Character: Will Turner
Fandom: Pirates of the Caribbean
Spoilers: All three movies
Author's Note: It's all metalkatt's fault - she convinced me four years ago to like Will, and the rest flowed from there. She betaed this essay, and some of the points are things we’ve cussed and discussed over and over and OVER again. I’ve also picked up ideas from meta of other Will fans (and even from those who don’t like him so much), but I can honestly say everything here is something I’ve deliberated myself.
A/N 2: As of August 2007, I have added an UPDATE to the bottom of this essay, incorporating thoughts and spoilers from AWE, titled "Will at World's End."
Too Good to be True?
From a very young age, we’re socialized to want to identify with the heroes of stories – Superman, Hercules, Spider-Man, Jean-Luc Picard, and Atticus Finch, to name a few. Each has certain “powers” they use in the pursuit of either justice for the common man (or alien) or to earn the favor of their lady fair.
But sometimes we find the strictly-good guy a little much to stomach. He just seems too perfect. This is why we also have Batman, Robin Hood, Wolverine, and James T. Kirk. These guys skate the fence – none are as wholly altruistic as Superman, and each is just questionable enough in motive to be dangerous. But more often than not, they do the right thing even if it requires sacrifice on their parts. While we may not revere Kirk’s fire-first-and-ask-questions-later approach to interplanetary diplomacy, we do find him easier to identify with than the rational, thoughtful, almost-inhumanly patient Picard. These “dark heroes” give us both an entry into the story by identifying with their weaknesses, and something noble to which we ourselves can aspire.
It’s no wonder, then, that from a strict character point of view, Jack Sparrow would be more popular among POTC fans than Will Turner (for purposes of this essay, we’re going to ignore their actors – while it’s true that Johnny Depp is a better actor than Orlando Bloom, the truth is that Depp has had considerably more time to develop his craft, and that any young actor having to work with him faces a daunting task, and Bloom handles it quite well). Jack’s the lovable rogue who just wants his ship and his rum, and as hard as he works to chase both, who can deny him such pleasures? After a hard day, we all want a bottle of something and our own place in which to kick back with it.
The only selfish desire that seems to drive Will, by contrast, is keeping his loved ones safe. Orphaned at age ten (this is going by the POTC screenwriters’ original script and comments), he set out on the seas to find his “merchant sailor” father, Bill Turner. He served as a cabin boy for about two years before the ship he was on was attacked by Barbossa and his undead pirate crew, apparently killing everyone on board except Will. He was rescued by Governor and daughter Elizabeth Swann and Lt. James Norrington of the Royal Navy; one presumes either or both men saw to some basic education for young Will and set him up to apprentice Mr. Brown, which was a fairly generous thing to do. Blacksmiths in that time were considered merchants and artisans, and a really good one could be well-compensated for his work – especially if he could also produce quality weapons. Too, Will obviously received fencing lessons at some point in his young life, and it’s unlikely Blacksmith Brown was the one to give them. The Governor and/or Norrington must have thought well of the boy, indeed.
So, if Will had such good primary male role models in his post-formative years, it would stand to reason he would become and remain a model citizen himself. Except … he doesn’t. When the authorities won’t heed his suggestion to question Jack about the whereabouts of the Black Pearl crew, he immediately takes matters into his own hands and frees a known pirate, then accompanies him in the act of hijacking a ship of the Fleet (it’s noteworthy that in order to do this, Will rebels against both primary role models). Being a Disney movie, he is pardoned at the end of the adventure for engineering Elizabeth’s rescue – even here, we see the continuing influence of his two role models, as Norrington graciously accepts the military defeat in the form of Jack’s escape and personal defeat in the form of losing Elizabeth to Will, and Gov. Swann concedes that adhering to the letter of the law isn’t always the best means to a moral end. Will may have changed the most over the course of CotBP, but it’s good to see those who set his example showing from where he may have learned his skill of adaptability.
