Vimes is the Commander of the City Watch, the burgeoning police force of the Discworld's largest city, Ankh-Morpork. His rise from alcoholic policeman to respected member of the aristocracy, and the growth and development of the Watch under his command, have together been one of the major threads of the Discworld series. Born into poverty, he is now a highly reluctant member of the nobility, having been made both a knight and a duke. He is married to Sybil Ramkin, the richest woman in the city.
Sam Vimes was born in Cockbill Street as the son of Thomas Vimes, whose father was Gwilliam Vimes in the Rimwards part of the Shades, the poorest area of Ankh-Morpork. It was so poor that there was little crime, though Sam was part of a street gang (The Cockbill Street Roaring Lads) with Lupine Wonse (who later became secretary to Lord Vetinari).
Vimes was educated at a dame school, where he was once blackboard monitor for a whole term.
His mother told the young Sam that Thomas was run down by a cart, but this is untrue. Whatever happened to him, she raised the young Sam on her own.
The City Watch apparently runs in the Vimes family. It has been suggested that Sam's father was a watchman in Jingo and he is a descendant of Suffer-Not-Injustice "Old Stoneface" Vimes, the Watch Commander who instigated the rebellion against, and subsequently beheaded, Lorenzo the Kind, the last king of the city, a sadistic torturer described as very fond of children. As a consequence, the Vimes family was stripped of its nobility. For centuries after, the memory of Suffer-Not-Injustice has lived on in infamy and, as his descendant, Vimes has frequently endured suspicious mutterings from the aristocracy. Vimes and his famous ancestor share a nickname: Old Stoneface. Vimes is also implied to heavily resemble his ancestor. The Annotated Pratchett File notes that Suffer-Not-Injustice Vimes is closely modelled on Oliver Cromwell, and that the name of his supporters, the Ironheads, is a portmanteau of Roundheads and Ironsides, Cromwell's faction and regiment, respectively.
Vimes was sixteen when he joined the Watch. He was part of that section of the Watch which played a large role in the rebellion against Homicidal Lord Winder. It was around this time he was taught all he knew by Sergeant-At-Arms John Keel, which is where his cynical outlook on life and his firm belief in justice comes from. However, in current history, Keel was in fact Vimes himself transported back in time thirty years. As Lu-Tze explains to Vimes in Night Watch, both pasts are true and there was a real John Keel. However, when Vimes was transported back in time, a criminal named Carcer, whom he was trying to apprehend came with him; this criminal robbed and killed the real John Keel, and Vimes replaced him.
Vimes' age is never explicitly given. However, some facts are known. At the time of Guards! Guards! he had been a captain in the Night Watch for ten years. Presumably he spent years in lower ranks. As noted above, young Sam Vimes was sixteen years old when he joined the City Watch, only a few weeks prior to meeting his older self. As Night Watch was set 30 years prior to the present from which Vimes came, this makes Samuel Vimes 46 years old at the time of the events of Night Watch.
All that changed when Carrot Ironfoundersson came to the city. This man joined the Watch and set out to help the city. Around the same time a dragon assaulted the city and the Watch was instrumental in its defeat. The Watch was given a new headquarters, Pseudopolis Yard (a pun on the name of the headquarters of London's Metropolitan Police: Scotland Yard) by Lady Sybil Ramkin (Vimes's soon-to-be wife) after the dragon destroyed their original base at Treacle Mine Road. It had been her childhood home and in Thud! it is revealed that some of her family's possessions are still stored in the attic of the building; in this instance they retrieved a copy of Methodia Rascal's Koom Valley painting, made by Sybil as a child, after the original is stolen.
As part of an equal-opportunities drive required by the Patrician, the Night Watch under Vimes eventually took on extra staff in the form of a werewolf, a dwarf and a troll (and later a zombie, a gargoyle, a gnome, a golem, an Igor,and a vampire). They were instrumental in foiling an attempt on the Patrician's life, and were rewarded. The Watch was rapidly revived and became increasingly important in the city.
Vimes, who was about to retire following his marriage to Lady Sybil, was given the resurrected rank of Commander, putting him in charge of the Night Watch and the Day Watch. He also received a knighthood.
