The file on my desktop is currently named "Alison 4."
Before I have a title for my book, before I have the plot points all in place and can start writing, before I even know who I'm going to bump off, I think of the story in terms of its main character. In my files on the hard drive, where I still have all the books I've ever written just in case I have to refer back to something, the folders are named "Aaron," "Elliot" and "Alison" (along with a few names you haven't met yet).
To me, the character IS the book, no two ways around it. I write mystery novels, and I put quite a bit of work into figuring out who did what to whom and why. I look for places to include plot twists and red herrings. I can misdirect with the best of them. The top 46, anyway. And yeah, you might find a joke or two going on in my pages. You'd better.
But without a character I care about, I won't even type the first word.
I honestly don't care whodunnit most of the time. I have to decide, obviously, because the mystery needs a solution and because you can't write one without at least having an idea of who the culprit will turn out to be. I need to know where to misdirect and what clue to drop where. That's all craft and perspiration.
The inspiration comes from the character. When I started the Aaron Tucker series, it wasn't because I couldn't wait to get down a particular plot point or even that I knew who the murderer in the first book would be, because I didn't (I actually decided from a number of candidates when I wrote that page, the only time I've ever done that). It wasn't because I was dying to introduce the world to the new and fresh idea of an amateur sleuth who gets in everybody's way and solves the crime.
It was because I wanted to write Aaron Tucker. I wanted to get into his head and let him voice the story. It was because Aaron had stuff to say that I thought was amusing, and I wanted to play with him for a while.
The same was true of Elliot Freed, my playmate for the Double Feature series. Elliot came about as a sort of edgier cousin to Aaron, a little more sarcastic (if such a thing is possible) and a little more beaten down by life. He still had something he could cling to for life support--comedy--but Elliot didn't have Aaron's wife and family, the people who gave him a reason to be.
With Alison Kerby in the Haunted Guesthouse series, I found the chance to write in a woman's voice and to see what it would be like to choose an overwhelming lifestyle, even if it had one (or two) unexpected challenges that would crop up after Alison was in too deep to back away. And I wanted to see if I could maintain a sense of humor in a female voice.
The point is: The character drives the story. the character IS the story. If it's all about the puzzle, I could simply list the facts of the case at the beginning of the story and then lay out the solution at the end. All that extra stuff, like emotion and drive and humor and personality, would be extraneous.
I've never been interested in the stories that hinge on some major revelation instead of a character's world view. Give me an interesting person in an average story, and I'm happy. Give me a world-class plot and a dull character, and you'll lose me by page 50.
And interesting is what a character has to be. They don't have to be likable, they don't have to be perfect (please, no--don't make anyone perfect!), they don't have to make all the right choices and they don't always have to be on the right side. But yes, they have to be interesting. They have to be real, and they have to be human. Show the flaws. Show the strengths. Show how they get through life.
Show their character.
When readers email or meet me and say, "I couldn't figure out who did it, and it was such a surprise," I am very gratified and pleased. But when they say, "I LOVED that character--when s/he did THAT!", then I am as happy as a writer can be. I've introduced you to a friend of mine, and you two hit it off; that's a wonderful feeling.
So right now, Alison 4 is on my desktop. I'm still in the relatively early stages, but it's coming along. Alison is still interesting.
I hope you'll agree. In... January 2013, I believe. But don't worry. OLD HAUNTS comes in February 2012.
It's got some real characters in it, I'll tell you...