Last Updated September 6, 2023.
The narrator, an unnamed newspaper correspondent, is perhaps a stand-in for the author himself; when "The Man Who Would Be King" was written, Kipling was also working for an Anglo-Indian paper in India. He is the main protagonist—even though he is tertiary to the main action—for it is through the narration of his experiences that readers access Carnehan’s story.
As the narrator serves as a go-between for the readers and the narrative hijinks of his two con man acquaintances, it is difficult to get a sense of his personality, for it is not well developed. He is devoted to his work and often stays late to ensure the morning news will print correctly and on time. Although he reports Dravot and Carnehan, it is not malicious and only done in the name of their safety; readers see that he is a compassionate man who cares enough for the well-being of strangers to inconvenience himself. Too, he is a Freemason; the story begins as the narrator references “The Law”—which he later reveals to be Masonic Law—which governs his life, and readers see that he is a man of “fair conduct” and delineated principles.
The narrator encounters Carnehan in the “Intermediate” car of a train. Immediately, he notices that he is “a wanderer and a vagabond” with an “educated taste for whiskey.” This offhand sentiment indicates the internal conflict that drives Carnehan and Dravot; they are dissatisfied with their lot in life and yearn for better. As he tells the narrator tales of his past adventures and dreams for the future, readers realize that he is a determined man willing to do nearly anything in the pursuit of his lofty goals. The two men talk further, and it becomes clear that Carnehan is more than he first appears; he is a relentless con-man who, despite his appearance, is cleverer than the narrator first expected.
After Dravot is killed, Carnehan returns to the narrator’s place of work. He is a shadow of his former self and verging on the cusp of madness, but he maintains the same determination and drive. Not only has he survived crucifixion and a year-long journey but he has returned with Dravot’s head, the crown “placed tenderly on the battered temples.” It is a grotesque show of care and sorrow, for he has carried his friend with him and treated him with the respect owed to a former king.
Dravot is the more creative half of the pair. While Carnehan plans and schemes, Dravot is the real actor. He fools even native onlookers with his mad priest disguise, and he first convinces, then endears himself to the men of Kafiristan. Dravot is a master con-man, for his charisma and confident showmanship successfully convinced the locals of Kafiristan is a god.
Like Carnehan, he is dedicated and ambitious, though his fantastical imagination often runs ahead of reality. He is a proud man, and it is his pride that, in the end, heralds his demise. Desiring a wife, he breaks his contract with Carnehan, a poor decision that ends in the destruction of his empire and his death. As his empire grew and his influence expanded, it seems that Dravot began to see himself as the all-powerful deity he pretended to be, and this arrogance led directly to his ruin.