I’ve been following a discussion thread of late (REALLY late, as in up to the day of this post!) about what it is Will wants – out of life, out of Elizabeth, out of Jack, or anyone and anything else. Further down on the page, there’s a good conversation about whether Will can be classified as sociopathic based on his willingness to not only forego certain conventions to achieve what he wants, but to extremely ignore or upend them. He may not be Jack – yet – but his actions increasingly show an attention to the detail of how Captain Sparrow conducts business, and is certainly in stark contrast to the first movie’s vehement, “Never!” hissed in response to Jack’s, “And you’re wanting to turn pirate yourself?” There are good points, but I don’t support the “sociopathic” label even from the armchair-psychologist point of view, because Will does seem to have a conscience and does seem to be aware other people exist outside of him. Moreover – and perhaps the most telling thing – he doesn’t always do what he thinks will result in the biggest advantage for him personally. (Please note I am not a mental health professional, so it is entirely possible I’m not using the term “sociopath” in the strictest sense of its medical definition.)
In a fashion, Jack becomes a mentor for Will. Whereas Swann and Norrington may have taught Will respect for the law and manners, Jack is perhaps the next step in Will’s adult development – the step in which we all learn that life is not so easily divided into black and white, good and bad. Jack is not an evil character, nor is he entirely good. His own weird sense of honor does exist, and it’s clear toward the end of the first movie that Will sees it and acknowledges its value – he even plays into it by trying to reconcile Jack as a convicted felon who is also a decent human being deserving his protection from unjust legal enforcement. It’s very likely he’ll carry that attitude over to his dealings with Elizabeth in the third movie – he may have seen her kissing Jack and appearing to desire Jack, but if he believes she truly loves Will, he’ll forgive her it. (Whether he’ll forgive her chaining a friend to the mast, no matter how cowardly or underhandedly Jack may have conducted himself with them both in the second movie, remains to be seen.)
An Enlightened Guy
I would suggest that Will is advanced for his time in how he views women, as evidenced by his treatment of Elizabeth, Anamaria, and Tia Dalma. With Anamaria and Tia Dalma, he recognizes in each situation that they are in charge and has no problem treating each with due authority, without the condescension one might expect of a peasant man dealing with gender and social “inferiors” (certainly a pirate like Anamaria isn’t as high socially as a merchant apprentice, and without a majority-accepted religion behind her, Tia Dalma would probably not be viewed as much better than a pirate in Will’s white, patriarchal society).
With Elizabeth, he is both courtly and respectful. He neither manhandles nor kid-gloves her, and the text would suggest he easily agreed with what was probably her desire to learn the sword. Nor was his tutorship merely a token – Elizabeth fights nearly as well as he does, suggesting he taught her everything she would absorb. In both CotBP and DMC, in their scenes of fighting together, Will seems to expect Elizabeth to hold up her end of the fight, whether it’s driving a stake through some undead pirates, guarding a highly-sought artifact, or even drawing a bead near him down the scope of a rifle. He also seems comfortable with her attitude toward their imminent sex life (“If it weren’t for these bars, I’d have you already”), suggesting he does not view her as an object to be won, but as a full participant in their relationship.
The Future Will Turner
If the lesson of CotBP for Will was to learn to spot the gray areas between “good” and “bad,” the lesson of DMC must have been when and whom to trust – and not to base such trust on previous behavior. He trusts Jack more than he should, undoubtedly based on their previous adventures, to the point that he doesn’t ask the proper questions to ensure his own safety. He trusts Elizabeth to remain pledged to him, and while her controversial actions are ostensibly to ensure his safety, we – and Will – are left wondering at the end of DMC if that pledge is still intact and if his trust in her remains earned. When he leaves Port Royal, I would posit that he doesn’t trust Cutler Beckett to keep his word about Elizabeth remaining alive, so much as he trusts the Governor to keep Elizabeth safe, or even Elizabeth herself to escape the gaol.
Oddly, the only person in whom Will places trust and is rewarded for doing so is the one person who previously gave him the most compelling reason for mistrust: Bootstrap Bill Turner, who admitted that he abandoned his wife and son for the sea. Perhaps the biggest lesson of the entire trilogy is that people can and do change, often more drastically than we’d like to think?
As for the lesson Will’s supposed to learn in AWE, with the movie still nearly three months away, it’s impossible to say for certain, though a guess may be hazarded. He’s already learned that bad isn’t always bad and that trust shouldn’t be given freely based on prior behavior. It’s probably safe to say he puts both of these lessons to use and becomes a protagonist rather than a reactionary character in AWE, setting events in motion for the other characters. I foresee him double-crossing both the pirates and the EITC, always with the primary purpose of saving those he loves: Ostensibly, Elizabeth and his father, but I believe he could end up doing the same for friends such as Jack and the Pearl’s crew.
