It’s an indescribable quality, really. Something attractive about a person that you cannot put your finger on. Urban Dictionary provides an example: “I don’t know what it is; she’s not that pretty, but has this x-factor which makes her very hot.”
In other words, it’s what the French call je ne sais quoi. That captivating quality of charm and fascination not found in beauty alone.
Whatever the elusive x-factor is, your hero and heroine need it. They must be larger than life, adventuresome and yet beguiling. And intriguing to read about, possessing (to borrow another French term) a measure of joi de vivre … enjoyment of life. Even if your heroine is an arrogant know-it-all like my Elizabeth.
We’re talking about a whole lot more than a hot body. Sure, romantic comedy is a type of fantasy. But aren’t you weary of reading about the heroine’s fabulous clothes—which slide over her so-slender hips? Or about the hot and handsome guy, complete with chiseled chin and pecs?
Besides, aren’t the very popular, very beautiful people you know rather shallow? And don’t we want more from a story than watching a Barbie and a Ken? So make your leading characters more than merely attractive. Give them brains and a heart and guts.
Elizabeth, the lead in my Mercy’s Embrace books, has the social courage I lack. She goes in swinging, fighting her way through the social scene with bravado, skilled in small talk and innuendo. She says the things I think but wouldn’t dare to mention, and she’s beautiful enough to get away with it. She has plenty of faults, but she’s fun to read about. Here she is, in the first scene of the series, lying her head off.
Elizabeth Elliot bit her lip and looked away; it would never do to laugh! But when Mrs Leighton reached for her teacup, the bare skin beneath her arm swung to and fro like a pendulum! Her gown was just as bad. Why, she looked like a walrus wrapped in muslin!
“Have you no tea, Miss Elliot?” Mrs Leighton signed for the footman to correct the oversight. However, nothing in her manner suggested an apology. Though she smiled, her eyes were hard and bright. She was, Elizabeth realized, more formidable than she appeared.
“Do I have this right, Miss Elliot? Your father has left his estate in Somerset to reside among us? Exactly how long ago was that?”
Elizabeth’s stomach tightened into a knot. Was she to be peppered with questions? “My father and I took up residence at the end of September, ma’am,” she said.
“And has your father come to Bath for any particular reason?” There was significance in Mrs Lieghton’s tone.
Elizabeth’s chin came up. Gossip was a favorite pastime in Bath. Was her own discomfort meant to provide the morning’s entertainment?
The footman approached. With a fluid movement, Elizabeth took the cup and saucer. Not for nothing had she practiced this, hour after hour, all those years ago. The slightest rattle of china would betray nervousness, giving Mrs Leighton an advantage. This was something Elizabeth refused to allow.
“We came to Bath on account of my father’s health, ma’am,” she said. This was a safe, conventional answer. It was also distinctly untrue.
“Father will neer admit to such a thing, of course,” Elizabeth continued. “If you ask him, I daresay he will give a very different answer.” She accepted a serving of cake, mindful not to shift the position of the silver fork. “Men are very private about their health, are they not? But Father had the oddest symptoms.”
“Symptoms?” someone said.
What a very good idea! Old ladies loved hearing about symptoms. Since coming to Bath, Elizabeth had been in the company of enough of them to know! She gazed at Mrs Leighton with what she hoped was a soulful expression. “It was not a sickness we could name,” she said. “He had difficult breathing. At times he was pale and weak. And his heart, Mrs Leighton, his heart!” Elizabeth brought a hand to her breast. “I was so dreadfully frightened.”
Mrs Leighton’s brows lifted. “Dear me,” she said.
Elizabeth bit back a smile. Truth to tell, her father’s frightening symptoms appeared only when he was forced to acknowledge the enormity of his debts! “But now that we are come to Bath,” she continued, “Father is very much better. So we will not be returning to our estate in Somerset at all.” This was perfectly true. It would be here, in Bath, that Elizabeth would make something of her life. For too many years she’d lived buried in the country.
[excerpt from Mercy’s Embrace: So Rough a Course by Laura Hile, 2009]