James was designed by George Hughes and built at Horwich Works in 1912/13 as an 0-6-0 with wooden brakes. Sometime after his build, but before going to Sodor, James was experimentally rebuilt with a pony truck, making him a 2-6-0. In 1923, James was sold to Sir Topham Hatt for mixed traffic duties. After his first accident, he had his front sandboxes removed, was rebuilt with proper brakes and a Fowler tender (due to his old tender being badly wrecked from the crash) , and repainted red with gold stripes and black lining. He was troublesome when he returned, ruining Sir Topham Hatt's new top-hat with his steam and jarring his coaches so much that a brake pipe leaked. He was threatened to be painted blue (which James detests), but later promised to be useful again and made the line's worst trucks behave after being given a second chance. He also pulled the express for Gordon when the latter was switched off the main line, and went on strike along with Gordon and Henry. He later made rude remarks about Henry when he was using special coal, called Toby and Henrietta 'dirty objects', and subsequently got into an accident with some tar wagons.
James was of the opinion that he would pull the Royal Train, much to the skepticism of the others due to the time he became stuck on Gordon's Hill. Later, James became a runaway when two naughty boys fiddled with his controls, and was rescued by Edward. He and Gordon played a joke on Percy by convincing him of the existence of backing signals. Upon Duck's arrival, Percy and the newcomer blocked James and the other big engines out of the shed as revenge for teasing them. When Diesel arrived on trial, James earned the nickname "Rusty Red Scrap-Iron". James, like the other two, were turned against Duck, but were sorry after receiving proof of his innocence.
In the seventeenth season, he teased Scruff, scared Percy and Stephen, and was challenged by Henry to pull "The Flying Kipper" after he accused Percy of being scared of the dark. He also slept at the Sodor Search and Rescue Centre when the turntable at Tidmouth Sheds froze.
In the eighteenth season, James used Toad as his brakevan when taking some coal trucks. He began to go fast and hit a branch on Gordon's Hill, which jolted loose the coupling between him and his trucks, causing a runaway. He and Rocky later rescued Duck from some flooded track, but due to James refusing to let Rocky's crane arm being secured down, Rocky knocked a signal over. Later, when Duck told the other engines about slip coaches, James claimed the idea as his own, but did not know how to use slip coaches, causing a collision.
James is very proud of his splendid red paintwork. He hates pulling trucks, and believes that he should only pull coaches. He thinks himself superior to the others, and can be shallow, boastful, and vain, particularly to those who appear old-fashioned, weak, slow, or dirty. This has caused him to have somewhat of a rivalry with Toby. However, on a number of occasions, he has found himself in need of help from those whom he has insulted and is, in the end, apologetic.
James was the last engine to retain a prejudice against Diesels. However, after stalling on a cold day, he was rescued by the Works Diesel, and James had to admit that nothing was wrong with Diesels. This appears to be one of the few lessons that has stuck.
The television series has remained fairly loyal to James' original personality.
James was originally painted L&YR's mixed traffic black with red lining before his accident and was given his red coat with yellow stripes and black lining to cheer him up. Sometime during the 1960s, James' black lining was repainted blue and gold. James has the number "5" painted in bright yellow with a blue border on his tender sides.
In the television series, James is always painted NWR red with gold stripes and black lining, with 3 exceptions: in the tenth season episode The Green Controller, when he was painted yellow and black, like a bumblebee, on Percy's orders. Then, in the thirteenth season episode, Tickled Pink, James was painted in a pink undercoat. Though he was painted red in his official debut episode, he was painted in his black livery from the Railway Series in The Adventure Begins.
In the Railway Series, he carries two builder's plates on the sides of his cab.