For any work of fiction to enter the realm of classic: it has to be good, it has to be interesting and of course relevant to all times; before and after its publishing period.
What separates a good fiction from a great one is not just the literary and technical skills of the writer, but also the universality (the universal questions the book deals with in its own inimitable, unique and interesting way).
Paul Tillich calls it the Ultimate Concern. The contemporary fiction which falls under the best category has the quality of the ultimate concern in abundance. Ultimate Concern is something that we take with unconditional and utmost seriousness in our lives without any reservations. It’s something that we are ready to suffer for, or, even die for. Ultimate concern is something which makes every other concern in that person’s life secondary. The ultimate concern consumes the person. It contains the answer to the question of the meaning of that person’s life.
A person is Grasped by this ultimate concern. Take the example of Harry Potter in the seven books by Rowling. His ultimate concern was to destroy Voldemort's Horcruxes and make him susceptible to death and also stop him from unleashing his terror on the wizards. Harry was aware that either he would be successful in thwarting Voldemort, or, he would die in the process. The outcome of this ultimate concern was absolutely clear to Harry. But he was grasped by it, caught in the ultimate concern’s death like grip. This thought haunted him day and night, he was a boy possessed with just one mission in life. Stop Voldemort.
I believe that every work of fiction grapples with an ultimate concern which consumes the protagonist like a fire. The resolution of this ultimate concern forms the crux of the story. For me the ultimate concern transfers into the conflict in the book. Maybe the conflict in my book may not be universal, maybe this conflict is just crucial for my protagonist: but it becomes his or her ultimate concern, something he or she is dead serious about. Something for which they are willing to stake their lives.
How do you decide the ultimate concern of your protagonists? Are they grasped by it like Harry? Please share. We would love to learn from everyone’s experience.