I started typing some stuff and it came out sounding a lot like the old reporters' guidelines: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. So I'm gonna step out on faith and hope that I can get 6 entries out of those topics...
So, what's up with WHO? A few ideas:
WHO are YOU?
You need to write about something you're passionate about. I don't consider this exactly the same as "write what you know" (if everyone did that we'd have a lot of really boring stories, IMO). But write what you LOVE is fair. If you despise researching history, you maybe shouldn't try to write straight-up historical fiction (though you could definitely consider steampunk or another speculative genre).
This has been a challenge for me because I wanted to go back and finish a novel I mostly wrote in college, currently titled Chosen: Bonnie of Sheshack. I was something like 20 (and very into Anime) when I wrote it. I'm rather older now, and I haven't been able to get back into the young adult mindset of the POV character. Doesn't mean I couldn't get there, but it's not working so well for me right now. I'm not sure I can finish it unless I just take what I've written, edit lightly, and finish it. I just can't make it mesh with 2011 Julie.
WHO are your characters?
The more you know about your characters, the better your story will probably be. You also need to have characters who are flawed enough to be interesting--but in my opinion, they don't need to be too realistic, and personally, I'd rather they aren't too realistic.
Regarding "The Time Traveler's Wife", the concept of a man who randomly slips backward in time was absolutely brilliant. The reason I couldn't finish it was because the characters read to me like college students (and rather shallow ones at that). Part of my problem was expectations; I may have liked it better if the book jacket hadn't called the male lead Henry "dashing." This dashing character spent a fair amount of the novel shaping a young girl toward being an atheist or agnostic (which I found disturbing). But the point I gave up was where he joked with his true love Claire that if she didn't perform a certain sexual act with him, he would wither away and die. (Page 230 in my paperback which I got from Paperbackswap.com) I don't know; maybe I have a different definition of "dashing" than most.
Some of the questions the book raises are interesting--what would you do if you went back in time as an adult and met your significant other when they were a child? and you were naked?--but IMO just because a question is interesting doesn't automatically mean it should be considered at length.
So anyway, is Henry the librarian realistic? Possibly--it's hard to say what someone would do in his situation. (Although I'm not sure how many "dashing, adventuresome librarians" exist!)
Is Henry likable? The huge number of copies sold would say so; a romance author in a panel I went to at the Tucson Festival of Books even cited Henry and Claire's relationship as one she remembered and loved. (And it was an author who I would have expected to share my conservative biases, by the way.)
Would I rather read about a dashing thief with a heart of gold, even if such people are almost impossible in real life? Absolutely!
WHO is the story filtered through?
I started writing a short story recently (in the universe of my novel "Flight from Endwood") and it wasn't quite working. I had one POV character in mind, even though the other main character is the one who experiences change and who is involved in a couple integral scenes.
Captain Obvious says, why not make that character the only POV character? Problem solved? Well...I'll let you know how that goes. At least I'm excited again!
Do you have any WHO ideas?