"The X-Factor is that thing that distinguishes the artist from the workman, the journeyman from the master…"
The X-Factor: Key To Creating Believable Characters
Successful adult and children's fiction writer, Don Whittington, reveals three key ingredients for good chracterization.
By Don Whittington
Condensed from a live presentation
One man's characterization is another man's cardboard. It's as simple as that. I firmly believe that every half-way competent writer writes effective characterization for somebody. For any ordinary work there are a finite number of readers who will fee the writer builds three dimensional story character.
Yet, hard reality kicks our teeth in. The rejection letters begin to mount. We re-write, and re-submit, and eventually we're getting personal rejections that say things like:
"…but the story people never really came alive for me…"
"…I never really bought into the hero's motivation…"
"…good story, but the characterization seems flat to me…"
What we don't always realize as we grouse in the depths of rejection and disappointment is that each response–and thousands of similar ones–tell us the single most critical thing about characterization. Note the words, "for me,""I never," and "to me." All personal, all singular, all selfish.
Writing is about "us": the human condition, the need for exploration and art. Reading is about "me": my need to be swept away and entertained. So one day that same book rejected by a dozen previous editors, suddenly sells to someone who believes in your characters and doesn't care what anybody else thinks. You found the right editor. Why? How?
Well, the fact is no matter how well you write, some people think you did it right, and the rest think you're a hack. The trick is to reach more of the first type of reader, and defang the second even if you can't convinced them.
Why this person and not the others? Three reasons:
Recognition Agreement The X-Factor
It is almost certain you can hit all three marks with somebody on almost any piece of work, no matter how bad. Simple numbers tell us that. The trick is to increase the chance you'll hit all three for a larger, more broad-based audience.
So let's look at these three things and see if what I'm saying makes sense to you. Analyze what you do and adapt it in the most manipulative, cold-blooded fashion you can to increase your chances of a fond reception and–not a minor side effect–your chances of selling.
Before we do, let's look at some basic don'ts.
Don't try to describe your character all at once. Men often say a woman is more alluring when provocatively dressed than when totally nude. (Whether they mean that is another thing.) Face it, looking at a nude, one has a tendency to think, "Yep, I've seen that somewhere before." Ditto characterization. A hint is better than an explanation. It is always better to tell too little than too much.
Do not try to define a character by reference to a famous character from another work or the movies. This is lazy shorthand which editors and critics hate. It is more interesting to say your character's face had jowls that hung like misplaced mud-flaps than to say he looked like Nixon.
Don't eschew stereotypes for minor characters and walk-ons. Stereotypes exist because there is a grain (sometimes a boulder) of truth to them. They are useful and valuable and all professional writers use them. You should too.
Don't psychoanalyze. There is entirely too much of this in fiction. It's a lot like the coach who commented on why he didn't believe in passing. "There's only four things that can happen when you throw a pass and three of them are horrible." Ditto, psychoanalysis. Unless you're a shrink, you stand a great chance of getting it wrong. Unless you're s genius, you're going to bore your reader. And unless your uncle runs Random House, you're not going to sell it.
Don't use flashbacks if you can help it. Flashbacks can certainly work, but more often they simply stop the story.
Don't forget that your character has his own point of view and that how he reacts to stimulus does more to define his character than anything you could tell us by way of explanation.
Enough of the kindergarten stuff. Let's move on.
When Frances of Assisi attained sainthood there was undoubtedly some guy back home who said, " Saint Frances, my ass!" People believe what they already know or what they want to know. People rarely change their mind about a person just because the evidence says their opinion is wrong. If I really like someone the fact that you think he's a jerk bears no weight. Equally if I can't stand a guy don't waste your time telling me how nice he is to dogs and children; however, if you tell me that you saw him shoot Kennedy, I'll say I never doubted it. It's the way we are. People are filled with prejudices of all kinds, and they extend beyond who we like and dislike to what we accept as true and accurate depiction's of the human condition.
Recognition is a two- way street. For every person who thinks Scarlett O'Hara is an exciting, complex heroine there is a reader who finds her selfish, shallow and silly because she knows someone just like her. For every fan of a book there is a naysayer who scratches his head and wonders how such abominable trash could ever get published. If we recognize this going in, then we as writers can manipulate this to our advantage. Who is our intended audience and how are they likely to feel about x, y or z? It doesn't take a genius to figure these things about.
People today often are mistrustful of large corporations; they see themselves and their friends laid off after years of service then read in the papers how profits are up and the executives receive huge bonuses. Here's a secret: there are more workers than executives in the marketplace. So when you paint your corporate exec as a heroic philanthropist, hero to millions, defender of the poor, you are writing against the grain. Remember that editors are also worker bees with low salaries and the same fears the rest of us have. You may still sell, But the odds are fewer people will buy into your characterization because your hero is not recognizable.
Does this mean you should write cliche'd characters? No. But it does mean you have to understand your audience.
