There’s a bit of a problem I’ve seen with beginning writers. Scratch that, I’ve seen it with experience writers as well. And that is this: the idea that characters exist to serve plot. Don’t get me wrong, characters CAN serve plot. But that is not their primary role. If I haven’t said it before, let me break down the simple formula of fiction.
Character desire + obstacle to attaining that desire (conflict) = plot.
What we forget, often as we write, is that every character has a motivation. It needs to be real, and tangible (even if it’s an internal struggle for peace, the reader should be able to feel the struggle). Instead, we ignore those motivations and have our characters do or say things to further our plot, even if those things fly in the very face of who our characters are.
If you’ve created a coward as a character, they’re probably not going to rush into battle, just because they have to in order to meet the next character and push the plot forward. If your character would run, they must run. Do not negate the work you’ve put into your characters by having them make decisions that contradict who they are.
OR – if they do make these decisions, it must be clear why they’re making them. They must have a valid reason (family is in peril, their money is at stake, the fate of the free will hangs in the balance etc.).
Too often I read characters who make decisions simply to move them from one plot point to another. It’s clear, when we read these, that the decision underlying the character motivation is simple: the author wants to stick to his or her outline. Don’t be afraid to manipulate your outline so that it better serves the story. Allow the story to change, the characters to grow, organically. Outlines are fine, if they follow an organic style of story—one that makes sense.
Remember your ultimate goal is to allow the story to tell itself. Get out of its way, and watch it work.