If you’re looking for the one element that makes a story great, it’s the characters. Everything comes down to the characters in the end.
I think many authors spend too much time worrying about their premise. Not that they shouldn’t consider it, and try to craft a great one – it’s a story’s principal selling point, if nothing else – but once the premise is established I feel like too many authors wing the characters. Which is a shame because they’re who we identify with, experience the story through, and at the end of it all, truly remember.
We remember what happened in The Matrix, but it’s through Neo’s eyes.
We can picture The Lord of the Rings, but it’s Frodo and the others that sell it.
We know the premise of Breaking Bad, but it’s Walter White that sucks us in and never lets us go.
I realized this while writing my novel, though only intuitively at first. I love the premise of my story, and I think it’s a strong one, but in the process of writing it I came up with other stories whose premises may be even stronger. Yet I couldn’t put this one aside and pursue those, because I love my current characters too much. These are characters I can picture vividly, ones I understand, ones I can talk to – as crazy as that sounds – and I know I’ll be able to write them better than any other characters I can currently imagine. Those other stories may be stronger, but their characters are not, and until I create ones that can rival the ones I have now, those other stories will remain unwritten.
Of course, there are exceptions – in the anime world Shingeki no Kyojin excelled almost entirely on its plot and premise, as its characters are fairly weak. But if you look at nearly every other story that has ever touched you, I bet it’s because of its characters.
It all comes down to the characters in the end.