Bunnies, Body-Swappers, and Barbarians
The first book I ever read (by force) was the original "Dick and Jane" book (whatever the heck that's called - "See Dick run.", that one). My grandmother forced me to read it while in preschool, and while I hated it, I did get a leg up on kindergarten.
Fast-forward a few years to second grade and I started picking out my own books. My favorites were usually Bruce Coville (My Teacher is an Alien, Aliens Ate My Homework) and James Howe (Bunnicula), because I loved the what-if's of science fiction/horror. I also enjoyed humor in my books, since humor helps everything feel a bit easier, including growing up.
As my reading level advanced I started pulling books from my dad's old science fiction collection and ended up fixated on two authors in particular - Robert A. Heinlein and Jack L. Chalker. Most people have heard of Heinlein, and I really enjoyed his weirder, thought-provoking pieces like The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, The Door Into Summer, I Will Fear No Evil, and Job: A Comedy of Justice. Both Heinlein and Chalker had a knack for putting their characters into different times and bodies - probably the hallmark of Chalker's various science fiction+fantasy works is that a good chunk of the charaters end up a different gender and/or species by the end of the series. For some reason I enjoyed these themes, because I wanted to identify with characters on a basic level that surpassed biology or environment or even time.
Then in high school my great aunt chucked five books into a bag, told me to try them, and after three and a half days I had read them all. David Edding's The Belgariad has some of the most incredible character and world development I have ever read in a fantasy novel, when I couldn't even make it halfway through the stupid Hobbit. The writing style was wry/witty, the pacing was upbeat, and I connected to every character from the slick little thief to the bumbling barbarian-types like they were old friends waiting for me to find them again. While the follow up series The Mallorean didn't have the same punch, I still finished it in under a week, driven to follow my old friends to their final conclusion. It's not easy watching your favorite characters grow old, but sometimes it's a nice metaphor for growing up in your own life.
If I had to sum up, I suppose what I've learned from this odd amalgam of writers is how to think outside the box but build on a strong foundation. Your characters can go anywhere, do anything, be anything, but they should always be relatable, funny, and unique.