Flanner O’Connor once showed a story to a woman who lived down the street. According to the account O’Connor gives in her book Mysteries and Manners, the neighbor, after reading it said, “Them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do.”

O’Connor thought about the woman’s words: “I thought to myself that that was right; when you write stories, you have to be content to start exactly there – showing how some specific folks will do in spite of everything.”

How well do you capture specific folks in your characters? It’s easy to fall into stereotypes – the country woman, the Bible-thumping preacher, the heart-of-gold hooker, the self-absorbed businessman. But our characters are not stereotypes – they need to be living, breathing individuals. To do that, you need to capture the specifics that transcend stereotypes.

When I’m teaching poetry, I tell my students they shouldn’t write about grand, abstract notions – death, liberty, love, jealousy, fear. What they need to do is capture a specific moment or perspective that expresses that emotion or idea. You don’t write about how wonderful it is to fall in love; instead, you make it personal, as Theodore Roethke does when we see the object of his love through his eyes in the first stanza of his poem, “I Knew a Woman”:

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)

While his language is bit frilly for modern prose, still the idea is the same. Your businessman has a unique way of looking at the world, thinking about his job, his friends, his lover; and your job is to discover who he really is and how that makes him do what he does. Your country woman may have to steal other people’s dreams to get her through the night, because she can’t stand her own life and has no dream of her own. Your Bible-thumping preacher may spend his nights online chatting with other lonely people. Your heart-of-gold hooker may beat her elderly mother because the woman is so kind to her.

You cannot make people be who they are not, and the same is true for your characters, no matter how much you may want them to behave. Flesh out our characters, don’t pigeonhole them. Let them act according to their standards, not yours. Don’t stand in their way. If they embarrass you, confound you, anger you, or delight you – you’re on the right track. If they are predictable, try again.

If you missed my interview with Susan Hickman for Mind of the Matter, it will be repeated on Aug. 30 (and you can also check it out in the archives). To listen, CLICK HERE. http://www.voiceamerica.com/episode/62944/the-writable-life

Also, for more tips, advice and inspiration on writing, please visit MY BLOG.