Pirates + interpersonal conflict = emotionally resonant storytelling
Getting to know the characters you’re writing is one thing. It’s a Very Important Thing, and if you’re looking for ways to dig in and uncover the fine details that bring your character to life – from the simple habits that make them tick to the big ideas that shape the way they see themselves and the world around them – I’ve written about that here and here and also here.
But now, armed with in-depth information about your protagonist’s favourite colour, their date of birth, extended family, political affiliation, star signs and all the rest, the question becomes: how do you allow this fully rounded, complex and layered sentient being to reveal themselves to your reader? How do you demonstrate their character development across the course of your narrative, so that the person we meet in the first act is appreciably changed by the time we arrive at the end? How do we manifest that change in a way that’s comprehensible to readers without overstating or devolving into huge chunks of exposition?
I’m glad you asked. And not just because it offers me the excuse to dig into a bit of character analysis in my absolute favourite show. Partly that, too. But it’s relevant, I swear.
Warning: major spoilers follow for Season 1* of Our Flag Means Death. I’m going to be discussing elements of the two central characters’ arcs that are absolutely fundamental to the heart of the story, so if you haven’t seen it and you’re planning to… probably go and watch it before you read on. (You can thank me later.)
Simple but effective
One of the most effective ways to demonstrate character movement from the hidden need that forms the source of their personal conflict, through the characterological arc that inscribes their journey towards understanding themselves more fully and into the change that follows the apex of that arc, is through their relationships with other characters they encounter along the way. And one of my favourite exercises for exploring character relationships is Concentric Circles.
The concentric circles exercise is another one of those deceptively simple-looking character discovery activities that, on first glance, appears resolutely surface-level. You’re organising supporting characters by how close or distant they are, emotionally, from your main character (or antagonist! Don’t forget the antagonist). It’s primarily a categorisation exercise – and if that were the only purpose it served, it would still be worth doing, if only for the sake of clarifying your character’s main interpersonal relationships in your head.
However. The great thing about categorisation exercises is their ability to reveal category errors. And that’s where the really interesting character work begins.
The steps are simple. The results can be profound.
The concentric circles exercise
Step 1: Find your ancillary characters
You may already have a decent sense of who else populates your character’s world, but if you don’t, a quick and easy way to pull that information together is to draw a grid as follows:
Now simply – and without thinking too hard about it – fill in the names of the folks whose relationship with your characters falls under each category. If a category is blank, that’s not a problem – that’s all useful information.
If you’ve already got a decent sense of your supporting characters, feel free to skip this step – but you’ll probably want to draw up some kind of list of names, regardless. It’ll make Step 3 easier.
Step 2: Concentric circles
The classic version of the exercise looks like this:
This is my preferred way of mapping the exercise, but I’ll be the first to acknowledge that it’s a pain in the neck to fit the names into the circles when they’re drawn on a standard piece of A4. Things get very fiddly very fast. So an alternative method is to divide your page into three sections and label each section as per the labels in the diagram above: Outer World, Inner World and Private.
Step 3: Sort and discover
Now, take your grid or list of supporting characters and work out where they sit, in terms of interpersonal distance, as regards your character.
Outer World – these are the folks that sit very much on the periphery of your character’s life. Work colleagues that you wouldn’t tend to socialise with. Facebook friends that you’ve known since school, but haven’t met up with in 20 years. Family that you only see at weddings and funerals. Not to be too blunt about it… but the kinds of people that, if you heard they’d passed away, you’d be sorry they were gone, but it wouldn’t impact your life in any significant way.
Inner World – these folks are a more substantial part of your life. They’re the friends for whom you don’t feel the need to tidy the house before they visit. Colleagues that you’d see socially outside of work-related functions. People who come to your kids’ birthday parties. Much-loved friends and family: people who’d leave a hole in your life if they weren’t in it. This is very often where you find siblings and parents (though not always).
Private World - the folks in Private World are the folks who know where the bodies are buried. This is the friend you can call at 2am because you’ve just been dumped and know they’ll take the call. This is the love of your life who knows about your difficult childhood and sends you silly memes when you’re at your lowest ebb. This is the wonderful teacher who was the first person you came out to when home didn’t feel safe. There’s trust in Private World, and because of that, there’s also a lot of vulnerability. You have to feel very safe with a person to let them get this close. If you’ve misjudged… the consequences can be catastrophic.
