Santiago, a shepherd boy from a small Andalusian town, is the protagonist of The Alchemist. He is determined, headstrong, and curious to learn all he can about the world. As a result, he resisted his parent’s desires that he become a priest and chose instead to work as a shepherd so that he would have the opportunity to travel throughout the country. Despite his natural adventurousness, Santiago remains conservative and self-satisfied in many ways until he dreams of uncovering a treasure hidden near the pyramids in Egypt. Santiago hesitates to pursue his dream until he meets Melchizedek, a mysterious old man who claims to be the king of Salem. After Melchizedek reveals to him the magical powers of nature, Santiago becomes a willing spiritual seeker and sets off to fulfill his Personal Legend, the innate dream each person has of accomplishing their greatest desire.
As the story progresses and Santiago comes closer to the treasure, he becomes more focused on his growing understanding of the mystical force that imbues everything, called the Soul of the World. The time he spends crossing the desert on his way to the pyramids teaches him to pay attention to the world around him and to see all of creation in his surroundings, even in a single grain of sand. The knowledge he gains from the desert allows him to recognize nature as a single, unified whole. His greatest spiritual advancement, however, comes after he meets the alchemist, who helps him to understand himself and to read the omens in his environment. Santiago ultimately learns to communicate with the wind and the sun and the Hand That Wrote All, a force evidently synonymous with God or Allah.
Supposedly 200 years old, the alchemist is a mysterious character and an extremely powerful practitioner of alchemy who resides at the Al-Fayoum oasis. Many in Al-Fayoum do not know of his existence, and even the tribal chieftains must request an audience if they wish to see him. He has among his possessions the Master Work, considered the ultimate goal of alchemy, which consists of the Philosopher’s Stone, capable of turning any metal into gold, and the Elixir of Life, able to cure all ills. In addition, he appears to possess magical powers. The alchemist mainly functions as a teacher to Santiago, though he often speaks in riddles and expects Santiago to learn more through experience than through verbal instruction.
The alchemist’s teachings connect the book’s dominant metaphor of alchemy—transforming one element into another more valuable element—to Santiago’s own journey. The alchemist’s wisdom connects him to the mystical Soul of the World. This connection provides him with his supernatural abilities, and it allows him to guide Santiago on his own quest to understand the Soul of the World. Santiago, with the alchemist’s guidance, learns to read and communicate with the world around him, ultimately leading him to the treasure he seeks and to his own supernatural abilities. In other words, Santiago eventually undergoes his own transformation. The alchemist’s hands-off method of teaching, however, suggests that no direct form of instruction can allow someone to connect with the Soul of the World. Instead, Santiago, and in fact any student, must teach and transform himself by listening to his own heart and to his environment.
The crystal merchant serves as an important friend to Santiago during Santiago’s time in Tangier, but he also functions as a cautionary case of someone who has become complacent and given up the pursuit of his Personal Legend. He maintains a crystal shop on the top of a hill in Tangier, and was rather successful until the city fell out of favor as a port. Although he is a good man who is devoutly religious and kind enough to take Santiago in, he fears pursuing his dream to make a pilgrimage to Mecca because he thinks he will have nothing to live for once he’s achieved his dream. The crystal merchant takes no pride in his conservative approach to life, but he feels rooted in his ways.
The crystal merchant is the most fully fleshed-out irredeemable character in The Alchemist. (The baker is another irredeemable character, as is Santiago’s own father, but we don’t see either of them as much as the crystal merchant). In other words, the novel portrays his fate as one to avoid, despite the fact that he comes across as a good person. The crystal merchant understands that he acts foolishly in not pursuing his Personal Legend, making it difficult to understand his motives when he refuses to change his ways, even after Santiago shows him the benefits of taking risks. Within the context of the story, he serves as an example of the dangers of an unfulfilled life, evident in his disappointment over his own life decisions.
Melchizedek, who claims to be the King of Salem, appears to Santiago as an old man living in the Spanish town of Tarifa, and although he appears only briefly in the book, he plays an important role as he introduces several of the key concepts that we see repeated throughout The Alchemist. For example, he tells Santiago about Personal Legends, the Soul of the World, and Beginner’s Luck. He also gives Santiago two magical stones, Urim and Thummim, which represent “yes” and “no” respectively, to help guide him on his journey. Melchizedek is also the first character in The Alchemist to display magical powers. Those powers help him convince Santiago to pursue his dream of finding a treasure near the pyramids in Egypt.
By his own account, Melchizedek plays a role in the lives of everyone who pursues his or her Personal Legend. He essentially motivates people to continue pursuing their Personal Legends in times of doubt, as he does when he meets Santiago in the novel. Although he appears to Santiago as a flesh-and-blood man, he explains that he appears to people more often as a symbol or idea. Evidently he has been serving this purpose for a long time, as he remembers helping the biblical Abraham in his own journey. Even when Melchizedek is not physically present, the magical stones he gives Santiago help Santiago to remain hopeful and focused as he pursues his Personal Legend.
The Englishman is a well-educated and ambitious aspiring alchemist. He is adventurous enough to join a caravan in search of the alchemist, but is rather anti-social. He prefers to read his large collection of books rather than interact with others or take interest in his surroundings. Because the Englishman and Santiago share a commitment to pursuing their Personal Legends, they quickly become friends. The Englishman, however, also challenges Santiago with his intellectual, knowledge-focused approach to life. He teaches Santiago the value of book learning and introduces him to important concepts in alchemy, such as the Master Work. But he must also learn from Santiago the importance of experience and friendship.
Because the Englishman focuses too much on his books, the alchemist believes he has not reached the point in his personal development that would allow him to be the alchemist’s protégé. Using the Englishman as its example, the novel suggests that even though knowledge gained from books can be useful, one should not rely on it solely and unconditionally. True wisdom comes from experience, which one must earn through action.
The only female character in The Alchemist to get a modicum of attention, Fatima is defined by her beauty and her willingness to wait for Santiago while he pursues his Personal Legend. She lives at the Al-Fayoum oasis, where her primary duty in life consists of gathering water from the local well, and she says as a woman of the desert she realizes that men must leave the women they love for long periods. When Santiago hesitates to leave Fatima and the oasis, she convinces him he must go. She has confidence that he will return if he loves her. Fatima says her ultimate goal is to love Santiago, and she appears to have no Personal Legend of her own.