An Obsessive Fangirl Character Study - James Bond

Since Casino Royale, we've been able to peek beneath the surface of an otherwise pretty stereotypical action hero character. Not that Bond as a character has completely shrugged that off, but I feel his attitudes now have roots and reasons. He's also more of an antihero now - just watch what he does to Dominic Greene in Quantum of Solace. He's far more interesting than before. There's a sense Bond comes from somewhere. Also, the fact that his character was once so bland and is now more nuanced is a great exercise for any writer looking for ways to develop their own characters. And, due to the visual nature of film, studying his character development provides loads of examples of 'show, don't tell'. Always a great tool for any writer.

Before I start, there will be mild spoilers for SPECTRE and Quantum of Solace, and major ones for Casino Royale and Skyfall. As Casino Royale is a reboot, I'll only use the older films for comparison.

Bond is very loyal to the cause and to the people who earn his respect, but deeply mistrustful of anyone else. He uses people (typically women, although also poor sweet Q) to help him achieve his goals with little thought for their desires or safety. He sees himself as always being right, and will go out alone to prove that - sometimes to the detriment of himself and others. He's very arrogant, but that arrogance covers up for his insecurities. He refuses to talk about his past, papering over his trauma with charm, a good suit, a lot of alcohol, and a gun. In SPECTRE, he's happier to talk about being an assassin than he is about his childhood.

However, there are a few people who see beneath that surface, and one of them is Vesper Lynd. For someone who hasn't trusted another person for a very long time, Bond opening up to Vesper is a real sign of character development, and one we really hadn't seen before Casino Royale. I remember watching this film for the first time and being genuinely amazed at how it appeared to be ending - Bond quitting his job and travelling the world with the woman he loved. Such a pity it wasn't to be. Her death continues to haunt him, reminding us he's a human being who hurts deeply. Is Vesper's death part of the troublesome "women in fridges" trope, meaning her death serves only to motivate the male character? Eeeeeeeeeeh... It doesn't quite fit. Bond initially sees Vesper's actions as a betrayal, and despite his very clear anguish at her death, he tries to cling onto his anger until M corrects his opinion. His need for vengeance comes second to his duty to his country, even in Quantum of Solace, and after that he buries his anguish. This is a man who, after being orphaned at a young age, can't face up to the death of another loved one. He uses anger and a lot of alcohol to distance himself from his true feelings. 

You could argue we have seen Bond react to the death of a woman like this before in 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but it happens right at the end of the film and the only time (I recall) seeing any kind of reaction to it is in 1989's Licence to Kill (which is another of my favourite Bond films). But Vesper's death haunts Bond. He carries it with him; he's still crushing his feelings for her all those years later in SPECTRE. It shows us that Bond is a man who cannot always shrug off a death. He holds Mathis in his arms as he dies in Quantum of Solace, despite previously believing the other man had betrayed him. He's awkward, unsure what to say, cracking jokes at first only to apologise later in his own way. He listens to Mathis' final words, although he won't really hear them until the film's conclusion. Bond is not a complete machine, even if he possesses the ability to shut down his emotions and get on with the job. Beneath that stoic surface, an emotionally troubled person exists. When handled correctly, that makes for a fascinating character. And it's always shown in Bond's reactions. We aren't told he's upset or angry. I appreciate that's easier in a film, but you can do it in a book, too.

The newest Bond films are a deconstruction of the 'legend' that is Bond. Beneath that posh, educated, and suave exterior is a man who's emotionally shattered. His alcohol consumption and casual sex are now coping mechanisms and character flaws whereas before they were just part of his appeal. To start out with in Casino Royale, Bond's about as un-suave as he could get, but that cool attitude of his improves with each installment, like he's getting better at covering his ineptitude and frailties. Remember the brilliant airport chase sequence in Casino Royale? The bit that sticks out in my mind is how, instead of sauntering away from a crashed truck the way we the audience expected him to, he falls out. This is a character who doesn't really know what the hell he's doing, and instead he's making this stuff up as he goes. Only experience makes him better at it and looking more natural and slightly less "good thing that worked out!"

...Until he gets shot in Skyfall and loses everything he gained due to injury and alcohol use. That's when the Bond beneath the surface comes through. We see a man who is in pain, who is lost and broken. His body no longer does what he needs it to do. He runs away when confronted with the name of his childhood home. The only thing that keeps him going is his loyalty to his country and his desire to protect it. Or, perhaps, protect the idea of it. By the end of the film, he has his usual persona back in place, but it's cost him a lot to get it all together again.

On the surface, anyway.

There's this brilliant scene in SPECTRE that reveals more about Bond than in any other moment in any other film. We see his flat, his home, the one place that should reflect some part of him. The walls are blank, it's dimly lit, there's a few odd bits of furniture, and the only sustenance on offer is alcohol. In fact, the only even vaguely personal thing we do see is the Union Jack dog he inherited from his mot-oh, I mean M, his former boss. I'll get to her in a minute.

Moneypenny comes in and says "Have you just moved in?" to which he responds with a slightly perplexed "No", as if everyone lives in as sparse a manner as he does. It is such a stark contrast to the finery and luxury you associate with Bond. We usually see him in grand buildings dressed in the finest suits, driving cars that cost more than our houses, or strolling around exquisite hotels beyond the imagining of us ordinary types. There's such an emptiness to his home. It's like a bubble completely disconnected from the world Bond so desperately, and painfully, seeks to protect. As I was watching this scene, my writer brain was just in awe of the simplicity of the visuals. It is the perfect example of 'show, don't tell'. Moneypenny doesn't say anything else, Bond doesn't try and explain himself, it's just those two short lines and then we, the audience, get to see this makeshift home of his. It was so telling of his character.

