Annemarie is a typical young girl in many ways. Ten years old, she deals with the typical difficulties of growing up—getting along with a sibling, understanding the way the adult world works. But these difficulties play out in the complicated and frightening context of war. War has made Annemarie a thoughtful and introspective girl. She spends much of her time reflecting on what she sees around her. Annemarie is very tuned in to the concerns of her parents and unusually aware of their vulnerability. Because the death of her older sister Lise, Annemarie worries about her parents and is careful not to upset them. She also has enormous respect for her mother and father, in particular Mr. Johansen. From her father's great sense of patriotism and devotion to his king, Annemarie learns to value bravery as the best quality a person can have.
For all the seriousness that the events of her life have instilled in her, Annemarie is still a dreamer and a free spirit. She loves to run. She dreams about the countryside of her childhood before the war. Though she does not care for the fairy tales that she tells her younger sister Kirsti, Annemarie sometimes makes the bizarre reality of war into a sort of game. For Annemarie, growing up in a country at war heightens the typical childhood dilemma of how to find a balance between being a child and entering into the world of adulthood and responsibility.
Because Annemarie is a child, she gives the reader an unusual view of war. The simplicity of her observations makes them profound. The comments that she makes about events allow us to see the basic absurdity of making war. Annemarie's perspective allows us to see issues that would not surface otherwise. Annemarie must try to understand events for which she receives no explanation. The lessons she learns apply not only to children, but to all people experiencing a war.
Mrs. Johansen is a gentle woman and an extremely strong woman. She is fiercely protective of her family. In three separate confrontations with German soldiers, Mrs. Johansen overcomes her fear and defends her loved ones. Frequently she defers to Mr. Johansen's authority, but when Ellen is in danger, Mrs. Johansen takes matters into her own hands. Her confidence sets an example that Annemarie tries to follow. Mrs. Johansen is also a source of great comfort. She tells stories of her own childhood as a means of restoring her children's sense of security. These stories also act as a pale substitute for the experiences she wishes her girls could have.
Mrs. Johansen's bravery is both physical and emotional. She not only risks her own life, breaking her ankle in the process, she is also prepared to let her child face danger when it becomes necessary. More than her husband, she becomes involved in the escape of the Rosens. Perhaps because of Lise's attempts, Mrs. Johansen is determined to help in whatever way she can. Appropriately, the boat that transports the fleeing Jews to safety bears her name.
Peter is a young and brave member of the Resistance. He visits the Johansens by night, breaking curfew to see them. Peter is the most directly defiant character in the novel. He has no family that we know of and the Germans killed the love of his life. Though he is described as having been joyful in earlier years, the Peter of Number the Stars is intense and serious. Nothing gets in the way of Peter's mission. His participation in the Resistance is what defines him. Peter can be seen as the prototypical young rebel, though he is quiet and composed. One can sense his willingness to go beyond the call of duty. He is determined to help the Jews and defy the Nazis at all costs.
Uncle Henrik is a kind, joyful man. He is the jolly bachelor who seems unaffected by the worries of city society. He does not care that his house is not well cleaned or kept up. As a fisherman, he leads a relaxed life close to nature. Because he has a boat, Henrik is able to play a key role in the Rosens' escape. He also helps other Jews. He plays an important role in his relationship to his niece Annemarie. Henrik's nature allows him to explain things to Annemarie in a way that her own parents are not able to. Their conversations about bravery are essential to Annemarie's recognition of her own bravery.
Ellen is a quiet and composed girl. She is the same age as Annemarie, though far more solemn. She is a strong student, but aspires to be an actress. Her desire to act becomes symbolic for the terrible way the war forces people to play specific roles. Ellen is Jewish. To save herself, Ellen pretends to be Annemarie's sister so that the Germans do not take her away. For Ellen, the threats of the war are so imminent that she cannot reflect on the war like Annemarie can. Ellen is afraid. Annemarie's connection to Ellen makes the war a more pressing issue in her own life.