James Bond is a murdering, womanising alcoholic.
He’ll stop at nothing to destroy anyone who goes up against Queen and country. He’ll attack anything that doesn’t chime with his personal, archaic vision of Imperial Britain. Getting close to him in any way is practically a death sentence.
He’s the eye of the storm in a never-ending hurricane of drama, death and destruction; eternally preening and oblivious. He’s totally uninsurable. Yet somehow we still root for him, because for all his flaws he’s still The Guy Who Saves the World. As a fictional character, he’s fantastic.
…And then he comes out with these impossibly shitty one liners that can ruin the entire effect, the whole dark spell, in an instant. His smirking post-death puns crap on everything he’s achieved, everything we believe about him, leading up to that point. They imply that he’ll readily end a human life for the sake of a cheap joke, even when there’s no one around to hear it.
How much more would we root for him if the usual heartless bastard fell apart for a few silent seconds, in a quiet traumatic moment alone, beside his freshly made corpse? Stamped his grief and horror back down, and drank away the pain right in front of us before he put the mask back on? I mean, this guy’s seen shit. Showing that tortured side to him, and the inner strength it takes to hide it, would elevate Bond from character status to holy shit, this guy’s almost real.
Bond’s crummy one liners, and his unassailable suaveness in the face of gigantic explosions, imply that he’s always in control. That’s what demolishes our suspension of disbelief. No one, ever, is always in control. It’s the downfall of a brilliant, tragic, idealistic character who we want to like and root for.
People don’t flock to see a movie about an evil genius threatening to take over the world. They flock to see how good old Jimmy Bond is going to deal with it, and how dealing with it could change him as a person. His character is the story. It’s the reason we want to know what happens next.
It’s the same in fiction writing. No one pays to read about a fully formed character who’s strong and seasoned and beautiful and virtuous and perfect in every way, and if only the rest of the world/realm/universe would stop being so darned evil they wouldn’t have to keep saving everyone all the time.
We read novels, watch movies, consume stories, to see how the character we follow (or inhabit) deals with terrible events and grows as a person, despite their own multitude of flaws. It’s how those flaws exist alongside a great number of virtues, and how those virtues can win out.
Of course a character can be regal and beautiful, but what if that beauty and status helps to make them power hungry, manipulative and murderous (Cersei Lannister)? A character can be strong as hell, but what if that barbaric strength is what tortures them as an intellectual and drives people away (The Hulk)? A character could be a lying, cheating, murdering, drug-addicted psychopath… who’s also fiercely loyal to their friends and family, with a soft spot for hard-knock kids like themselves.
A character could be a loving family man and a brilliant scientist, cheated and frustrated in his career, looked down on by his peers; diagnosed with terminal cancer and now working feverishly to leave his family financially stable after his death. And also capable of killing, manipulating and ruining countless lives – and enjoying every minute of it – to turn himself into a monstrous drug lord (Walter White).
This mix of light and dark, strength and vulnerability, charity and vanity, generosity and hate, is the stuff that makes a character believable – and ultimately what makes a great novel.