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There are a vast number of characters in this rich story that stretches across history and generations. However, the main protagonist of the story is Archibald Jones, known as Archie, who is presented as a rather weak character who struggles to make decisions for himself, choosing instead to flip a coin to make the important decisions of his life. Archie's significance in the novel is described in the following way, when the narrator explains why Archie would never commit suicide, no matter what happened to him:
No matter what anyone says, suicide takes guts. It's for heroes and martyrs, truly vainglorious men. Archie was none of these. He was a man whose significance in the Greater Scheme of Things could be figured along familiar ratios:
Pebble : Beach
Raindrop : Ocean
Needle : Haystack
This rather humorous introduction to Archie's character indicates the kind of man that he is: there is nothing special or extraordinary about him, and he has no distinguishing traits or features.
Archie's best friend is Samad Miah Iqbal, who fought alongside Archie during World War II and now lives very close to Archie. The two spend a lot of time together in the local pub. Archie marries Clara, a Jamaican woman much younger than himself, and they ahve a daughter, Irie, together. Clara was formerly a Jehova's Witness and then a Mod until she had her top teeth knocked out in a motorcycle accident. She then met Archie, and although she finds him unimpressive, chooses to marry him.
Samad has a crippled right hand thanks to World War II. He met Archie when they were in Eastern Europe together fighting in the same tank. He now works in an Indian restaurant as a waiter. He is married to Alsana Begum, with whom he fights for supremacy, and they have twin sons, Magid and Millat. Samad is an amusing character because he tries to have control over his life even though he ostensibly believes in destiny and religion, and he believes himself to be cleverer and more understanding about the ways of the world than others believe him to be.
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