Five years ago, I attended the Tin House Writers Workshop, where I worked with Aimee Bender. The rumors are true--she is an awesome teacher. One thing in particular that she told us has become so embedded in my thinking that it has never before occurred to me to comment on it. But I caught myself using it again today, so I thought I'd pass it along.
In a lecture on plot, Bender told us to try having our characters do what they are only thinking about doing.
Consider: I find my characters thinking about doing stuff all the time, only to brush aside the thoughts and continue on their (probably more boring) paths. He wanted to kiss her, but turned away and pretended to look at the dunes. Which is the kind of thing we do all the time in real life--turn away. But real life is not fiction. Fiction is precisely where we explore the paths we didn't take in life, where those discounted thoughts can and should become action. It's the road not taken. Perhaps we don't take it out of fear, and that might be a good enough reason in real life not to do something.
But in fiction, fear is no excuse. If anything fiction allows us to confront what we fear in relative safety, which means that succumbing to fear in fiction is a doubly missed opportunity. Not only will you never know what the road not taken might have been like, but your character won't know either. His life will be just like yours. Is that what you really want?
I don't. That means my characters have to do stuff I probably wouldn't. It also means that if I'm stuck for plot, or character, I could think of something I wouldn't do, and then create a character who's quite capable of doing it.