Making sense of character positioning
Generally speaking, you would run the concentric circles exercise as it pertains to your character’s position at the beginning of the story. This is your Normal World for the beginning of their arc. Chances are high that you’re going to disrupt something you find in the circles, so it can be useful to get that baseline and then run the exercise again at the end and see who’s moved where.
You may also choose to run separate concentric circles exercises for different characters, and this can also be very revealing. Character A might place Character B on the very edge of Inner World and almost into Outer. If Character B places Character A in Private… there’s a tension worth exploring in the way these two characters see each other and their importance in each other’s lives.
Private World & character conflict
Once you’ve established your character’s Private World, you have access to a veritable goldmine of character conflict. It’s a huge leap of faith to allow someone to see the parts of you that you normally keep hidden. Some characters, whether deliberately or instinctively, allow nobody into that most vulnerable inner sanctum. Sometimes, their character arc is precisely about learning to trust somebody enough to let them see the real person behind the public-facing facade.
Somebody can also be in Private World against your will. Perhaps they’re a colleague of your wife’s who’s found out you’re having an affair: they now know much more about you than most people in your life. The difference here is that you did not consent for them to enter Private World, which makes you much more vulnerable than if you’d chosen to share the information because you felt they were somebody you could trust.
The power dynamics of Private World can also be vastly unequal. The example above is a good illustration, but it doesn’t have to be a negative experience: a therapist, for example, will know more about their client than the client ever knows about the therapist, because those are the terms of the working relationship. You’ve invited them consensually into Private World, but not on a quid-pro-quo basis. The vulnerability is not equally distributed.
Enter Our Flag Means Death.
But first, some historical context…
This show, which lives rent-free in my head and to which I have devoted an unhealthy amount of time analysing the central relationship, is, at its heart, a workplace romantic comedy – it’s just that the workplace happens to be an early-18th-century pirate ship. The main characters are two historical figures: Edward Teach, better known to history as Blackbeard, and Stede Bonnet, a wealthy Barbadian landowner-turned-buccaneer whose nickname became The Gentleman Pirate, thanks to his privileged origins.
According to the historical record, the two did actually meet, and Blackbeard seems to have acted as some kind of mentor to Bonnet for a short period. They both accepted the king’s pardon in 1718, during the period of their association, and then Blackbeard nicked Bonnet’s ship, The Revenge, and marooned his crew on a sandbank. All of these events are covered by the show’s first season, which explores the developing relationship between the two captains.
History doesn’t tell us the nature of that relationship, but Our Flag Means Death configures it as romantic love.
This is where the concentric circles exercise gets really interesting.
At the beginning of the show, Stede Bonnet is presented as a man completely out of his depth, whose piratical ineptitude endangers not only his own life, but that of his crew. We’re shown glimpses of the privileged life he lead before abandoning his family to take to the high seas, hinting at one of the central historical question that underpin his arc: what on Earth possessed him to trade wealth and comfort for the a cutthroat, bloodthirsty world for which he’s absolutely not equipped?
The answer that the show presents is that Stede has always been a square peg in a round hole. He’s done all the things he was supposed to do – he married on demand, produced the expected heir, took over the running of the family estate – but he’s always felt completely out of place. Something is missing in his life. His decisions have never been his decisions: they’ve been the decisions he’s obliged to make, and thus his midnight exit from the marital home to go and live on the ship he’s had secretly built becomes the first time he’s made a choice solely for him. And it comes with a hell of a lot of baggage.
Stede is presented as a man with a taste for the finer things in life. He loves clothes; delights in dressing well. His captain’s cabin is replete with home comforts – cashmere throws, an auxiliary wardrobe, lavender soaps, a harpsichord; very much not the usual piratical accoutrements. He supports a “people-positive management style,” encourages his crew to talk about their feelings, and becomes deeply, viscerally upset at the sight of violence. Later, we learn that, as a child, he loved to pick flowers and was afraid of geese. In short – and in a show that devotes considerable time to analysing various performances of masculinity – he’s presented as a man who’s accustomed to being mocked and denigrated for his preference for fine things, but who has held onto that side of himself despite considerable pressure to live up to a more “rugged” masculine ideal.