I once wrote a scene in which a group of women vying for the same job were depicted as being sisterly and supportive. Some male critics said, "baloney," these women would have been one step short of clawing each other to death." Women critics said, "Hah! This scene is exactly right because that's the kind of giving, saintly creatures women are." Who was right? Well, I suspect both were. In real life I've seen both scenarios often enough. I've seen women acting in the most unselfish ways, and I've seen women cattier than a mehitabel. But as a writer I made a conscious decision to present it the way I did because I knew my principal audience would be women! I believed, rightly or wrongly, that while women might accept either scenario, the catty one is cliche'd. Because the other is not cliché, yet is also true, I believed women would recognize it as such as be pleased by it. That recognition, coming early in the boo, gains the reader's respect for the story's view of the world. And since I am almost certain to write something later to conflict with the reader's view of the world, I need that reader's respect so she will give me the benefit of the doubt and believe in my characters.
To approach recognition in the most mechanical, cold-blooded, hack fashion look for ways to adapt your earliest scenes. Think of something unusual that your Uncle Bob always did at dinner and use that in the early dinner scene. It doesn't matter much what it is. It's enough to know that most of us had an Uncle Bob, who did some odd thing at the table. Recognition! Don't just show the family sitting around the kitchen talking–a cliché–but rather show us the two smudges in the wainscoting from where Pa always propped his chair back as he held forth. Recognition!
An example: everybody nowadays pumps their own gas, right? You've got a character who is dissatisfied with modern life. He hates the lack of a work ethnic, he hates the violence in modern life, he hates the way the ordinary person carries the weight of everything from taxes to wars. You could tell us all that, or you could follow the scene where he's chewed out by his boss by showing him pumping gas. It's a new pump where he just shoves in his credit card. He never sees another person. It pisses him off. These companies–these big corporations so similar to the one he works for (we all work for) –not only don't care about us, they don't even want to see us. Just give us your money and get lost. He remembers the old days when they washed your windows and checked your air. He goes to the service island and demands a set of steak knives. The skinny, pimpled kid inside, the one behind the bullet- proof glass, stares at him in horror and confusion as our deranged hero pounds on the tiny counter demanding his flatware. A scene like this is loaded with recognition factors, and it declares our customer's state-of-mind without clobbering the reader over his head.
We've don all that while still keeping the reader involved, entertained and amused. Most readers, anyway, and that's the point.
If I don't agree with you, well, that's what makes horse races. But if you don't agree with me, you're an asshole. My opinion is something I choose to share or not, whereas, your opinion can only manifest itself through the act of you foisting it off on me. We, as writers, are by the very nature of our product opinion givers. We are the foistest with the mostest. We cannot help ourselves.
Editors who reject based on characterization probably didn't agree with the way you presented the story. "He would never have reacted like that. You didn't justify his change. No one would ever blow up Disneyland." (Satire is an exception. Satire is always an exception). You did something with which the editor doesn't agree.
Let's go back to our ladies vying for a job. Consider the men's reaction to the scene. Should the book ever be published a lot of men will react the same way and will never finish reading it, or if they do, might think, " What an idiot." They don't agree that this scene would happen this way.
Now let's look at the women. Their agreement–based on their recognition of the scene as being one of many accurate representations–is presumed. But what if the women vying for that job are all starving to death, and the lives of their children depend upon their getting it? Now how does that lady reader react? She doesn't buy it, that's how she reacts. She doesn't agree that such characterization is accurate for these circumstances. Therefore recognition cannot always save you. Remember what I said before, that I've seen women acting both ways. So have men, of course. As a writer it would behoove you to write the scene differently, taking into account these new motivations. And given these motivations I suspect "catty" would still be wrong; first because it's cliché, and second because panicked desperation seems more likely.
The loveliest examples of agreement occur when a churchgoer reflects on something the reader always knew but never articulated. Robert Frost says, "Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in." That has force and power because even though we never thought about it, in our gut we know it to be true. We agree. When Robert Duval says," I love the smell of Napalm in the morning," he is being melodramatic. Even though we instantly "recognize" this kind of asshole, we don't agree. (More on this example later.) However, when George Carlin says "Urinals are not universal," women don't get it. Men go, " Oh yeah, they wouldn't be, would they?" When the preacher and Tom Joad in Grapes Of Wrath talk about how much sex a preacher gets we are looking at agreement. Somehow deep inside we always suspected in our heart of hearts that those fire and brimstone sermons were getting the ladies worked up, but chances are we never actually thought about it.
The entire theme of Catch 22 is based on our agreement that when you get right down to it, everybody's crazy.
A good way to distinguish between recognition and agreement is that the first is based on experience, and the second is based in logic. Agreement can also mean approval, as in the notion that you agree with Joseph Heller's point in Catch 22. But it can also mean disapproval, as when a military man says such reasoning is simplistic. But note that he doesn't necessarily disagree with the observation! He just rejects the implied reasoning that says that all we need to do to end war and suffering is to stop fighting. In other words, he says, " Yes, damnit," I know war is crazy, but what are we supposed to do? Let ourselves be enslaved?"
