If character is the life of fiction (as John Gardner says), description of time and place is the lifeblood that supports your characters along the way. Consider how William Faulkner describes water in a basin in the moonlight....
I could hear Shreve working the pump, then he came back with the basin and a round blob of twilight wobbling in it, with a yellow edge like a fading balloon, then my reflection. I dipped the rag, breaking the balloon.
Or this passage that blends the best description of twilight I've ever read with the memory of the brother who never grew up...
As I descended the light dwindled slowly, yet at the same time without altering its quality, as if I and not light were changing, decreasing, though even when the road ran into trees you could have read a newspaper. I could smell the curves of the river beyond the dusk and I saw the last light supine and tranquil upon tideflats like pieces of broken mirror, then beyond them lights began in the pale clear air, trembling like butterflies hovering a long way off. Benjamin the child of. How he used to sit before that mirror.
I just finished Ian McEwan's SOLAR, which set me to thinking about the importance of character development and how essential it is to make your readers care about your characters. Maybe this is an unfair comparison I'm about to make, but McEwan has been compared to literary giants, from Dickens to Faulkner, so my guess is that it isn't. The characters in SOLAR were as flat as failed bread and I had to force myself to keep going. Halfway through, I stopped waiting for it to get better and resigned myself to disappointment from an author who has never disappointed me before. So, even the experienced writer slips on occasion and falls into the trap of their own verbosity. Not only was the main character unlikable on a personal level, but as a scientist he seemed unmotivated, selfish, and greedy. And the only time McEwan comes close to a Faulkner description of time and place is when his Pulitzer Prize winning scientist steps out of his air conditioned car in the heat of the New Mexico desert and falls to his knees under the weight of it.
I think the main problem for me is that climate change is such a serious subject it doesn't lend itself well to the slapstick satiracal style McEwan uses to drive the novel forward. I found it hard to sympathize with this unlikable character who zips his penis in his snowsuit during a trip to the Arctic, this overweight academic who overeats before an important speech at a climate change conference and has to swallow his acid reflux as he tries to convince investors to take their money out of coal and oil and put it into solar. Who could take him seriously? This buffoon who has multiple failed marriages and countless affairs and who behaves badly at the turning point of the novel. And the multiple cast of supporting characters are equally unlikable and unmemorable. I didn't care about any of them. Characters are the life of fiction and these ones were dead in the water before the halfway point.
I think it unfortunate that one of the premier writers of our time missed an opportunity to bring solar power and all the possiblities encompassed within the miracle of photosynthesis into the mainstream conversation. Most readers won't put up with unlikable, boring characters, regardless of the subject. I would love to hear other opinions on this subject. And if any of you have read SOLAR, what'd you think?
If you can't give your readers a character to love, you'd better at least give them one to hate. Make your reader feeling something. Take Faulkner's Jason-one of the most despicable characters in the history of American literature-Jason Compson will stay with me long after I've forgotten McEwan's Michael Beard. Indifference to character is the death knell for a novel.