Camp Character Here's where I started. After all, a story's only as strong as its characters, right? Who wants to read a story--no matter how good--if you don't care what's going to happen to the people it's about?
Yes, characters are important. I love the Jeeves and Wooster stories even though the plots, while fun, do tend to be a bit predictable. The beauty of those books is that it doesn't matter how many times Wooster gets into a scrape and Jeeves has to pull him out of it, I never get tired of hearing about those two. And don't forget Gussie Finknottle, Honoria Glossop, Aunt Agatha, and the rest of the grisly gang.
On the other hand, books with great characters can go terrible places. The Half-Hearted and Four Feathers are two examples. I liked a lot of the characters in both books (not the girlfriends--they were horrible), but the stories themselves were very disappointing.
Camp Plot A good plot is essential. But is it more important than the characters of the story?
"Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Fall of the House of Usher" have great plots, not so great characters. I still think these stories are pretty cool. But these are short stories; a novel has to have characters I care about if it's going to pull me along all the way through 50,000 words.
I love War and Peace. It has an deep, epic plotline that delves into societal issues, historical events, character development, and not a little philosophy. Its characters however are not particularly exciting or likable. I only liked one or two and they inevitably died. So if it was a toss-up between this book and Crime and Punishment, I would go with Crime and Punishment all the way. Why? Great characters.
Camp Setting At first I didn't think setting ranked very high on the list of importance, but it only took one book to change my mind. To Kill a Mockingbird. Great plot. Great characters. Lousy setting.
Every story is an escape for the reader. If it's an escape to a place that's worse than the place he's already in, it's failing in its mission. A compelling setting is key.
So which of the above is the most important? I'm going to cheat and say all three. Which would you vote for?