And the fact that he allows Moneypenny into his home proves how much he trusts and respects her. This is not a woman he will use and throw away. Moneypenny won't allow that. She's brilliant. And, honestly, I was so slow in Skyfall and at no point guessed who she was until she told me.

SPECTRE needed more Moneypenny.

There's something missing in Bond's life. It's never been explored prior to Casino Royale. Unlike previous Bond films, these new ones have made a real plot point out of him being an orphan. In another great example of 'show, don't tell', the film never outright tells us "Bond is messed up because he grew up without his parents", but the clues are there. In SPECTRE, he tells Madeleine he felt he "never had a choice" about his line of work. Why? The films would suggest his lack of grounding in a family have rendered him rootless. In Skyfall, M points out that orphans always make the best agents. Is it because they don't have any family and are therefore more willing to put their lives on the line? Or because they latch onto the purpose of protecting Queen and Country better than a person with parents, siblings, partners or spouses? Bond certainly is driven, but whether its because of his personal vendettas or his "pathetic love of country" is up for debate. Or perhaps Bond finds it easy to kill people because he's never properly dealt with the trauma of losing his family. The reasons are completely open to interpretation.

And here's where I feel M and Bond's relationship is truly different than it was previously. We've only had a female M since Goldeneye, but for the sake of comparison, if you look at Brosnan's Bond and his relationship with M, it's a bit frosty. She calls him a "... a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War..." He doesn't like her because he is precisely that and not much else. However, cut to Casino Royale, where M exclaims "Christ, I miss the Cold War!", she treats Bond like he's her wayward son. He infuriates her, yes, but she's also gentle with him at times. She calls him 'James' in a motherly way. She trusts him above all others, even to the point of them accusing her of blindness where Bond's concerned. She's the only person who knows "the whole story" about what happened after his parents died. Look at how far he goes in Skyfall to save her. Even in Quantum of Solace, after she expresses her concern about his physical and mental well-being, he doggedly hunts down the person who tried to kill her. He's quite determined to protect her, telling her he has to find the person who tried to kill her even after she tells him to return to base. Camille even asks him if the woman he's protecting is his mother, to which Bond replies "she likes to think so." And look at his reaction when she dies. He cries. James Bond cries. This isn't a man whose boss just died. This is a man who's lost someone he cared for deeply.

Bond respects M even if he challenges her. He refers to her as his friend. He trusts her, and she's the only person he listens to. I really love the dynamic between them because I don't think it's one we see very often. We usually see wayward young men have father figures. Giving Bond a surrogate mother serves to highlight his need for such a figure in his life. His responses to her reveal so much about him. There is even a track in the Skyfall soundtrack called Mother.

So, there you have it. I really could go on, but I had to cut myself off before this got any longer. If you're struggling to build a character, the rebooted James Bond is a brilliant exercise in character development. It's also a great way to learn how to show and not tell your character's development, and how to bounce your main character off of the secondary characters around them.

Aaaaaaaaaaaah, that feels better. Got all my Bond feels back in a nice, orderly row.

And be sure to read Charlie Higson's and Steve Cole's Young Bond novels. They are AMAZEBALLS. Some of the best YA thrillers available.


  1. Oh wow, this was a great post. It really made me think about some of my favourite spy characters, and how much I'd love to see a fremale James Bond. I watched Person of Interest on Netflix this year and was really, really happy with how they did Shaw. Person of Interest's main badass 'secret agent' character is Mr Reese, a stoic badass who comes across as a bit bland, but he likes dogs and terrible puns and has a massive soft spot for protecting people weaker than him. He's basically a big fluffy guard dog himself.

    A few seasons in, they bring in Shaw, who's basically Mr Reese's genderflipped counterpart… but she's so much more. Reese wears his angst below a thin veneer of masculinity and grumpiness, but Shaw's damage and trauma is so angry, so bitter, so self-directed… she's so mad at herself and gets so mad at others because of it. It's just. I have a lot of feelings about the way that show handles hired killer characters, and the psychological effects of their work.

    The Casino Royale soft-reboot of Bond hooked me for similar reasons: it finally made Bond relatable. It made him real. Flawed in a way that makes sense. Having issues because of what he does – real damage, real trauma – makes what he does *so much more* real.

    The older Bond movies had the problem where there was no real sense of impact from the killings. It was killing, sex, booze, more killing, sex, more booze, in this endless cycle of 'wow look how cool it is look how much fun it is' where everything felt surreal and make-believe. Very much a power fantasy.

    The rebooted Bond turns him from a power fantasy into an actual person, which is such a powerful, transformative thing. He's real, now. And it's so, so cool that they've managed to do that, taking a character who'd become a bit of an archetype and making him flesh and blood again.

    1. I shall add it to my "Watch someday!" show list ;)

      Yes, that's exactly why the rebooted Bond films work - his characteristics have roots and reasons, and the films are so much more interesting because of it. The power fantasy elements aren't completely gone, but I feel Bond comes from somewhere. And it's all so subtle. Fascinating character to study for any writer.

      Although I really do need to try and finish reading Fleming's novels one of these days.


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