Yes, Stead not only gives the secondary characters their own plot arcs, but she also rounds out the minor characters, giving each one an important role in Miranda’s development. Robert McKee, in Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, describes the importance of the “cast of characters” this way: “In essence, the protagonist creates the rest of the cast. All other characters are in a story first and foremost because of the relationship they strike to the protagonist and the way each helps to delineate the dimensions of the protagonist’s complex nature.” (p. 179) Even characters who play minor roles in When You Reach Me have a specific personality, and/or past history, that help to promote Miranda’s growth.
Take Jimmy, the owner of the sandwich shop near the school, who lets Annemarie, Colin and Miranda work there during their lunch time in exchange for a soda and a sandwich, which they can each create from the “setup tray.” (p. 55) He’s nice enough to them, but he’s a bigot, stretching his eyelids back as he says, “Velly important.” Miranda notes, “If Mom had been there, she would have whacked him on the head with a plastic tray.” (p. 62) His bigotry surfaces again, and creates a platform for Miranda to announce the gulf between herself and Julia, when he orders Julia, who is black, out of his shop. “Now.” (p. 83) Miranda, jealous of Julia for her worldly travels, nice clothes, and little silver Swiss watch, is secretly pleased: “Jimmy could be a grouch, but he saw right through Julia, just like I did.” (p. 83) But Annemarie sees right through Jimmy. When he suspects Julia of stealing some money from a bank in his shop because of “her blood,” Annemarie says, “You pig....You racist pig.” (p. 129) This interaction precipitates Miranda’s sharing the reasons for her jealousy of Julia with Annemarie. Thus Jimmy is the catalyst for an enormous amount of Miranda’s growth.
Take Miranda’s teacher, Mr. Tompkin. Miranda’s mom tells her that Mr. Tompkin is a frustrated architect who became a teacher, like a lot of young men who became teachers because they “didn’t want to fight” in Vietnam. So Mr. Tompkin’s class “studies buildings every year.” (p. 43) This year the class project is Main Street, a scale model of a city block, the creation of which figures into much of the social interaction between various students in the class. When at lunch one day Julia questions Miranda about how she would make the swings for the Main Street playground, Miranda observes, “It was dawning on me that Julia was showing me something, teaching me how to help Annemarie.” (p. 90) So the teacher initiated an action that resulted in Miranda’s social and emotional development.
Take Richard, Miranda’s mom’s boyfriend, who hasn’t been given a key to their apartment. “Keys are power,” he says. (p. 4) As a reader, I wonder: What key will have the power to unlock the mystery of this book? Repeated references to keys throughout the book in connection specifically with Richard are reminders that Miranda still hasn’t unlocked the mystery, which at times seems to be tied up in knots. Richard knows knots--how to tie them and how to untie them. He teaches Miranda to tie knots--he had even given her a set of ropes two Christmases before. He told Miranda that he ties and unties knots when he has a problem at work, which helps him get in the right frame of mind. (p. 19) Miranda wonders if tying and untying knots will help “solve my problem.” (p. 20) Finally, after Miranda unravels the knots of her problem and finds the key to the mystery of the notes, she gives Richard his own set of keys to the apartment--tied with a sailor’s knot. With her birthday gift, Miranda welcomes her mom’s boyfriend into their family. It’s through interactions like this with the relativity minor character Richard that Miranda grows.
Storysleuths’ Tip #23--Even minor characters can (and perhaps should) trigger significant events.
Over to you, Allyson.
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