This becomes all the more notable when we realise that Stede’s very core is built on shame. His father despised him for being a “lily-livered little rich boy;” he was mercilessly bullied in school for failing to conform; his wife visibly finds him difficult to live with. His crew plan to mutiny and kill him in the pilot episode because they (quite reasonably, to be fair) find him entirely lacking as a pirate captain. He can’t help but be who he is, but the feedback he continuously receives is that who he is is wrong. Going to sea is, in part, a way of finding somewhere that he is in control, where he can organise his life to his tastes, and where he is no longer constrained by the confusing expectations of polite society. It’s a place where Stede Bonnet can just be.
Stede’s Private World, then, is where he keeps the knowledge of his difference and his shame at being unable to perform an ideal that the world demands of him. This is shame at himself, primarily, for never being “enough,” but it translates both directly and indirectly into deep guilt over abandoning his family. He cannot reconcile the joy of his newfound freedom with his guilt at what he’s left behind. Despite his insistence that the company aboard the Revenge “talk it through as a crew,” he rarely discusses his wife or children. It’s debatable whether anyone else on board even knows they exist. His relationship with his own self-worth is a bit more nuanced, because he layers over his uncertainty with a vastly misplaced air of absolute confidence, but it peeks through repeatedly, only to be squashed back down again as Stede Bonnet tries to wear his new identity as pirate captain with all the authority he believes he should have. It’s another way of papering over the fact that he feels, deep down, that he’s effectively worthless.
We see no evidence that he discusses any of this with Ed in any meaningful way. Bear with me; I’ll get to why this is important.
Ed, on the other hand, has spent decades (let’s not quibble with the historical record here, okay? It’s decades in show-history) building up a reputation based almost entirely around a performance of masculinity rooted in violence and power, to the extent that he feels suffocated by it — every bit as much a prisoner of expectation as was Stede before he left Barbados.
The more we learn about Ed – through flashbacks, through his increasing pushback against his right-hand man Izzy Hands’ insistence he “perform” Blackbeard as he gets comfortable on The Revenge, and finally through his own tearful confession to Stede – the more we understand that he’s carrying huge childhood trauma, which has effectively cut off his opportunity to explore or understand the gentler side of himself. Ed has been Othered all his life, on account of his poverty, his own troubled relationship with his father, and his mixed racial heritage, and he learned young that his only available pathway to any kind of power is through violence. When we see young Ed murdering his father to keep himself and his mother safe, it’s an act of violence that allows him to reclaim his self-determination. As much as he detests killing – “I’m not a good person, Stede,” he sobs after an abortive murder attempt sends him into crisis – the lesson he was forced to learn was that his only options were to become terrifying, or to be buried by the world.
And yet, in his first conversation with Stede, we learn that he too loves beautiful things as he lifts the “exquisite cashmere” to his face. “Do you fancy a fine fabric?” asks Stede. “I think I do,” replies Ed. Stede’s magnificent on-board library – the source of nothing but derision from everyone else who’s so far encountered it – captivates Ed, and he’s visibly overawed by the profusion of clothes in Stede’s auxiliary wardrobe. Later, he enjoys “the perfect brandy” that Stede keeps in his cabin and asks for some of the “nice lavender soaps” when Lucius returns his things in Blind Man’s Cove.
The more Ed embraces this side of himself, the more it enrages Izzy, who makes clear that their survival is predicated on Blackbeard inspiring terror. Izzy sees Stede as a threat to the Blackbeard mythos – which protects everyone in his orbit – because Stede’s presence in Ed’s life demonstrates to Ed that it is possible to have the quieter life he craves.
Ed’s Private World, then, holds his aching desire to be a different kind of man, surrounded by nice things and accepted without question for the person he used to be before he was obliged to kill his father and become the Kraken. It has never been safe for Ed to allow anyone into his Private World, but he recognises a kindred spirit in Stede and, slowly, gradually, he allows Stede to see that vulnerable side of him. This culminates in their kiss on the beach after Ed has given up the Blackbeard persona to save Stede. As far as Ed is concerned, he has laid himself bare for Stede – he’s allowed access into Private World, and Stede has accepted the person he finds there.
