Characterization is achieved in Bless the Beasts and Children by several means. Flashbacks, set in italics, are relevant to one boy at a time, giving each boy’s history and providing a picture of a sick psyche brought on by neglect of basic human needs. In each case, the boys are castoffs, children of parents too busy with their own affairs to really care about the well-being of their own sons. Stephen and Billy Lally, for example, are shown in one flashback competing for the affection of their parents, who bribe each of the boys with a gift and then fly off to winter in Morocco. Another example shows Laurence Teft III trying to get the attention of his parents by stealing money from his mother and driving off in his father’s big car, only to collide with two other cars. Instead of speaking to his son, the father locks his cars away, and Teft simply steals a neighbor’s car.
The author also illustrates the boys’ characteristic behavior in interactions with others, as when Cotton decides that, since he is the oldest and most normal of the group, he needs to take control. Cotton thus hunts about in his footlocker and finds some army tags that jingle when he puts them on; he pulls out an electric razor and runs it over his face, though he has no need to shave; and, finally, he pulls out four tiny bottles of whiskey, takes a drink, and then lights a cigar—actions enough to mark him as the leader he sets out to be.
Lastly, Swarthout sometimes delineates his characters through direct exposition by the commenting narrator or by entry into the mind of a character or an animal. The careful identification of the boys with the animals helps to cast the boys’ mission in a heroic mode and gives the plight of the animals considerable urgency, an urgency reflected in the death of Cotton at the end of the novel.