Tom is a well-rounded character, a mix of strengths and flaws, based on trickster and hero archetypes that were adapted in American literature to a create a particular type of American male hero. In the tradition of American trickster heroes, Tom survives by his wits, his practicality, and his cheerful, robust ability to dominate others. Like the typical American hero, he is white and "all boy:" he loves to be active, rejects book learning, and has a strong spirit of adventure and daring. During the course of the book, he journeys to maturity, gaining wisdom as he faces and overcomes obstacles on his path, including his own mortality.
In the famous early chapter when Tom is punished by Aunt Polly by having to whitewash a fence, we see many of these character traits come into play. He hates the lack of freedom that fence painting causes him on a beautiful Saturday, and he hates the idea that he is vulnerable to being mocked by Ben Rogers, whom he sees coming down the street. Ben is an active, high spirited boy, too, a rival that Tom is determined to dominate. He does so by using his wits to trick Ben into helping him paint the fence—and even into paying him, Tom, for the favor. This ploy comically spreads until Tom is enjoying his day, gathering tribute, while others do his drudge work.
Tom has a keen sense of social class. His rebellious, adventure loving self loves to hang out with Huck Finn. He admires Huck, the son of a socially outcast alcoholic father, for all the freedom he has, such as not having to attend school, but is always careful to meet up with this friend at night or in settings away from more respectable boys—which leads to witnessing a murder.
Tom shows his courage and integrity when he testifies against and later helps to trap the fearful murderer Injun Joe. He also faces his mortality, albeit comically, when he, Huck, and Joe Harper are taken for dead, and he overhears his own funeral.
His half brother Sid, studious and obedient, is Tom's foil. Unlike Sid, wherever Tom goes, adventure always follow.