First of all, and what many people have noted, I tend to give my characters ‘normal’ names such as Roger, Keith, Anna, Sam, Alicia. This was a conscious choice because when I’ve read books in the past I find it hard to get my head around weird alien names and lose track of who is who. I didn’t want my readers to have the same problem so I’d just rather keep it simple and direct. Even so a few slightly different names did creep in, like Kristof and Skylar. Again not alien names, but just a little unusual. I probably couldn’t walk down the street and meet a Kristof or Skylar, but I could probably bump into a Keith.
Names notwithstanding, once a character has a name, what do you do with them? Well in any story you have a protagonist, a character whose experiences the story is built around. Sometimes but not all the time you have an antagonist in direct opposition to the protagonist. Their conflict creates the story. Actually it’s not quite that simple, but that is a starting point. In my novels I tend to have more than one protagonist, allowing multiple points of view and multiple antagonists as well. It mixes things up more, and sometimes a protagonist can change roles and so can the antagonist. Their roles are not set, but are dictated by how each character progresses in the story.
It’s never as cut and dried as good versus evil. Good people sometimes do bad things and bad people do good things. Characters are not consistent, and may make a good decision one day and a bad the next, even when confronted with the same circumstances. Why? Is this bad writing? No, in real life people are equally inconsistent, I’m inconsistent. We live, we change, we make mistakes and sometimes we don’t. Characters follow suit.
I also believe that characters shouldn’t necessarily get on, even if they are on the same side, they have different interpretations of what that side is. For instance, the characters Keith and Roger in ‘Hunter No More’ actively despise each other. Keith sees Roger as small minded, Roger sees Keith as alien and arrogant. But that doesn’t mean they can’t work together, it doesn’t mean they can’t love the same people. But they are at odds, and that conflict helps to define who they are and make them more interesting as people. If they liked each other, and did everything without argument, that would make them the same person. Superficially the description would be different, but the characters would be duplicates of each other. People are all unique and different and no-one is exactly the same. In life we are all the stars of own shows, for the characters it’s no different. Even a minor character doesn’t know they are a minor character. In their own life they are the protagonist and they have to be written that way.
So we have names, conflict, descriptions. Someone is tall, someone is fat, someone is a man, someone is a woman. Gender stereotypes: the man should be strong, the woman should be weak. That is rubbish, a woman can be stronger than a man, both physically and mentally. A woman shows more emotion than a man? Maybe in feature films, but in a story we are interested in the inner voice. A man and woman can be equally afraid, equally grief-stricken, equally brave, and equally hysterical. Characters react and feel, man or woman, it shouldn’t matter. I’m not saying they should be written the same, but a writer should avoid being influenced by preconceptions about gender as much as possible. Why, as much as possible? Because we are all influenced by our upbringing, and every independent thought is tinged by that. I have no doubt that some stereotypes creep into my writing, but the trick is to avoid those stereotypes as much as you possibly can.
Finally it’s all about the layers; layers of behaviour, layers of reaction, layers of internal and external argument, layers of action. After injecting a character with enough layers, plot no longer dictates their actions, rather their actions dictate the plot. Keith isn’t going to say to Kristof, let’s blow up this place and go home. It’s not in his character. So plot hinges on how a character would act, and you can’t just throw in plot twists which don’t fit with a character’s actions. You have to write the character’s actions based on their developed traits and let the story play out as honestly as possible. That’s when it gets interesting for a writer, really interesting, because as you’re writing you don’t know exactly what is going to happen next.