Will in Fandom
Will Turner runs the gamut from admired and adored in fandom, to reviled and mocked. It is perhaps not surprising that detractors of the character are often primarily detractors of the actor playing him. There are some Bloom fans, however, who don’t particularly care for Will, and there are those few who like Will and aren’t very fond of Bloom, so it’s a mistake to say something is “always” the case in a fandom as diverse as POTC.
Those who dislike or just don’t give Will much thought seem to regard him as “wooden” and expressionless, a slip of a second banana to the much grander Jack Sparrow or the requisite Disney “prince” for “princess” Elizabeth’s arm. To dismiss him without giving his character a second look, however, does one’s own appreciation of the movie series as a whole a disservice. Will is an integral character to this trilogy – I don’t see him as wooden or bland, but rather, the stable post to which all the other more daring or more colorful characters of POTC are tethered. As they fly outward into outrageous adventures and battles and schemes, Will seems to keep the balance of the plot anchored. It is largely agreed he changed the least in DMC of the major characters, though he did develop and grow. In every epic, someone has to be the beacon and embodiment of Honor and Good, and Will Turner just may be POTC’s moral center.
Will at World’s End (August 2007 update to above essay)
Above, I made the following observation, only able to speculate on AWE: It’s probably safe to say he puts both of these lessons to use and becomes a protagonist rather than a reactionary character in AWE, setting events in motion for the other characters. I foresee him double-crossing both the pirates and the EITC, always with the primary purpose of saving those he loves: Ostensibly, Elizabeth and his father, but I believe he could end up doing the same for friends such as Jack and the Pearl’s crew.
In AWE, Will Turner definitely became proactive and learned to double-cross and scheme to his own ends. Compared to the likes of Jack Sparrow and Hector Barbossa – and even Elizabeth Swann – though, his “betrayals” have a different flavor than to the actions of those characters, in my opinion. For one, he keeps them secret only as long as need be to achieve his ends, then readily admits what he’s done (witness his admission during the “parlay” scene on the sandbar just before the big ship battle, and stepping forward to admit his part in taking over the Black Pearl, in order to free Elizabeth. He’s not really good at it – he gets caught and thwarted – but he’s a relative neophyte at it, and that’s to be expected.)
Rescuing his father is clearly what drives Will’s actions in most of AWE – he’s not out to preserve himself (like Jack), get something for his own use (Barbossa), or even keep a devastating secret (Elizabeth). But he is conflicted again once he realizes he’s misunderstood Elizabeth’s motives regarding Jack (“You thought I loved him”). I believe it’s fairly clear that he comes to his decision during Elizabeth’s “What shall we die for?” speech, that he will leave the stabbing of the heart to Jack, who has made the offer and taken steps to get nearer to the chest, and instead concentrate on following Elizabeth’s command and making certain she still wishes to marry him.
By this point, the unspoken communication between Will and Jack is nearly perfect, as is Will’s transformation into a more Jack-like planner. Even Elizabeth (and, it can be argued, Barbossa) in the “parlay” scene sees something fly between them and discerns a course of action that plays into Jack’s and Will’s plans without having to ask.
In CotBP, Will tells Jack, “I’d die for her” to save Elizabeth. In AWE, Davy Jones finally takes him up on that offer, robbing Will of his defense (his sword) in the act of Will saving Elizabeth from him, then fatally stabbing him. It is at this moment we understand just how much Will – and possibly both Will and Elizabeth – mean to Jack. Here the pirate captain holds immortality in his hand, literally, and hesitates for his own gain. He’s been dead; he knows how lonely and terrible and painful it is, and doesn’t want to face that again. All through DMC and AWE he’s been set up as a man who will do almost anything to ensure his own safety and continued existence – but now, at the moment of truth, we finally see what, in Jack’s own words, “a man can’t do,” which apparently is sacrifice the life of a friend for even his greatest desire of immortality.
