Focus on Character Development: A View from Behind the Lens

by Helen Peppe, guest blogger and Stonecoast Alumna. Helen will participate in a faculty panel at the 2013 Stonecoast Summer Residency titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Race.”

This post has been reblogged from Write Here, Write Now with Sheila Boneham.

This paw does not belong to a troll.

This paw does not belong to a troll.

Once upon a time there was a troll, the most evil troll of them all; he was called the devil. One day he was particularly pleased with himself, for he had invented a mirror which had the strange power of being able to make anything good or beautiful that it reflected appear horrid; and all that was evil and worthless seem attractive and worthwhile.

This is the first paragraph of “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Anderson who embedded moral lessons in fairy tales and other short works, many of which do not end happily ever after. Anderson created his characters using the rules of polarity: good and evil, beautiful and ugly, greedy and generous. He recognized that people universally think in terms of opposites, that it pervades our physical environment: north and south, night and day, dark and light, hot and cold. Anderson kept his characters deceptively basic, a flat land of generic stereotype. There is the wicked witch and the beautiful princess, the conniving hag and unsuspecting king, and their differences create conflict. It’s as simple as yes and no, as right and wrong.
But it isn’t.
Sometimes you feel like a nut...

Sometimes you feel like a nut..

...sometimes you don't!

…sometimes you don’t!

"I spy with my beautiful green eye..."

“I spy with my beautiful green eye…”

While photographing animals I meet many disarmingly kind mean people. Last month a horse’s owner told me that she’d never seen a sweeter gelding than the one who was my subject. When he bit my thumb hard enough to damage the radial nerve, she claimed he didn’t mean to. I’ve been peed on by male dogs who would never do such a thing and scratched by cats who always keep their claws in. I’ve been stepped on by horses who always respect human space, and I’ve been jumped on by dogs who never jump. I used to think people simply didn’t understand their pets. Now, after photographing and observing so many animals, I think people describe the characters of their pets as one dimensional because it’s difficult not to describe them as fairytale-like. And they don’t have to, unless they want to write and develop them true to life.

I am reminded of the simplification, the boring telling of character each time I donate my time and photography to a rescue organization. The first thing I do when I enter the cat room is read the short bios hanging on the cages or, in the case of a recent shelter, on a bulletin board in an area where the cats roam free. This is my preferred setting because I can sit on the floor and watch for the cats to reveal themselves from the climbing tree condos. I wait for their characters to unfold.
What sort of soul do  you imagine under  those stripes?

What sort of soul do you imagine under those stripes?

Crystal prefers affection on her own terms and seeks a quiet home without children, claimed the human whose job it was to summarize in a playful font the personality of a petite grey tiger. I sat on the floor with my ten year old assistant. After about thirty minutes, Crystal stepped out from behind a crate and wove around my daughter’s legs, purring louder and louder with each back and forth pass. When the pats didn’t come fast enough, she scented my daughter’s knees and, rumbling like an old Chevy without a muffler, thrust her head under what she saw as an available hand, the one that was actively patting Lucy, a recently surrendered female who liked to urinate on the couch. Crystal kept her motor running until the cat room door opened and a volunteer entered. Then she swiftly resumed her hiding place.  Cats, like photographers, watch and listen outside of the fray and wait for the stranger’s character to unfold.

This is a complex character, despite the moustache.

This is a complex character, despite the moustache.

It’s my job to capture the animal’s character in one image, an image that will pull in a potential adopter. Sometimes I feel my job is unethical because I can make the cat who hissed and smacked its roommate look utterly endearing and innocent. And that cat who was surrendered for using the closet as her litter box? I can make her appear, with one release of the shutter, as if she has impeccable hygiene by photographing her meticulously grooming a toe.

…for he had invented a mirror which had the strange power of being able to make anything good or beautiful that it reflected appear horrid… Hans Christian Anderson could easily have been writing about the power of the camera, which uses a mirror to reflect light that is life. Or, and this is what I believe, the mirror could be a metaphor for ourselves, of looking deeply into identity to our true character. “The Ugly Duckling” teaches us that a character who will engage the reader and turn the act of reading a book into a life changing moment might be beautiful and horrid, worthless and worthwhile. But he will never be one or the other.

Helen Peppe and her photography assistant (and daughter!) Morgan.

Helen Peppe and her photography assistant (and daughter!) Morgan.

Helen Peppe’s work has appeared in anthologies, print and digital magazines, including The Goodmen Project, Pop Fic Review, Practical Horseman, Equus, The Horse, Dog Fancy, Dog World, and Mused Literary Review. Her writing has won several literary awards, among them first place in the Word Worth Fiction and Essay Contest and The Starving Writer Contest. A chapter of her debut memoir Pigs Can’t Swim, “The American Eagle”, finaled for the 2011 Annie Dillard Creative Nonfiction Award. Helen has an M.F.A. in creative writing from Stonecoast, and she teaches writing by illustrating craft through photography. She is working on her second memoir, Naked, Finding my Feet, and her first YA novel about a young girl and her rescue horse: I Name you Rockstar. Helen lives in Maine with her husband, Eric, her children, her dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and her horse. Her web site is www.helenpeppe.comPigs Can’t Swim will launch officially in February 2014.

Sheila Webster Boneham

Sheila Webster Boneham

Author Sheila Webster Boneham writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and declines to be branded. Sheila’s Animals in Focus Mystery Series debuted in 2012 with Drop Dead on Recall, which has received high praise for its accurate portrayals of animals and the people who love and play with them, as for its humor. The second series book, The Money Bird, came out in September 2013. She has published seventeen nonfiction books about animals, including the highly acclaimed Rescue Matters! How to Find, Foster, and Rehome Companion Animals, as well as many commercial and academic articles. Sheila teaches creative writing classes and workshops, and frequently speaks to groups about writing and creativity. Her education is as eclectic as her writing: she is finishing an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine, and holds a PhD from Indiana University in folklore, with a focus on gender and North Africa/Middle East.

All images courtesy of Helen Peppe

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