No matter how crazy or wild your character's actions may be, they must proceed from your character's own logical (if peculiar) point of view. None of us would agree to shoot Lenny through the head, but all of us agree that, for George, there is no other choice. That's why Of Mice and Men is a classic, powerful book. We "recognize" that George's love for Lenny is genuine, and we agree that his reason for shooting Lenny arises from impeccable logic–for George.
3. The X-Factor
Apocalypse Now was a strange, artsy movie that the critics adored and that millions of others, including me, couldn't stand. Out of that whole experience, one line became immortal.
"I love the smell of napalm in the morning."
Almost everybody remembers that line, and upon hearing it, can tell you immediately what movie it comes from, even people who never saw it.
Why does this ridiculous line work? It works because of the X-Factor.
What does that mean?
I don't know. But I know it when I see it.
The X-Factor is that thing that distinguishes the artist form the workman, the journeyman from the master. How does it break out in real terms? How is it achieved? I have a recipe right here:
Blind luck: 48%
Talent has little to do with discovering the X-Factor, but you have to have some. It was our talent that led us writers to try writing. We are not normal. Why? Because we are talented in a way that others are not. Do you think that carpenters hammer secretly at night building houses in their backyard? Houses they are afraid to show anybody because someone might think they are not talented? No. They don't need our validation to be carpenters. They just do it. My point is that to uncover the X-Factor you must indulge your own unique talent. Be as modest as you like at the cocktail party, but when you pick up that keyboard remind yourself that there has never been another writer like you in the entire history of creation. Set yourself free.
The X-Factor works something like this. You babble along on your computer like always and then this thing comes out of your head that surprises you. You look at it and notice that it makes little sense. It doesn't follow naturally from what has gone before. It's the sort of thing that will get you crucified in a writer's critique group. Ninety-nine out of every hundred editors will hate it. If you had to explain what it meant, you might not be able to. But it has one thing that none of the rest of your work can claim. You know absolutely and positively that it is exactly right! That's your talent talking, and you better listen to it. You have just uncovered the X-Factor.
The X-Factor appears in other aspects of your writing than characterization, but we will constrain this discussion. In characterization, the X-Factor is that thing that grabs a reader so strongly that he never–never–forgets. It can appear in dialogue:
"Tell me again about the rabbits, George." –Of Mice and Men
"I never drink…wine." –Dracula
"Round up the usual suspects." –Casablanca
"Please, sir, may I have more." –Oliver Twist (Theme and character in six words)
"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." –Gone With the Wind
"Let you among you who is without sin cast the first stone." –(Is there anything else you need to know about Christ?)
The X-Factor can also appear in scenes:
Hannibal Lecter smells Clarice from his antiseptic, high-security cell. –Silence of the Lambs
Whitewashing a fence. –Patriot Games (hah-hah)
Rusty washing the blood from the blunt instrument as his wife enters the basement. –Presumed Innocent (This is a double treat in that the mystery is solved and all his actions as a character are explained in one stroke).
Or it can appear in any old fashion:
I am born. –David Copperfield (We know that whatever follows will be complete and exhaustive.)
I, The Jury –Even a title can have the X-Factor. Anything you need to know about Hammer after that?
The X-Factor can be anything, everything, and it can appear everywhere. Every now and then the world picks up on a thing and there's no explaining it. I call it the X-Factor. Whatever you call it, it is there. And sometimes it makes all the difference.
How do you take advantage of it? This is probably the easiest of the three elements to exploit. All you have to do is indulge yourself. Lose your fear. Allow the artist inside you some space to breathe. Every single writer represents a unique and independent point of view. Nothing like you has ever trodden the earth before, or ever will again. Invest your work with your personality; give your characters the benefit of your singular slant on life. Chances are it will be something people have never seen before, and that's what we all look for when we read. We want to go somewhere new.
How important is it? I think when an editor says things like, "You're not quite there," or "This book just doesn't have IT," what they're talking about is the X-Factor. Can you write a good sellable book without it? Absolutely. But to me, this is the spice of our literary stew, the unexpected flavor that leads us to a second helping.
In the long run the X-Factor is you, your passions, your fears, your melancholy. Anybody can write like Agatha Christie, Stephen King, John Grisham, ad nauseam. But no one ever did until they came along, just as nobody can write like you, until you do it.
About The Author:
Adult titles by Donald Whittington:
Blood Coin, HarperPaperback, 1994 Grim Weeper, HarperPaperback,1995
Children's works by Don Whittington:
Werwolf Tonight, Avon, 1995 Empire Mom, Avon,1995 Spook House, Avon, 1995
Forthcoming releases by Don Whittington:
Zombie Queen, Avon, March, 1996 Freak Show, Avon, June, 1996
Don Whittington is represented by: The William Morris Agency, New York