According to Nigel Beale:
Novels that emphasize character seem. . .closer to life, more natural. . . .
So, which characters are truest to life? Those we know best: those who we can most completely relate to, regardless of how fantastical. . .The essential question to ask: is this fictitious entity relevant to me and my life? Does she encounter or answer important questions that I may have about my life? Am I affected by his situation? In short, is there something of this character alive in me? This surely is the measure of ‘lifeness’ and indeed great fiction: the amount of blood the reader and character share. How relevant the thoughts and actions of one are to the other. How applicable fictional situations are to real life ones.
It's hard to imagine a more narcissistic view of the role of fiction--almost literally, it should reflect my own face back to me--and I really have to wonder whether Nigel intends this to be taken altogether seriously. I suppose he might be making a point that in order to enter a fictional world, readers need to be able to envision themselves in that world through a character with whom they can at least minimally identify, but otherwise this is about as reductive an account of the appeal of fiction as I've come across.
Of course, the biggest problem with it is in its underlying assumption that "Novels that emphasize character seem. . .closer to life, more natural." Presuming that "more natural" novels are from Nigel's point of view superior novels (a pretty safe conclusion, I think), one can argue with this assertion in at least two ways . Is it true that character-centered novels are "closer to life"? Is it necessary for novels to be "close to life," in the sense that "fictional situations" be "applicable" to "real life ones"? Nigel opines that novels such as The Brothers Karamazov and The Red and the Black are closer to his life, but why couldn't fiction that emphasizes setting or incident be just as "close to life," especially if "realism" is the preferred goal? (And I'm not so sure either of these two novels actually are character-centered: Karamazov seems to me an excuse for abstract philosophical debate rather than an attempt to create plausible characters, and The Red and the Black is at least as much plot-focused picaresque as a portrait of its ultimately rather two-dimensional protagonist.) Are characters more real than places or activities?
Certainly the origins of the novel do not lie in "situations" that are rendered as closely as possible to those of "real life." Precursors to the novel such as Gulliver's Travels or Gargantua and Pantagruel are plot-heavy phantasmagorias, anything but explorations of character, while most of the earliest actual novels, Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Tom Jones, are either explicitly picaresque narratives whose characters never develop beyond their roles in the plots or tales in which what happens is clearly the focal point, not characters "relevant to me and my life." Those readers like Nigel, who recoil from novels "which impose artificial form on formless real life experience," even when such form is simply "plot," have formed a relationship with fiction rooted in late-nineteenth century realism, later developed into "pyschological realism," that might arguably be called character-centered, but such readers assume this sort of fiction essentially brought literary history to a halt and that other kinds of fiction, less dependent on "lifeness" so very narrowly conceived, are simply marginal, trivial, empty flourishes easily ignored. Only character-driven realism is "natural."
This attitude strikes me as ultimately rather contemptuous of "the novel" as a form of literary art, as anything other than an opportunity to project one's own psychological preoccupations onto fictional characters. The order that form imposes is, after all, an aesthetic order without which a work of fiction really has no reason for being. Unless one can turn novels into some sort of religious meditation or "spiritual" quest, which is about all I can make out of the attempt to force fiction to "answer important questions that I may have about my life" and of language like "amount of blood the reader and character share." When the stakes are raised this grandly, "art" can't be anything but a nuisance.