The protagonist and the "English patient" of the novel's title, Almásy exists as the center and focus of the action, despite the fact that he is without name or identity for much of the novel. Almásy thus serves as the blank sheet upon whom all the other characters focus their desires and expectations. Little by little, he reveals his identity, and finally his name, in Chapter IX. When Almásy's name is revealed we discover the great irony of the novel: the "English patient" is not even English, but rather Hungarian by birth, an "international bastard" who has spent much of his adult life wandering the desert. In this way, the English patient serves to highlight the great difference between imagination and reality, and the abstraction of concepts such as nationality and citizenship. On the whole, Almásy is not at all what the other characters think he appears to be.
Almásy's manner is knowledgeable and reflective. His entire career has consisted of searching for ancient cities and mapping empty land. He thus links the past to the present, writing in the margins of Herodotus what he sees to be the truths of the landscape. Almásy's clear-minded and otherwise rational thinking, however, is clouded by the entrance of Katharine Clifton into his life. He becomes obsessed with images of her body, which then inspire the writing of his book. He is unable to focus on his work, frustrated that he is at a loss to name the spot at the base of her neck. Almásy is overwhelmed by passion for Katherine, walking without direction through the desert like a madman after her death, searching for her body so he may return her to England as he promised.
Though Almásy is not a highly dynamic character—by the year in which the story is set, all the events of his life have passed—he is arguably the most intriguing and mysterious figure. He is portrayed in a sympathetic light, but we must keep in mind that this may be because we hear his story from his own point of vies. From an objective perspective, many of his actions, lies, and betrayals appear reprehensible. Nonetheless, Almásy escapes total condemnation because of his knowledge, charm, and adherence to his own system of values. To Almásy—who places no value in the concept of nations and states—it is not at all unethical to help a German spy through the desert. Indeed, Almásy concludes that national identity is completely irrelevant in the desert. Ultimately, however, he suffers greatly for his beliefs and for his moments of passion. Almásy's enduring spirit and his firm connection between past and present are what keep him, the English patient, foremost in our minds.
Only twenty years old, Hana is torn between adolescence and adulthood. Barely eighteen when she leaves to become a nurse in the war, she is forced to grow up quickly, eliminating the luxuries of her character that get in the way of her duty. Three days into her work, she cuts off all her hair, as it gets in the way of her work, and refuses to look in a mirror for the duration of the war. With the confidence that comes with experience, Hana cares for the English patient, bringing him morphine and washing his wounds. Yet she still clings to vestiges of innocence that allow her to feel like a child—some nights, she goes out in the garden to play hopscotch. Hana is a dynamic character, and the novel is in many ways the story of her maturity into adulthood.
Hana goes about her duty with a Christian belief that has been somewhat compromised by the war. While she refrains from praying and outright religious ceremony, the allusions she makes are clearly religious. Hana sees her English patient as a "despairing saint" with "hipbones like Christ." This religious imagery elevates the tone of her thoughts and he importance of her actions. She imagines the patient to have been a noble warrior who has suffered—perhaps wrongly—for his actions. In reality, however, Almásy is a mapmaker who has helped German spies and carried on an affair with another man's wife. By projecting noble images onto the blank identity of the English patient, Hana builds innocent and childlike dreams. As the novel concludes, Hana sees the reality in her situation, and she longs to return home to the safety of Clara and her home.
As a soldier who has had a difficult life both at war and at home, Kip is a conflicted and complicated character. Ondaatje takes free license with Kip, employing him as a lens through which to explore Anglo-Indian relations during a period of chaos for the British Empire. Kip's experiences in India with his brother—who harbors deep resentment toward the West—and with fellow soldiers in England who react with reserve to his brown skin highlight the strained and skeptical relations between two parts of one large Empire. As an Indian man serving in the British army, Kip straddles two worlds, walking a fine line between adopting Western customs and losing his national identity.
Yet as a character in himself, Kip is complex and elusive. He reacts with warmth to the welcoming embrace of his mentor, Lord Suffolk, but shrugs off Caravaggio's hug as he rides away on his motorcycle at the end of the novel. Much of the emotional distance Kip has built for himself is a result of his incredibly dangerous job in the war. As a man who must descend into deep pits to defuse bombs that could explode at any time, Kip has come to grips with the idea of his own mortality. His job has taught him to distrust everything and everyone. In the Italian villa, however, Kip becomes a part of the small community that has sprouted there and begins to let his guard down. However, the news of the atomic bomb dropped on Japan, which he sees as a symbol of Western aggression, jolts him back into the reality that exists outside the villa. Kip returns to the path that was initially laid out for him, becoming a doctor and having an Indian family. Years later, however, his thoughts of Hana keep him tied between two worlds.