Describe the primary characters in Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist and the part they play in the plot development.

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Paulo Coelho artfully weaves the perfect mix of characters to present his story of the teenage Santiago, searching for his Personal Legend—his destiny—in the novel entitled The Alchemist.

By far, the most important character is that of Santiago himself. Often referred to as "the boy," the story's plot involves his pursuit of an elusive treasure that he repeatedly dreams about. A wanderer and traveler who herds sheep in order to see the world, Santiago becomes aware of something greater than himself—the first inkling of which he notices with his connection to his sheep...

It was as if some mysterious energy bound his life to that of the sheep...

It is any wonder, then, that the time seems ripe for the appearance of another important character, the King of Salem, also known as Melchizedek. His very name is chronicled in biblical and other ancient texts: in some cases, his name is even synonymous with "God." However, in this story, he is like a prophet: he reveals the concept of one's "Personal Legend" to Santiago. His stories and advice urge the boy along when he thinks to give up his quest to visit the Pyramids of Egypt. Melchizedek admits that he often appears to others who are ready to give up, in the most unlike of guises. He says:

Sometimes I appear in the form of a solution, or a good idea. At other times, at a crucial moment, I  make it easier for things to happen.

This is what happens in Melchizedek's story of the emerald miner, when he is ready to give up.

The crystal merchant is the man who gives the boy a job as he tries to earn money to return home; however, Santiago's time with the merchant teaches him that he wants to pursue this opportunity to find his Personal Legend—by observing that the merchant has failed to do so and feels unfulfilled. Santiago learns a great deal about himself during this time.

Another integral character is that of the Englishman: he represents those who experience life only through knowledge, having no interaction with the world. He is not able to read the omens and so he can never find the guidance of the Universe (or speak the Universal Language) to achieve his goals. And while he offers advice to Santiago, it is meaningless because the Englishman is on the wrong path.

Fatima is a young woman Santiago meets at the oasis. She has lived there her entire life. She understands her place in the world: she knows what women do as their men leave the oasis—they wait for their return. She understand the language of the desert: she understands Santiago and has faith in him. They fall in love in an instant, and she is supportive of his search for his Personal Legend.

Finally, there is the alchemist himself. He is the ultimate teacher. He has the secrets that the Englishman seeks, but he cannot share them with the scholar because the Englishman is not open to the world around him: omens, the Universal Language and the oneness one must feel with the physical world—and the spirit of that world. However, Santiago becomes the alchemist's student. All that has happened to him (being robbed, having to spend almost a year with the crystal merchant, etc.) has conspired to bring Santiago to a place where the alchemist can further teach him, prepare him and then place him in a situation where he is seriously tested. Santiago not only survives, but ultimately realizes his Personal Legend and true happiness—finding greater treasure than he ever expected.

Read the study guide:
The Alchemist

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