He came up with an unforgettable character that has fascinated readers for more than six decades: Bond. James Bond. Raymond Chandler was a fan. So was President John F. Kennedy. To this day, Ian Fleming’s 007 books are one of the best-selling fiction series ever, with more than 100 million copies sold worldwide.
Fans of James Bond can’t get enough of the suave spy with his Aston Martin, his martinis served “shaken, not stirred,” and his license to kill. But today, it can be hard to separate the 007 made famous by the likes of Sean Connery and Roger Moore from his literary progenitor. The best way to find out the truth about Mr. Bond is to learn how to write like his creator, author Ian Fleming.
Who is Ian Fleming?
Ian Fleming was born in London on May 28, 1908. His mother was a wealthy socialite. His father, the son of a merchant banker, died in World War I when Fleming was nine years old.
Fleming and his three brothers grew up surrounded by money and privilege. He was educated at the prep school Durnford School, Eton College, and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, where he gained a reputation as an undisciplined student and womanizer. In 1931, he became a journalist with the Reuters News Agency. Then in 1939, just months before the outbreak of World War II, he enlisted in the Royal Navy and went to work for the Director of Naval Intelligence. His work with the Royal Navy kept him out of combat and placed him behind the scenes of a number of pivotal military espionage efforts, including “Operation Goldeneye,” “Operation Mincemeat,” and the creation of the organization that later became the CIA.
After the war, Fleming went back into journalism and bought property on the island of Jamaica, which was still part of the British Commonwealth at the time. Fleming’s job granted him a two-month vacation each year, which he spent on the island. In 1952, on the eve of his marriage to the twice-divorced Ann Geraldine Mary Charteris, whose previous husbands included financier Lord O’Neill and newspaper magnate Viscount Rothermere, Fleming began writing a thriller novel about a spy he called James Bond. Each year thereafter, Fleming would spend January through February writing a new James Bond novel on his island property, which he christened “Goldeneye.”
After producing twelve James Bond novels, two James Bond short story collections, two non-fiction books, and the children’s book Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, Ian Fleming died in England on August 12, 1964, at age 56.
How to write like Ian Fleming
Fleming’s goal was to write what he called “thrillers designed to be read as literature.” Let’s take a look at seven simple tips that will take a story from simple thriller to Fleming-style literary masterpiece.
1. Don’t watch the James Bond movies
Twenty-six times James Bond has sardonically quipped his way out of danger on the silver screen, with seven different actors, from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig, deploying ingenious gadgets designed by Q after bantering with Miss Moneypenny.
The problem is, Fleming’s version of James Bond didn’t do any of these things.
If you want to write like Ian Fleming, don’t include any of 007’s movie traits or you may run afoul of international copyright law. As Stephen Carlisle explains, “Dying in 1964, Ian Fleming’s 50 years of posthumous protection ended December 31, 2014 … all 12 James Bond novels and two collections of short stories, along with all the elements contained in them are all free for the taking.”
But there’s a catch. “The Bond movies are certainly still under copyright in the majority of the world,” writes Carlisle. “So whatever you did, you could copy anything created by Fleming in the books, but not copy anything that is solely the creation of the films.”
And therein lies the difficulty: a great deal of the James Bond mythos is, in fact, a creation of the films.
“The Bond of the books never tosses out bon mots after a narrow escape, a creation of the films. Miss Moneypenny never engages Bond in the suggestive repartee that she does in the films. And just in case you were so inclined, no white cat for Blofeld, and no bald Blofeld either. In the books, Blofeld has hair, with no feline in sight,” Carlisle writes. “The books are nearly devoid of the gadgets that populate the cinematic James Bond universe … there is no character known as ‘Q’ in the Fleming books.”
Even Bond’s arch-nemesis, the criminal organization SPECTRE, may be off limits.
Fleming himself wasn’t immune to the appeal of the 007 movies. After seeing Sean Connery’s performance in the 1962 film Dr. No, the author gave the formerly humorless Bond a sense of humor in his next book.