We don’t see much of Will as captain of the Flying Dutchman, but it seems enough to assess that a change has indeed taken place. Gone is any uncertainty, any division of his soul between two opposite goals, now that he has a clear task and a clear goal at the end of it: Rejoining his family. Will began the series as a naïve apprentice seemingly with no hope of obtaining his own identity, serving an incompetent master (Mr. Brown) who took the credit for Will’s work. At the end of AWE, he has replaced an incompetent master of the Dutchman and has yet to prove and establish his own identity – but the opportunity is there, and his name will be known far wider than it ever would have been as even a master craftsman in mortality. (There is also the tangible symbol of “immortality” in the form of a son to carry on his name.)
I mentioned earlier that I see Will as the series’ moral center. That has not changed; if anything, I am more convinced, since I see him as the only character selfless and compassionate enough to comfort and escort the dead to their final resting place. This does not mean I think he’s a saint, or immune to common human emotions such as desire, anger, regret, satisfaction, and jealousy. While I think being made captain of the Dutchman will give him a wider perspective on what’s really important, the fact is that I think he will continue to be subject to his human emotions. I believe it’s important that he retain this quality to do the best job he can, and also to prove that by trying to divorce himself from his emotions, Jones made a grave error that condemned himself, his crew, and the dead he was supposed to serve. Will’s heart was only carved out to keep him breathing, not at his own choice; this is an important distinction between him and Jones. (This is made more interesting by Will’s observation to Jones earlier, wondering what made Jones cut out his heart – the fact that Calypso hadn’t been true to him, or the fact that he hadn’t been true to her and to himself, by turning her over to the Brethren Court for imprisonment. The fact that Will can recognize the distinction goes a long way toward proving he understands what’s really important in relationships.)
Fandom on LiveJournal, at least, continues to be divided about Will. In the months leading up to AWE’s release, much of the fandom seemed to be convinced the plot twist would involve who Elizabeth would pick – Will or Jack. This was proven to be either a mistaken assumption, or a smokescreen deliberately courted by the filmmakers (mostly the screenwriters, in direct dealings with the fans) to cover the real plot twist of the third movie. Only a few people who were Will fans prior to AWE seem to be disenchanted with his decision to engage in double-crossing and scheming; most seem glad he took charge of his own path and were impressed with his handling of schemers more experienced than himself.
Fans of the J/E pairing – who have proven to be Will’s harshest critics in the year leading up to AWE, and perhaps even before then – seem evenly split on their opinion of the character post-AWE. Some regard him unfavorably for mutinying to take Jack’s ship (even given Jack’s past unfavorable treatment of Will); others believe he’s a jerk for holding Elizabeth to be faithful to a marriage in which he cannot participate. Some in this camp believe he forced her into the marriage.
Other J/E fans who had contempt and dislike for Will have changed their minds, either because the character changed their minds during AWE or because they feel that being gone at sea for years at a time, this leaves Elizabeth the freedom to take up with Jack – or any man of her choice – in his absence. This is due largely to what the screenwriters say was poor editing that cut out the explanation that Will could return to land permanently after only 10 years of service – provided Elizabeth was faithful to him, in the way Calypso was NOT faithful to Jones – instead of getting only one day on land for every 10 years of service and being bound to the Dutchman for eternity. It is unknown how much of this J/E “change of heart” about Will would have taken place had it been clear he could return to stay after 10 years; as it is, most interpret canon strictly that Will no longer has a future as a mortal.
Finally, an observation on Will as Death (or at least Death's ferryman): Tia Dalma's comments when she first meets Will in DMC, in hindsight, would suggest his becoming captain of the Dutchman was no random accident. Much of what happens around him seems to support the notion that he has been "groomed" for a role as Death for a long time, if not his entire life. Nearly every ship on which he sets foot sinks, beginning with the ship he's on as a young boy and ending with the Dutchman itself, sinking down into the maelstrom with him on board (it matters not that the ship is unsinkable - it's more metaphor than anything, I believe). The only ones of which we are not certain is whatever ship Will took to Tortuga to find Jack, and the ship with the traders who take him to "Cannibal Island," since we don't see them sink right away. It's often observed in fandom that any man Elizabeth kisses ends up dead, but she shares no such kisses until after she's already kissed Will at the end of CotBP - thus reinforcing the notion that perhaps he's passed the "kiss of death" on to her, and she is a worthy mate for Death because instead of dying herself, she passes it along to others. Even the sword Will forged for Norrington at the beginning of CotBP, as it travels through the series, seems tinged with death - every person who touches it ends up dead, either at its point or by some other means ... including Will, nearly, himself.
