I've read a few books that seemed to have all the ingredients necessary for a good novel. The plot was good/interesting, characters seemed emotional and complicated, but for some reason I just couldn't identify with the main, or any, character. I was apathetic to their situations. I've never understood why until now.
I think this may explain a few things:
According to an article in The Writer's Guide to Fiction it is the dynamics of desire that is at the heart of narrative and plot. Basically, the main character should have yearning.
The author of this article, Robert Olen Butler, writes, "Many failed manuscripts of students and aspiring authors show a lot of talent -- contained characters with problems, attitudes, opinions, sensibility, voice, personality, all of those things, and often a wonderful milieu to boot. But none of those automatically carries with it yearning."
Butler suggests there should be two shining moments in a good work of fiction. Naturally one is the climax of the story, but the other is near the beginning "where the sensual details accumulate around a moment in which the deepest yearning of the main character shines forth".
A character’s yearning must be manifest. Without that, a seemingly great story can fall flat with readers. Not necessarily that the reader will dislike the story, but it won't resonate deeply with them. They’ll feel distanced.
Is this truly the explanation to why a good book leaves me distanced? It certainly sounds plausible.