2. Make sure you don’t like your protagonist too much (or at all)
Ian Fleming was not a fan of James Bond. Though many authors grow to dislike the very characters that made them famous, Fleming had a marked distaste for his creation from the moment he came up with him.
As he told fellow author and friend Raymond Chandler in 1958, “I never intended my leading character, James Bond, to be a hero. I intended him to be a sort of blunt instrument wielded by a government department who would get into bizarre and fantastic situations and more or less shoot his way out of them, or get out of them one way or another. But of course he’s always referred to as my hero. I don’t see him as a hero myself. On the whole I think he’s a rather unattractive man.”
Four years later, in an interview published in The New Yorker, he emphasized, “‘I wanted Bond to be an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened; I wanted him to be the blunt instrument.”
And in an interview conducted by Playboy magazine just a few months before his death, Fleming was asked whether he stood by his many public statements that he didn’t like Bond. “Well, I’ve lived with him for about twelve years now,” Fleming replied. “I’ve come to have a certain sympathy with what is going to happen to him, whatever that may be.”
Not exactly a warm expression of affection.
Fleming’s “blunt instrument” was based on people he knew and had served with during World War II. The character, he said, “was a compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war.” In the 1964 Playboy interview, he described Bond as a man of action and little personal agency — a cipher who, though courageous and patriotic, functioned as a simple tool of his government. “I wanted my hero to be entirely an anonymous instrument and to let the action of the book carry him along. … I wanted this man more or less to follow the pattern of Raymond Chandler’s or Dashiell Hammett’s heroes — believable people, believable heroes. … I don’t necessarily think he is a good guy or a bad guy.”
More interesting from a psychological standpoint is the fact that although Fleming based the general character of 007 on other people, he gave Bond a great many of his own personality traits, habits, tastes, hobbies, and interests. There’s no contempt stronger than self-contempt.
3. The spy life: sex plus violence
Time and again in his 007 novels, Fleming took inspiration from real events from the world of espionage as he experienced it during World War II. However, it’s important to keep in mind he was what the CIA termed a “desk job” functionary, not a genuine spy like James Bond. His understanding of what it’s like to undertake a dangerous clandestine assignment came to him second-hand from the intelligence operatives who actually performed the top-secret missions. In this, he was more akin to the bureaucratic M than Bond.
Though the second world war informed his plots, his settings were very much of his time: the Cold War era of the 1950s and 60s. During this period, Britain was struggling as a nation to come to terms with its conclusive extinction as an empire, and with the ascendency of its former colony, the United States, as a dominant world power. Fleming offered a fantasy to his readers: a Great Britain that was still great. He did this through the juxtaposition of twin primal impulses: sex and violence.
James Bond is not so much a surrogate for the individual reader as he is the British nation’s surrogate. Said Fleming, “James Bond is a healthy, violent, noncerebral man in his middle thirties, and a creature of his era. I wouldn’t say he’s particularly typical of our times, but he is certainly of the times.” In each book, Bond reaffirms Britain’s unbroken supremacy on the world stage and the pre-World War II social order by attacking England’s enemies and sexually dominating women, both friend and foe. The targets of 007’s violence and libido were not casually chosen by Fleming.
4. Bad guys and Bond girls
Writer Jeff O’Neal put it best when he wrote, “The best Bond stories have a great villain and a great vixen.” From cold-blooded gold-lover Auric Goldfinger to mad scientist Dr. No to super-villain Ernst Blofeld, Fleming’s bad guys are colorful, intelligent, efficient and highly motivated.
In the early books, written at the outset of the Cold War, a fictitious Soviet assassination apparatus known as SMERSH and its functionaries served as the villains of the Bond novels. In the later books, Fleming replaced the SMERSH agency with an international terrorist group called SPECTRE and its self-serving henchmen.
Author Umberto Eco has noted that Bond villains tend to hail from Central Europe, Slavic states, or Mediterranean countries. Their heritage and origins are often obscure and complex. They’re also usually very rich.
