Alfred is a very real, dynamic character. He has flaws—almost fatal ones—and sometimes acts in ways that can make us cringe. He is unfailingly human, which is ultimately why his character is so compelling. In addition to his susceptibility to temptation, he is vulnerable to those weaknesses which everyone feels—loneliness, the need to fit in, wondering if one is good at anything, wondering whether one is special. These are basic doubts with which many teenager and adult copes, and the reason Alfred is so convincing as a character is that while he copes with these questions, he falters. Sometimes he thinks he has hit upon an answer, only to realize he is completely off base. He makes mistakes, he does things he later regrets, but all he can do is move forward.
One of these movements takes the form of boxing training, and soon Alfred gets frustrated and falls back into the old temptations of drugs and alcohol. But the need to be self aware and to exceed what he once believed to be his own limitations pushes him forward again. He makes reparations for his mistakes and starts all over again, working twice as hard. Ultimately, this encourages Mr. Donatelli gives him the benefit of the doubt. Alfred is confused and is in many ways lost, but through it all he tries his best. What Alfred goes through is not pretty—he gets beat up, bleeds, sweats, and vomits. But he is gritty and determined and eventually prevails. He might not have the raw talent it takes to be a boxer, but he has the heart.
While understated, Mr. Donatelli is the novel's hero. He is a hero in that he understands other peoples' need to be heroes and without a question tries to make it happen for them. Mr. Donatelli seems to know himself so well that it is clear that being special for him means helping other people find what is special about them. He understands Alfred from the first minute, realizing that Alfred is looking for something and needs something, although Mr. Donatelli is not exactly sure what that might be. Mr. Donatelli knows that while boxing is probably not the answer, it could eventually make Alfred evolve in ways that make finding the answer easier. Mr. Donatelli does the same for Spoon and has a sense about what someone needs in order to feel special. In that way, while on the surface he seems a man who owns a dilapidated gym on the third floor of a building, Mr. Donatelli is an unlikely but undeniable dream-maker.
James is set up to be a foil for Alfred all the way through. While Alfred is not perfect, at least he has an interest in improving himself and being someone. James at one point had similar desires, but he lost them along the way. Alfred sees James fall victim to negative influences, especially heroin. Alfred realizes that he could very easily be in the same position as James, and Alfred almost crosses that line about halfway through the book. It is James's behavior that snaps Alfred back into his discipline. At Major's party, Alfred indulges in marijuana and alcohol, but when he sees James indulging with more dangerous heroin Alfred suddenly realizes just how bad James is, and just how bad he himself could be. Part of Alfred's desire to be someone rests also in being loyal to James, no matter what. This is a lesson taught by Mr. Donatelli—when someone needs you, even if he or she does not admit it, you come through. Alfred does that for James at the end of the book. It takes some coaxing, but James eventually responds to Alfred. For him, Alfred is the only person in the entire world who understands and cares to help him, and knowing that is enough to motivate James to change at the end of the book.
Mr. Epstein is one of the only significant Caucasian characters in the book. Major and Hollis claim that Epstein's different ethnicity is justification for trying to break into the Epstein's store. Mr. Epstein is very fair to Alfred, even though it would be understandable if he did not want much to do with Alfred after the robbery attempts. He knows that James is Alfred's best friend and knows it is no coincidence that James tried to rob the place where Alfred works. He does not think Alfred has had anything to do with the plan, but he is not totally convinced until Alfred earns his trust back. Mr. Epstein, much like Mr. Donatelli, gives Alfred a chance to prove that Alfred is worth the risk. Largely because of boxing, Alfred's determination become apparent to Mr. Epstein, and he and Alfred get to know each other on a level of deeper understanding than they had before. To them, understanding of what it means to box transcends the issues of color and distrust.