Or is it the characters?
I think, even in fantasy and action genres, that the characters are the aspect that stick in our minds and make us want to keep reading. It’s because of them that we want to enjoy more of their adventures, to re-enter the world in which they live.
And one way characters become memorable is the way they grow emotionally. Many people could endure the same horror, face the same trial, but only that character will respond and change in their own unique way.
To get an idea of how this works, I thought back to some of my favorite novels.
Lord Peter Wimsey comes to mind. He stars in entire series of detective novels. In the first one, he’s more concerned with his clothes and wine than anything else. He’s convinced that he can have anything he wants, simply by working for it.
By the end of the series, he’s learned to be more concerned with the feelings of others than simply his own. He gets over his past romantic pains and learns to not just commit to one woman, but to open up to her.
Jane Austen’s Emma is another character who assumed life would go her way. She was a bit more arrogant than Lord Peter, and even tried to manipulate many around her by playing match maker. By the end of the novel, she’s learned how badly she over-estimated her own powers and ability to read people.
In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam both grow emotionally. They learn that they have strength of their own. They also come to grips with the fact that doing the right thing may have very bad consequences. In the case of Frodo, it meant he would never be able to enjoy the way of life he labored so hard to preserve.
Then there are examples of what not to do.
I’ve read lot of young adult fantasy lately, and in the process, read a lot of stories about a headstrong, well-meaning young person. In trying to solve whatever crisis she is facing, her impulsive actions make everything worse. Or her thinking that she, and she acting alone, is the only person who can save the day. Both of these scenarios have been done so often, they feel like clichés.
So writing a flawed young person needs to go beyond their own unwillingness to listen to advice that causes problems. Maybe it’s because they did try to follow someone else’s counsel, and some unforeseen calamity occurred. Or maybe they tried their best and just weren’t good enough.
Either way, it creates lots of room for growth.