John's different identities are reflected in the names the narrator uses within the novel: John (when he is a child and with Kathy), Wade (when he is not with Kathy), and Sorcerer (when he is a soldier in the Vietnam War). Even from his early childhood, John wants desperately to be loved. His father verbally and emotionally abuses him, calling him "Jiggling John." So, young John strives to master magic as a way to earn his father's approval and gain a sense of control over his life. John is also very secretive, like a magician concealing the truth of the trick. In college he spies on his girlfriend, Kathy. In the Vietnam War, he is known as Sorcerer, and his fellow soldiers in Charlie Company see him as a good luck charm. He serves as lieutenant governor of Minnesota where he is seen as a rising young star with humane instincts, but he badly loses the U.S. Senate primary election because of his role in the massacre at Thuan Yen in Vietnam. The atrocities he sees and perpetrates in the course of the war stay with him, impact his sleep and marriage, and ultimately end his political career. John Wade is a man defined by loss—the suicide of his father, the loss of himself in Vietnam, the fear of losing his girlfriend and later wife, the loss of his career, and finally, the loss of his wife.
Kathy's character is revealed by her husband John Wade and the narrator. John describes her as playful, fun-loving, social, and someone who wants to be happy just like him. When she laughs, she often flops back on a bed, grabs her ankles, and rolls around like a carefree, happy baby. The narrator, via her sister Patricia S. (Pat) Hood, indicates that Kathy is actually deeply unhappy in her marriage and her life. This is confirmed by Kathy's four-month-long affair with Harmon, a dentist in Boston. But, Kathy doesn't love Harmon. She just uses him to escape her husband John.