Modeled after Joyce himself, Stephen is a sensitive, thoughtful boy who reappears in Joyce's later masterpiece, Ulysses. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, though Stephen's large family runs into deepening financial difficulties, his parents manage to send him to prestigious schools and eventually to a university. As he grows up, Stephen grapples with his nationality, religion, family, and morality, and finally decides to reject all socially imposed bonds and instead live freely as an artist.
Stephen undergoes several crucial transformations over the course of the novel. The first, which occurs during his first years as Clongowes, is from a sheltered little boy to a bright student who understands social interactions and can begin to make sense of the world around him. The second, which occurs when Stephen sleeps with the Dublin prostitute, is from innocence to debauchery. The third, which occurs when Stephen hears Father Arnall's speech on death and hell, is from an unrepentant sinner to a devout Catholic. Finally, Stephen's greatest transformation is from near fanatical religiousness to a new devotion to art and beauty. This transition takes place in Chapter 4, when he is offered entry to the Jesuit order but refuses it in order to attend university. Stephen's refusal and his subsequent epiphany on the beach mark his transition from belief in God to belief in aesthetic beauty. This transformation continues through his college years. By the end of his time in college, Stephen has become a fully formed artist, and his diary entries reflect the independent individual he has become.
Simon Dedalus spends a great deal of his time reliving past experiences, lost in his own sentimental nostalgia. Joyce often uses Simon to symbolize the bonds and burdens that Stephen's family and nationality place upon him as he grows up. Simon is a nostalgic, tragic figure: he has a deep pride in tradition, but he is unable to keep his own affairs in order. To Stephen, his father Simon represents the parts of family, nation, and tradition that hold him back, and against which he feels he must rebel. The closest look we get at Simon is on the visit to Cork with Stephen, during which Simon gets drunk and sentimentalizes about his past. Joyce paints a picture of a man who has ruined himself and, instead of facing his problems, drowns them in alcohol and nostalgia.
Emma is Stephen's "beloved," the young girl to whom he is intensely attracted over the course of many years. Stephen does not know Emma particularly well, and is generally too embarrassed or afraid to talk to her, but feels a powerful response stirring within him whenever he sees her. Stephen's first poem, "To E— C—," is written to Emma. She is a shadowy figure throughout the novel, and we know almost nothing about her even at the novel's end. For Stephen, Emma symbolizes one end of a spectrum of femininity. Stephen seems able to perceive only the extremes of this spectrum: for him, women are either pure, distant, and unapproachable, like Emma, or impure, sexual, and common, like the prostitutes he visits during his time at Belvedere.
Parnell is not fictional, and does not actually appear as a character in the novel. However, as an Irish political leader, he is a polarizing figure whose death influences many characters in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. During the late nineteenth century, Parnell had been the powerful leader of the Irish National Party, and his influence seemed to promise Irish independence from England. When Parnell's affair with a married woman was exposed, however, he was condemned by the Catholic Church and fell from grace. His fevered attempts to regain his former position of influence contributed to his death from exhaustion. Many people in Ireland, such as the character of John Casey in Joyce's novel, considered Parnell a hero and blamed the church for his death. Many others, such as the character Dante, thought the church had done the right thing to condemn Parnell. These disputes over Parnell's character are at the root of the bitter and abusive argument that erupts during the Dedalus family's Christmas dinner when Stephen is still a young boy. In this sense, Parnell represents the burden of Irish nationality that Stephen comes to believe is preventing him from realizing himself as an artist.
Stephen's best friend at the university, Cranly also acts as a kind of nonreligious confessor for Stephen. In long, late-night talks, Stephen tells Cranly everything, just as he used to tell the priests everything during his days of religious fervor. While Cranly is a good friend to Stephen, he does not understand Stephen's need for absolute freedom. Indeed, to Cranly, leaving behind all the trappings of society would be terribly lonely. It is this difference that separates the true artist, Stephen, from the artist's friend, Cranly. In that sense, Cranly represents the nongenius, a young man who is not called to greatness as Stephen is, and who therefore does not have to make the same sacrifices.