As for Fleming’s “Bond girls,” they can be allies or enemies. They tend to be young, conventionally attractive, and are nearly uniformly Caucasian. Make of that what you will.
5. Hook your readers and make them keep reading
Fleming revealed the secret to his success as an author in 1963: “There is only one recipe for a best-seller and it is a very simple one. You have to get the reader to turn over the page.”
Raymond Benson, official author of post-Fleming James Bond novels from 1997 to 2003 and The James Bond Bedside Companion, called this writing technique “the Fleming Sweep.” Fleming used plot hooks to pull the reader to the next chapter, the hooks often taking the form of those twin primal impulses mentioned earlier, sex or violence.
“[Bond] bent to switch off the lights on the dressing-table. Suddenly he stiffened and his heart missed a beat.
There had been a nervous giggle from the shadows at the back of the room. A girl’s voice said, ‘Poor Mister Bond. You must be tired. Come to bed.’”
– End of Chapter 19, From Russia, With Love
“The bullet, homing on Bond’s heart, flashed over its two quiet yards.
Bond pitched forward to the floor and lay sprawled under the funereal violet light.”
– End of Chapter 26, From Russia, With Love
To prevent excitement-fatigue in your reader, contrast these action-filled hooks with periods in which your protagonist relaxes and indulges in his or her favorite pastime: sensual hedonism and the enjoyment of luxury goods.
6. It’s all about the details
On a randomly selected page from the 1959 novel Goldfinger, James Bond smokes a Morland brand cigarette, compares the merits of Aston Martin and Jaguar automobiles, and considers a Colt .45 gun. This page is in no way uncommon; including familiar household products and luxury brands was a conscious stylistic choice made by Fleming, who used name-brand consumer goods to ground the more fantastical and unbelievable plot elements in his stories.
“My contribution to the art of thriller-writing has been to attempt the total stimulation of the reader all the way through, even to his taste buds,” wrote Fleming. “A strong hedonistic streak is always there to offset the grimmer side of Bond’s adventures.”
This sensory stimulation enhances the realism of the fiction, but the real goal of the 007 thrillers isn’t verisimilitude — it’s escapism. Escapism was what prompted Fleming to start writing in the first place.
“I was about to get married — a prospect which filled me with terror and mental fidget. To give my idle hands something to do, and as an antibody to my qualms about the marriage state after 43 years as a bachelor, I decided one day to damned well sit down and write a book,” recalled Fleming, years after publishing Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel.
When asked, “Why do you pay so much attention to minutiae in your books?” Fleming replied, “The main reason is that these things excite me and interest me. … It amuses me to use my powers of observation in my books and at the same time tell people what my favorite objects are, and my favorite foods and liquor and scents and so on.”
7. But remember: keep it simple
In spite of the delight he took in the practice, Fleming knew that too much self-indulgence in cataloging your “favorite foods and liquor and scents and so on ” is fatal for an author. As he warned his would-be imitators, “You cannot linger too long over descriptive passages. There must be no complications in names, relationships, journeys or geographical settings to confuse or irritate the reader. He must never ask himself ‘Where am I? Who is this person? What the hell are they all doing?’”
He strove to write in a manner that showcased what he called an “unmannered prose style” and “unexceptional grammar,” attributing his writing style to his training as a journalist. “You damned well had to be neat and correct and concise and vivid. I’m afraid I think Reuter’s training was much more valuable to me than all the reading in English literature I did at Eton or in Geneva.”
Take a look at this post, How to Write Like a Journalist, for tips that will help you imitate Fleming’s journalistic style. And while you’re at it, read the work of the authors Fleming named as influences: Edgar Allan Poe, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene.
In the end, Fleming saw himself more as an artisan than an artist. “I describe myself as a Writer. There are authors and artists, and then again there are writers and painters.”
He was most assuredly a Writer, with a capital W.
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.