Okay, Meg, the hard part here is going to be reeling myself in because there is so much I want to say on the subject of secondary characters. There is a very long essay that could be written just on how Stead succeeds with this aspect of her novel. Apologies in advance for rambling on a bit. NOTE: BIG SPOILER ALERT! If you have not yet read the novel, come back when you have!
In her craft book Between the Lines, author Jessica Page Morrell refers to secondary characters as, “the unsung heroes of fiction.” As writers, we must be certain that these often overlooked and underused characters serve a specific purpose within the story. Do they propel the protagonist towards his necessary growth or change? Perhaps they serve as a source for heightened tension and conflict. Might they provide the reader with an alternate perspective on the protagonist and his motivation? The list goes on, and any of these could be a blog post on its own--but that is a post for another day!
The thing I would like to focus on today is the plot arc of the well written secondary character, regardless of the purpose he serves in the story. In a post made in March of this year, literary agent Nathan Bransford said this in his blog :
“Every single character you introduce, major or minor, should also have their own plot arc(s) with defined goals and motivations. The more important the character the longer and more complex the plot arc(s.)” He goes on to say, “This is often where writers miss opportunities: every character, big or small, has to show motivation, agency, and desire. They have to have their own plot arcs. And it's important that the arcs have a beginning, middle, and end.”
In When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead has done a mind-bogglingly good job of creating secondary characters with well fleshed out plot arcs that rise and fall over the course of the novel. Consider Annemarie. At the onset of the novel she has lost her best friend, Julia, which is the inciting incident causing her to befriend Miranda. Annemarie wants to be liked. She wants to fit in—in fact she wants it so badly that she puts her health at risk in order to be part of the lunch-time work crew at Jimmy’s sandwich shop. She seems like a kid who will roll with the punches and go along for the ride, but when her former best friend’s honesty is brought into question and racial slurs are made about her, Anne Marie’s story arc hits a peak, and we see what she is like when her mettle is tested. She has a full-fledged story completely independent of Miranda’s, yet hers intertwines with Miranda’s in a way that causes both the girls to grow and change.
And look at Sal’s story arc. Miranda believes that the moment of change for Sal came when he was punched in the stomach. We come to learn that his story started sooner than that, when Miranda was sick from school and Sal understood for the first time how dependent he was on her for friendship. This is the story of Sal’s growth into a more independent person who goes after what he wants—a more diverse circle of friends which includes boys—and he gets it. But along the way, a consequence of Sal’s living out his story is that he unintentionally drives Miranda toward her own growth and change.
And what about Marcus! What a story he has to tell. A boy genius raised in an impoverished family of questionable moral integrity, he seems nothing more than a bully. Then, as his story unfolds, we come to understand his motivation. We see him as a person with an enormous capacity to love, and an intense need to do what is right when we finally understand that he has traveled back in time to save the life of a boy he accidentally killed when he (Marcus) was a child. Marcus’s story line begins the day that he punches Sal in the stomach. It hits a climax the day he kicks Sal out of the way of an oncoming truck. And BOY does he undergo growth and change, starting out as a smart, but clueless kid, and winding up in the heroic form of the Laughing man. As for the role Marcus plays in Miranda’s growth--without Marcus, there would be no story. It is because of him, and his actions that the most significant wheels in the story are set in motion.
Julia, Colin, Miranda’s mother, Richard. Every single one of them has a story, and every single one of them plays a major role in Miranda becoming who she needs to be by the end of the novel. What Stead has done, and what we all need to do when creating secondary characters is this: First, she has made each of her secondary characters into a multi-faceted person with a compelling story all their own. Second, she has brought them into Miranda’s life for a reason--to propel her on her journey, to give her cause for introspection, to act as mirrors or foils that Miranda encounters along the way.
STORYSLEUTHS’ TIP # 23: To write effective secondary characters, give them a story arc all their own, complete with a beginning, middle and end.
NEW! Go to NEXT When You Reach Me post.