. They want the freedom to move about on their ships without being regulated by any government. Historically, pirate ships were also havens for people who fell outside of societal norms. Gay men, for example, could enter into unions on pirate ships and gay partners were recognized in the distribution of money to spouses when a pirate was killed in battle. There are enough examples of women becoming pirates from China to Ireland to establish the historical fact that women could find a place outside of society on a pirate ship. Thus, it’s easy in literature to create a compelling pirate protagonist who simply wants to be free from whatever restrictions society would place on them.
Why is piracy romanticized?
Even in the Golden Age of Piracy there were discussions on why some people romanticized the lives of pirates. As I pointed out in the section above, it would make sense for those living on the outermost boundaries of society to romanticize piracy. Being openly gay was permitted in some crews, Black people could seek freedom from slavery on pirate ships, women could occasionally pursue a new lifestyle. But the single most populous group that became pirates were those press-ganged into the navies of major European countries. Men without a steady job were often forced into naval service, where they were simply cannon fodder in various wars. The idea of escaping that life, but still utilizing the skills that a naval ship taught them, was appealing. Pirate crews tended to make more money than a basic naval salary for those enlisted or press-ganged. If a pirate died at sea, their wife and children on land might actually receive a decent inheritance and be able to sustain themselves.
For those that never had to make the decisions of defecting, saving one’s life, or committing to a moral code against piracy, pirates were romanticized in a different way. There was still a sense of rebellion against major governments; sometimes one’s own and sometimes one’s enemy. Writers romanticized notorious pirates that appeared to have a sense of national pride, such as English pirates who only attacked the French and Spanish (and vice versa for writers in France and Spain). In fact, these were the pirates often made privateers by their home nation. Other pirates, who explored far away places and brought back stories and valuables, were romanticized as travelers often are. Without firsthand knowledge of the grueling and dangerous life at sea, it was easy for people to romanticize piracy as treasure and travel.
Pirates are both fun to write and fun to read about. You can make a pirate bloodthirsty and ruthless, or you can play with the “heart of gold” tropes. Piracy can be whatever you make it, because the only consistency with pirates is that they live somewhere outside the laws of society. All-women crews, found family tropes, LGBTQ+ and disabled rep, and many more are options with a pirate protagonist, or even with the antagonist if the story is about rival pirates. Hell, I’ve read books with all vampire pirate crews. Pirates are easy to romanticize, but they also call to mind plenty of negative associations making them easy to paint as the villains. It’s actually really interesting how many genres can incorporate pirates since they can be so versatile. Science fiction has pirates, fantasy has pirates, historical romances have pirates. Is it any surprise that pirates appeal so widely across the board, when they always have?