RECS AND READING
I don’t claim to be THE repository of everything Will Turner, or even a corner of it on LJ, but I do have a few stories I’ve noted, that either I enjoy or has come highly recommended through a trusted fellow fan. *G*
(I should disclose that I am primarily interested in reading and writing Jack/Will, or “Turrow” – you can check out my own stories here and here, including two Jack/Will/Tia Dalma stories located at the second link. This doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy Will in other pairings, or in het stories, but it will explain why I don’t have many offerings outside that pairing. Please feel free to comment with your own suggestions.)
First, I am the moderator of turningpirate, an LJ community dedicated to meta, fic, art, and music about Will. We’re new, and I doubt we’re the only community for the boy, but there’s a respectable number of people who read and comment – especially the meta, which is gratifying considering the initial root of Will’s appeal for many fans was simply the actor portraying him, and not the character itself. Will’s an interesting fellow – I doubt seriously Elizabeth Swann would be that interested in a truly blasé man.
As for other communities I know about, there’s always the ubiquitous pirategasm. I can’t believe there’s someone who wouldn’t know it already, but just in case, it’s for all POTC fic, art, videos, etc. There are a couple of discussion communities, potc_discussion and arrrrr. There’s also potc_dogwatch, which really swings into gear around the release of new POTC movies, so it should be more active pretty soon in encouraging new discussion of all the characters, as well as calling for fan-produced reading and art. Other fic communities featuring Will – primarily as part of a relationship, and slash – are jackwill, willington (Will/Norrington), and turrowton (Jack/Will/Norrington). (I know there are Will/Elizabeth communities, but not sure of the names.)
One of the first fics I always recommend is honorat’s Worthy of His Steel series. I like the sheer level of detail she gets into to explain Will’s childhood with Brown, something I don’t see very often. Similarly, gryphons_lair offers Mastery, focusing mainly on Mr. Brown, but including a lot of growing-up Will by necessity. I like this vision of Will the boy as a responsible, dedicated sort trying to work his way up in the world by virtue of ability and patience (even though he might not exhibit a lot of the latter onscreen *G*). Another writer, tortuga_black, has produced good Will stories as well.
Then, there’s the Forlorn Hope series metalkatt wrote in response to this artist’s series of Will drawings (you have to page down just a little to recent entries). Basically, both envision Will as a replacement for Davy Jones, changing to match the sea and his ship – not as a weak character buffeted about by the vagaries of fate, but as one who realizes he’s in a particular situation and tries to better it and himself. (‘Ship warning: It is Turrow.)
Speaking of Turrow, there’s obviously Haleth’s The Pirate Way, an unabashedly explicit look at the sexual introduction and education of Will Turner at the hands of one Jack Sparrow. He ends up Jack’s equal in every sense, and you get to watch how it happens.
Speaking of Turrow AND education, there’s pir8fancier’s lovely Educated series, finally finished, which began as a challenge and features Will’s bemused POV.
the_mad_fangirl has a great modern-day AU Turrow posted at her LJ. Another writer, for whom there are too many stories to pick out one, is the_dala; check her Memories for POTC and Will-centric stories, which feature all kinds of pairings. joyful_molly has some good Willington stories she’s archived. yoiebear takes the simple, straightforward loving approach to her favorite ‘ship, W/E, which I’m sure you can find archived in her journal. tessabeth writes Turrow, but she renders Will in such a way that he really “pops” as his own character even in the middle of ‘ship stories. I know I’m forgetting a dozen people, but I encourage readers to check out my Friends list, because there are bunches of good writers who include Will in some of their stories, there.
I also posted some downloadable songs as part of a “soundtrack” of Will I’d put together. Other people responded with their own, and it was really a fun thing to do. (I’d like to see other people do this with other characters.)
As for post-AWE Will Turner fanfic, meta, and art, it can be found on virtually any POTC community in fandom that is able to include the character. Much of this is prompted by the fact that Will's new role is a powerful character on the fringe between life and death, and there's certainly a lot of death - and coming back from it - in the POTC series.
Again, this is not a full list of Will-centric art, fiction, and discussion, and I welcome any further additions to the list, in comments below.