What he doesn’t realise, because he couldn’t possibly know it, is that Stede has still not allowed Ed into his Private World. Ed’s world is power-through-violence, and viewed through this contextualising narrative, a man who behaves towards the world as Stede does is already exposing his vulnerability; therefore Ed doesn’t suspect that this surface-level vulnerability (drawing ridicule, ire and contempt towards Stede as it does) actually masks a much more profound level of shame and sense of worthlessness.
Ed, then, believes they’ve both made themselves fully available to the other and his decision to allow himself to transform into the Ed of Private World is based on the belief that his Private World reveal is fully reciprocated. The power balance, at this moment, becomes catastrophically unequal.
When Stede makes the decision, on the beach, to continue to withhold access to his Private World, the damage is done. Neither of them know it yet, because Stede is as much a master of repression as Ed, and he hasn’t yet achieved the apex of his character development arc. And Ed, again, does not know this.
Unequal access to Private World
From Ed’s perspective, then, Stede’s failure to appear for their planned escape reads as a rejection of Private-World-Ed. He made himself as psychologically vulnerable as a person can be, and he was rejected. Worse still, it quickly becomes clear that that psychological vulnerability comes with an unhealthy helping of physical vulnerability, because his is not a world in which one can ever let down one’s guard. Ed’s only recourse, then, when presented with psychological crisis and existential threat, is to double down on Outer World Ed (bypassing even Inner World Ed, the Ed he’s shown to close comrades for years: violent, brilliant, fair, but unapproachable) and move directly to the most monstrous version of himself: the version he mobilised to keep himself safe as a child from his violent father. Inner World Ed was vulnerable, and it made him unsafe (in a way he’s never been unsafe before: emotionally, rather than physically), so he buries it as hard as he can.
From Stede’s perspective, Ed’s declaration of love – “What makes Ed happy is… you” — brings him into high-impact collision with his own (still private) Private World. If Stede is worthless, he cannot be worth Ed’s sacrifice. This is underlined by Chauncy’s declaration that he “defile[s] beautiful things” – including, specifically, Blackbeard – and now Stede seems to have unequivocal evidence that his core shame is the real Stede. So he must correct that, by leaving Ed to be undefiled and returning to do his duty by his abandoned family.
Stede doesn’t realise that he’s been given access to Ed’s Private World. Ed doesn’t realise that he hasn’t been given access to Stede’s. Neither one of them is in a position to understand the other fully, at this point, but vulnerability is high and both are left to make erroneous conclusions based on evidence they don’t know to be faulty.
Conflict through vulnerability
This is the power of the concentric circles. When you understand the varying emotional stakes for your main characters, you can start to push on the pain points that the characters themselves don’t know exist. This means that your reader has access to a whole heap of information, through character interaction, that they would never have the opportunity to discern through observing the character alone.
One of the reasons fans have reacted so positively to Our Flag Means Death and its central romance is because each character beat feels earned. Stede’s Lovable Misfit archetype is a standard of comedic narratives and could easily have been mobilised for surface-level laughs; in a hierarchical society, it’s a classic means of reinforcing belonging by isolating the outsider. However, because the characters of Ed and Stede have been so thoroughly and carefully explored by the writers and actors, and allowed to come to the fore through their characterological interactions, Our Flag Means Death looks beyond the surface to find the humanity behind the archetype, which is what allows both characters to resonate so fully. I have no idea if anything like the concentric circles exercise formed part of the writing or development process for the show, but the fact that it can usefully and productively be applied to both main characters (and also the supporting cast, which is a whole other novel-length post for another day) demonstrates just how deep the creators’ understanding goes. Whether it’s applied proactively or retrospectively, concentric circles is about digging deep below the surface. And that’s where the true heart of conflict lies.
Character development exercises that focus on the character’s sense of themself are incredibly important, for sure. But character vulnerability exists in stasis until there’s somebody who can interact, for good or ill, with that vulnerability. Very often, your characters will resist being “known” in that vulnerable state, because sentient beings, above all else, seek to avoid pain.
Concentric circles pushes past those barriers and gets to the very heart of where your character feels less than whole. That search for wholeness is where character growth lies, and where it brushes up against another character’s search – that’s where conflict emerges.
And it leads to some truly powerful stories.
* At the time of writing (31 May 2023), only S1 is available and no release date has been given for S2.
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