"You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are. If there's any kind of fiction better than that, I don't know what it is." -- Joss Whedon, on Zap2it.com, as quoted in Finding Serenity: Anti-heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly.
Neither does Word Nerd. Nor is Word Nerd sure that anybody else does this as well, at least on screen, as Whedon in his short-lived TV show Firefly, and follow-up feature film, Serenity. (Serenity releases on DVD today...)
Whedon's quote got the Word Nerd to thinking, though, about his recipe for fiction. A lot of tasty stories have these basic elements at their core. Lord of the Rings. Les Miserables. Huckleberry Finn. Wonder Boys.
Thinking more, Word Nerd realizes this is in the Work in Progress as well. The story really starts to take off when the characters have to leave the places they are familiar with. There is, perhaps, an intrinsic peril in the unknown, and how a character reacts to that unknown is revealing.
In Whedon's Firefly/Serenity, we get to see the journeys of nine well-crafted characters. The shepherd (preacher) who left the abbey. The hardened war veteran captain. Little by little, as they end up in their fair share of perils, we see who they really are. It is not the sci-fi that makes the story, it is the people.
And so it is with most stories. The plot, the peril, is only the lens for how the reader really comes to see the characters.