The protagonist of the novel and its narrator, Katniss Everdeen is a strong, resourceful sixteen-year-old who is far more mature than her age would suggest. Katniss is the main provider in her family, which consists of Katniss, her mother, and her younger sister, Prim. Katniss is fiercely protective of her younger sister, and she volunteers to take Prim’s place in the Hunger Games to protect her. In fact, Katniss is more responsible than anyone else for her family’s wellbeing. Notably, she is responsible for feeding her family, which she does by hunting and foraging, skills she learned from her father before his death in a mine explosion years earlier. Hunting, however, is illegal and punishable by death. Katniss does it anyway, indicating a rebellious streak in her. Moreover, what she catches or collects that her family doesn’t need to eat, she sells in the district’s black market, again implying a disregard for rules.
This disregard, however, developed out of necessity rather than an inherent defiance. After Katniss’s father died, her mother sank into a depression, leaving Katniss to take care of the family despite her young age. Katniss realized that, without her hunting, her family wouldn’t have enough to eat, a serious problem in District 12, where starvation is common. As a result of these conditions, Katniss has grown into a tough, unsentimental, and practical girl. Ironically, the hardships she faced as a result of her impoverished upbringing wind up working to her advantage once she’s in the arena. The skills and qualities she developed to cope with the everyday challenges of being poor, including her ability to hunt, her toughness, and her resourcefulness, turn out to be what keeps her alive through the Games.
During the weeks over which the Games occur, Katniss’s character does not fundamentally change. What changes are her circumstances, and most of the novel watches her dealing with the situations she encounters. She does not begin to seek attention once she becomes a celebrity and begins doing television interviews. Rather, she always tries to figure out how to get through the interviews so she can go back to her life. The Hunger Games similarly do not turn her into an unfeeling killer, and the only times she kills she does so out of necessity, and to some degree in Cato’s case, pity. That her sense of compassion remains intact is clear through the way she treats Rue. Furthermore, before the Games, she has little interest in boys and is instead focused on her responsibilities, and though she develops feelings for Peeta and becomes aware of feelings for Gale during the Games, romance remains a peripheral interest for her at the end of the novel. This lack of change, however, can be seen as a victory for Katniss. She maintains her sense of identity and integrity, just as Peeta at one point says he would like to, despite the horrible ordeals she faces in the Games.
The male tribute from District 12, Peeta is in love with Katniss and becomes her main ally and romantic interest during the Games. Peeta is best characterized by his love for Katniss and willingness to sacrifice himself for her. Katniss’s first memory of him, for instance, is from an incident years before the Games in which Peeta willingly risked a beating to help her. Katniss was starving and searching for food behind Peeta’s family’s bakery, and Peeta apparently burned two loaves of bread deliberately so the bakery couldn’t use them, then gave those loaves to Katniss. Peeta’s mother hit him for burning the bread, and Katniss believes Peeta must have known he would be punished for it. During the Games, he is similarly selfless when he saves Katniss after she comes back to retrieve the bow but finds herself suddenly stunned by the tracker jacker stings. To allow Katniss to escape, Peeta fights Cato, the most deadly of the other tributes, and suffers a serious injury as a result.
Though we have a limited perspective on Peeta since we only seen him through Katniss’s eyes, he comes across as thoughtful, artistic, and genuinely kind. We learn that he’s a gifted visual artist, capable of creating beautiful designs in frosting for the cakes at his family’s bakery and mimicking patterns of light and shade when he camouflages himself. When Haymitch falls in his own vomit, it is Peeta who volunteers to clean him up. Katniss wonders what his motive is in volunteering for this task, then realizes that Peeta is just being nice. In one particularly memorable scene before the Games occur, Peeta confesses to Katniss that his only hope for the Games is to retain his identity and not to be made into a monster by his circumstances. The incident reveals Peeta to be a good and introspective person who prides his dignity and decency perhaps above all else. (It is never answered whether he would sacrifice that for Katniss as well.)
As District 12’s only surviving winner of the Hunger Games, Haymitch acts as Katniss’s and Peeta’s coach throughout the Games. Though he is drunk most, in fact nearly all, of the time, he proves a cunning advisor to the young tributes. It is never made explicit in the novel, but it appears to be Haymitch who devises the strategy of playing up the romance between Katniss and Peeta, a move that ultimately allows both of them to survive the Games even though traditionally only one winner has been allowed. Haymitch also finds a way of communicating with Katniss during the Games through the gifts he sends her, essentially coaching her on how she should behave to get more sponsors. Albeit in a very limited way, he also acts as somewhat of a father figure to Katniss, who lost her father years earlier. While Haymitch is often indelicate and manipulative, frequently using Peeta and his feelings for Katniss to get the results he wants, he is undeniably effective. When Katniss and Peeta wonder how he won the Hunger Games, Peeta suspects he must have outsmarted the other tributes.