Vimes took a great interest in the restructuring of the Watch, placing new Watch Houses where they were needed and supervising the creation of both a Watch Academy and a forensics section. His reform of the City Watch has been so successful that by Night Watch, Vimes-trained policemen are in high demand in cities across the Disc. They are known as 'Sammies' (which is probably based on the British term "Bobbies", meaning police officers, after Robert Peel), even to people who have never even heard of Samuel Vimes. In his expanding international and diplomatic role, Vimes appreciates the fact that police officers from Sto Lat to Genua have been trained to salute him, and remain in unofficial contact across the Disc.
Vimes is a very conflicted character. An incorruptible idealist with deep beliefs in justice and an abiding love of his city, he is also a committed cynic whose knowledge of human nature constantly reminds him how far off those ideals are. A member of the upper classes, he still has an innate dislike of hereditary wealth and a horror of social inequality. The Patrician observes that Vimes is anti-authoritarian even though he is an authority figure, which is "practically Zen". Despite being a self-described speciesist, Vimes has nonetheless allowed the Watch to become one of the most species-blind employers in the city, and recognizes better than most the value of its non-human members, such as dwarfs, trolls, and even vampires, for which he still admits an innate dislike. As he explained to Lady Margolotta in The Fifth Elephant, this is because, teetotal or not, a vampire will always seek to dominate a human being. In the book Feet of Clay, he has said he didn't like humans either, so he isn't actually speciesist. The conflict within Vimes is between his virtuous nature ("the Watchman") and what he calls "the Beast". In The Art of Discworld, Pratchett explains that Vimes protects himself from the Beast with the symbol of his own badge, which prevents him from becoming the criminal he despises, at least in his own mind.
Despite being viewed by many of the Discworld's more Machiavellian power brokers as easy to fool, Vimes is in fact much more cunning than he appears. His years of practical experience give him a foundation of hard-headed realism on which he bases much of his more idealistic beliefs. A running gag in the series is his thwarting of several attempts on his life by the Assassins' Guild, due to his knowledge of their rigid code of conduct. Thanks to the funds now available to him, he has rigged his wife's mansion with numerous traps, so that the Assassins, who must always offer a sporting chance, cannot get close to him without suffering a severe mishap. Traps include greased rails, sawn roof joists over the dragon pens and bear traps in the shrubbery. Vimes also makes sure that all brickwork is in good repair, with no convenient handholds. In addition, Vimes' office at Pseudopolis Yard has 'everything that his ingenuity could devise' including ornamental railings, which are pretty and make the house look nice but are, above all, spiky. In every book in the series, the fee for his assassination has risen until he has been removed from the Guild register, meaning that contracts on his life are no longer accepted. Vimes is considering appealing the decision. Vimes has also beaten off and "killed" part of a pack of werewolves in "the game"; a chase back to civilization that humans did not often win during a period when it was organised by Angua's brother Wolfgang.
In the days of Guards! Guards! he could tell exactly where he was anywhere in Ankh-Morpork just by the feel of the cobbles beneath his feet, due to the thinness of his boots at the time. Later in the series, the expensive, good quality boots his wife persists in buying for him restrict this ability.
Vimes' firm grasp of basic human nature, and of the Ankh-Morpork psyche in particular, led to him spending some years as a drunk, and the Watch believe that this was because his body didn't produce any "natural" alcohol. They estimated that Vimes was about two drinks below par. This meant that when he hadn't been drinking, he was beyond sober - he was knurd. Thus he saw reality as it really was, stripped of the mental illusions that most people construct in their minds to get to sleep at night. This horrifying state of mind caused Vimes to try to balance it out through drinking, but he would get the dosage wrong and end up drunk. Vimes gave up alcohol after his marriage to Sybil, and now smokes foul-smelling cigars instead. However he still keeps a bottle of 'Bearhugger's Whisky' in his bottom desk drawer as a 'permanent test'.
Terry Pratchett noted the following about Vimes on the Usenet: "Vimes is fundamentally a person. He fears he may be a bad person because he knows what he thinks rather than just what he says and does. He chokes off those little reactions and impulses, but he knows what they are. So he tries to act like a good person, often in situations where the map is unclear." This, along with the Discworld habit of pushing any theory as hard as it goes, appears to have culminated in Vimes' psyche creating its own "internal policeman" to "Guard the Guardsmen" (cf. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?), and Vimes' own sense of justice being so strong that, in Thud!, it was even able to fend off an attack by a 'quasi-demonic thing of pure vengeance'.
