This may be something I've read before, finally sinking in, but it felt something like an epiphany today.
Those are the common words I had to put out there after I translated from the three in my head. People, Places, and Plot. One of the first two has to be compelling. Do you always hear that word in Zack Whedon's voice as said in the musical commentary from Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog? --I know you do, Princess Froglips. The third, has to be done competently. Excellence is nice here, but not required.
I should also add an 'excuse me' to the well-known authors whose work I use for illustration as I try to explain my personal epiphany the rest of the world probably already knows. My epiphanies always come with examples of things I've read to either prove or disprove them, but....
Laurell K. Hamilton excelled at setting. I was never greatly fond of Anita Blake as a person. She's OK, but I never loved her. The plot is basic mystery whodunit. But I loved her world. That's why I fell away from her series as more and more of it took place in Anita's head and we got less talk about the world. I loved the idea of laws making vampires people, and the issues we would have in enforcing laws on the paranormal -- on creatures who are individually far stronger than any normal human. I enjoyed seeing it change through the first several books. She had some serious Setting.
Carrie Vaughn has people. I almost didn't make it through the first Kitty book because Kitty, the character, was so weak that I didn't really like her. I read the second book more on the promise of the first than the actuality. But the growth of Kitty from someone weak to someone strong made the series so much more than it would have been had she started off in a better place. Her world is good, but isn't amazingly unique. What she has is... Character.
Most of my absolute favorite authors have characters, really. Kim Harrison. Jim Butcher. Their worlds are good, and well thought-out, but we read to find out what happens to Rachel Morgan or Harry Dresden. Or Ivy, Jenks, Mister or Mouse. Romance and mystery books work because they do something to make the people catch our attention -- after all, the basic plot will always be the same. It's the people who will be different. And the place, environment, background.
Plot, however amazing, doesn't seem to be enough to carry the story on it's own.
Plot is what Hubby talks about after I handed him my recent reading failure to see if I've become limited in my old age and can't bring myself to enjoy an Urban Fantasy with a male main character. He said he wants to know what happens, but feels no connection to the main character. So glad to hear it because I didn't either. (He's actually been reading fiction lately! He read Hunger Games in a day too; the first time I've ever seen him stay up late to finish a book.) But for the book I couldn't finish, he said the setting was interesting, but the descriptions weren't quite detailed enough for him to really understand where they were or what was going on. This book has fascinating plot a-plenty, but not enough people or place to drag the reader along. At least not this reader. Or him. He didn't finish it either.
Plot is a necessity. You can't do without it. But plot is what happens to People in a certain place or to a Place because of certain people.
Now the only question is whether or not I can figure out how to make use of this new idea.