My Guilty Pleasures: Romance Writing and Daniel Craig
James Bond as a Dark Romantic Hero
I have always been strongly drawn to dark heroes and heroines. Many of my most formative reading experiences featured dark protagonists: the incestuous witch-heroine Morgaine in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s THE MISTS OF AVALON, the devious and manipulative noblewoman in FOR MY LADY’S HEART by Laura Kinsale, and of course the selfish and cunning Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s GONE WITH THE WIND.
My interest in dark heroes and heroines deepened when I wrote THE DEVIL’S MISTRESS, a dark Tudor romance about a lady assassin who’s blackmailed to poison Anne Boleyn. How to make my assassin-heroine Allegra Grimaldi sympathetic in a romance novel—a genre in which the reader must identify strongly with the heroine—proved to be one of the novel’s most difficult challenges. Writing and selling THE DEVIL’S MISTRESS to Samhain Publishing honed my ability to craft dark heroes with whom the reader will sympathize, suffer and ultimately rejoice. Dark heroes who inspire strong reader sympathy—despite their obvious shortcomings—tend to display flashes of vulnerability and human weakness, and are often driven to their darkest deeds by motivations that bond the hero with the reader.
One of my favorite dark heroes appears in the 2007 film CASINO ROYALE, which shows us the genesis of iconic spy James Bond. Because we are familiar with the character, we enter the story expecting to cheer for the “good guy” (Bond) and to be well entertained in the process. The conventions of the genre have already indicated how we should expect to react. We don’t expect a complex hero and an emotionally moving tale.
New Bond actor Daniel Craig establishes this icy and sometimes brutal hero within the first five minutes. The assassination he must perform to earn the coveted “double-0” status is a violent struggle. However, we quickly discover that (counter to our expectations) Bond is a novice killer.
Because we’ve all endured the stress and awkwardness of a new job, we begin to become personally engaged, and a bit sympathetic toward Bond. Our sympathy deepens when we see Bond—after a nerve-wracking encounter he barely survives—being “chewed out” by his boss, the acerbic M. played by Judi Dench, whose stinging criticism reveals the character flaws in our hero. M. tells him, “This may be too much for a blunt instrument to understand, but arrogance and self-awareness seldom go hand in hand….I want you to take your ego out of the equation.”
When Bond’s ego-driven choices result in his lover’s death, M. gives us another glimpse of Bond’s shortcomings over the victim’s tortured body. Describing his next mission, M. says, “I would ask if you could remain emotionally detached, but that isn’t your problem, is it?” Bond replies briefly, “No.” Thus we’re introduced to the character flaws—ego and emotional detachment—that will complicate his task. The same dialogue foreshadows his intense but doomed love affair with ally-turned-adversary Vesper Lynd.
Despite his monumental ego and a certain lack of finesse, Bond brings not only competence, but determination and brilliance to his work. He is brave, smart, sexy, strong, ruthless, self-assured. He can be charming when it’s useful, and he always gets the girl. More than coincidentally, these characteristics also describe the hero in a romance novel. In fact, CASINO ROYALE is structured around a strong romantic subplot that meets all the expectations of a romance except for the lack of a happily-ever-after ending.
Our sympathy for Bond deepens when he falls in love with the enigmatic Vesper, thereby revealing vulnerability for the first time. During their first encounter, Vesper tells him, “You think of women as disposable treasures,” which is indeed the case. Bond prefers married women because the arrangement avoids emotional entanglement. Yet despite his checkered sexual history, he falls in love with Vesper—counter to his inclinations, and completely outside his comfort zone—thus overcoming his emotional detachment.
When the two conquer the villain and seemingly earn their happy ending, Bond demonstrates the distance he’s traveled by revealing his love, his vulnerability and the subjugation of his ego to Vesper. He tells her, “I have no armor left. You’ve stripped it from me. Whatever I am, I’m yours.”
Bond’s character arc is reversed when Vesper betrays him and, despite his frantic efforts, loses her life. The tragedy drives Bond to his absolute limits, and undoes the emotional progress he has made. When M. asks, in the denouement, “You don’t trust anyone, do you, James?” he answers, “No.” Bond ends up worse off than he started—not only cynical and distrustful, but emotionally devastated and embittered.
Bond’s character arc continues to evolve in the sequel, QUANTUM OF SOLACE, where he learns again to trust a woman—although he doesn’t progress far enough to fall in love. But that’s the subject of another paper. For those interested in a deeper exploration of dark protagonists, numerous insights can be found in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, edited by Jayne Ann Krentz (1992).