Vimes often has to go to report to Lord Vetinari, although most of the time he keeps a poker-face and answers very simply to avoid Vetinari's probing questions. When given bad news, he has a tendency to, on his way out, pound his fist against a certain spot of wall near the office door. Though he sometimes has to call in a plasterer when Vimes is particularly angry, Vetinari doesn't worry about it—a sign that he intentionally angers Vimes so as to goad him into a desired action. In fact, when Vimes was temporarily relieved of command in Men At Arms, the fact that Vimes didn't pound the wall led Vetinari to realize that he 'may have gone too far'.
It has been noted that, in personality and mental setup, Vimes bears some similarity to Granny Weatherwax. Both are effectively 'good' characters who nevertheless secretly fear the darkness inside them, and constantly strive to control the darker side of their nature.
Sometimes this darker side comes out when Vimes loses control of his anger and he effectively 'goes spare'. In Feet of Clay, Corporal Nobby Nobbs refuses the position of Earl of Ankh, terrified that Vimes would 'go spare' when he found out. In Thud!, after an attempted assassination of his family, Vimes becomes very angry at the 'deep-down dwarves,' a problem only made worse by the presence of a dark entity of pure vengeance within his mind. However, he never totally loses control. During heightened states of mind, like when confronting his darker side and/or when near death, he was able to see Death (this happened in The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch and Thud!). Death himself is unsure whether Vimes should die or not in these cases, citing "quantum" as an explanation.
In the course of his mission to Überwald as ambassador, he was disgusted to learn that he was also entitled to be addressed as "His Excellency".
His role as Duke of Ankh largely involves diplomacy (his visit to Überwald in The Fifth Elephant for example), in fact, his rough and ready upbringing has given him some unexpected advantages in this field (He once, after a bad day at work, threatened to personally send an opposing diplomat "home in an ambulance," an act that caused the man to order a troop withdrawal). He occasionally finds the opportunity to do some police work. Despite having competent subordinates, including Captain Carrot and Sergeants Angua and Detritus, Vimes finds it difficult to delegate, and is frustrated by the fact that the growth of the Watch has left him with less and less time for actual policing. In some ways he found it a relief when, in Night Watch, he was transported back to the Ankh-Morpork of his youth, and became a sergeant-at-arms in the inefficient, paperwork-free and moderately corrupt Watch of that time.
Since his son's birth, Vimes has discovered a new cause in life: arriving at home every day at six o' clock sharp to read Where's My Cow? to him, an obligation that supersedes crime, conspiracy or international negotiations — his thinking being that if he ever missed it for a good reason, he might miss it for a bad reason, and that this might apply to everything he does, such as employing less-than-ethical methods in the pursuit of crime.
Recently, Vimes has seen involvement with:
Terry Pratchett has commented that Vimes has made setting a story in Ankh-Morpork very difficult as it is almost impossible to create a story involving any sort of crime or politics without it rapidly becoming a Watch book.
This phrase has led to the use of the phrase "Vimes' Boots," or the description of a set of circumstances as a "Vimes' Boots situation." The phrase has widespread applicability. For instance, people who eat healthy food and get good regular medical care are generally healthier than people who do not. Although in the short run it costs more to provide medical checkups, wellness programs, and so forth, in the long run, those rich enough to afford them will not only spend less overall on medical care, they will have a higher quality of life. Thus those who cannot afford regular health care are said to be in a Vimes' Boots situation.
The irony of the situation, coupled with the character's own distaste for the wealthy and general cynicism, make the phrase a particularly effective and vivid evocation of the concept for those familiar with the Discworld novels, hence its becoming part of the vernacular in that subculture.
To economists and urban sociologists this phenomenon is known as the " ghetto tax".
While there have been a number of amateur stage productions of the books, a professional adaptation of Guards! Guards! went on tour in 1998. Vimes was played by Paul Darrow, best known for his role in Blake's 7.
Vimes also appeared in the game Discworld Noir.