Four characters are essential to this novel, and the most important of these is Dorian Gray. Dorian and his beauty are at the heart of this story. Dorian is as young, pure, and stunningly beautiful when the novel opens as the image Basil Hallward paints of him. Unlike the rest of humanity, however, Dorian stays forever young, while Basil's painting of him ages and shows signs of each immoral act Dorian commits. Dorian may be beautiful, but he is shallow, self-centered, and self-destructive. In Dorian, Wilde creates a complicated character portrait. Wilde cared greatly for beauty and argued for it's needing no further justification. However, the portrait he paints of Dorian is actually quite repulsive. This man may be physically lovely, but he leaves a trail of broken hearts, ruined reputations, and dead bodies behind him. Dorian's name is important, but ambiguous. His last name, gray, suggests he is morally neither black nor white (or that he could be either black or white). His first name blends multiple possible meanings. The Dorians were a Hellenic people, and Doris was a sea nymph in Greek mythology, which would align with Dorian's beautiful mother and his own essentially supernatural beauty. In French, d'or would mean "of gold," or "golden," which would also describe Dorian's great beauty. This name can also be read as a covert reference to a specific model of male homosexual relationship, between an older and younger man, known as "Greek" or "Dorian" love.
Basil is the second of the four characters at the heart of this novel. Basil is a mature man. He's an artist who is otherwise quite conventional. He is concerned with reputation and good character, but also with creating and capturing beauty. Since he is the primary artist in the novel, the preface should be read as addressing him. Wilde opens his preface with "The artist is the creator of beautiful things." That's somewhat the case here: Basil does create a beautiful portrait of Dorian. But it is beautiful in part because Basil lets his worship of Dorian slip into the painting—and it doesn't remain beautiful. Only Dorian does. Does that mean Basil creates Dorian? It does, in part: he certainly facilitates Dorian's supernatural status. However, it is up to another character to bring Dorian fully into being: Henry Wotton.
Lord Henry Wotton
Early in his preface to this novel, Oscar Wilde writes, "The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things." If that's the case, Lord Henry is, among other things, a critic. Where Basil paints but does not necessarily explain his art, Henry explains beauty, art, and life in a way that fundamentally changes Dorian. Basil may capture Dorian's beauty on canvas, but it is Henry who explains what it means in a way that awakens Dorian to its significance. Henry is also a cynic and a dandy. He lives with his life on display to the world, for pleasure, and, he claims, entirely by his own lights. About the three main characters in the novel, Oscar Wilde once wrote, "Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps."
Sibyl Vane's name is deeply symbolic. In ancient Greece sibyls were oracles at holy sites. The gods spoke through them. Sibyl Vane, however, is an actress, and the divinities who speak through her are human artists. She and Dorian are variations on the same idea; they are living art. Her last name has various meanings. She is very beautiful, and it would be appropriate for her to be vain, but she's not. Instead, sadly she lives in vain, dying young as a result of her naivety and her complex relationship with her art. Her blossoming love for Dorian moves her as the wind moves a weathervane, changing her view of life and thus her previously all-consuming dedication to her acting. Sibyl is young and poor. She pours herself wholly into her acting because she desperately needs to escape her reality, and acting allows her to imagine a good life for herself. Once Dorian loves her, her performances suffer. She says it is because she no longer needs acting to escape in this way. If that's the case readers might well wonder why Basil paints so very well. What is he escaping that he paints Dorian as well as he does?
Sibyl Vane's protective younger brother, James, is also known as "Jim." He distrusts the aristocratic suitor whom Sibyl and their mother know as "Prince Charming." He vows to kill the prince if he ever harms Sibyl. James joins the navy and leaves for Australia just before Dorian dumps Sibyl—and before her death. Years later James returns to England and embarks on a long search to find the man he considers responsible for his sister's death. By chance he hears a woman refer to someone as "Prince Charming"; he grabs hold of the man, who is Dorian, intending to kill him. When Dorian points out that he is much too young to be the person James seeks, James is horrorstruck and apologizes. He then finds out that the seemingly young man is the culprit and somehow tracks Dorian to his country estate. Lying in wait to kill Dorian, James manages to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and is accidentally shot by one of Dorian's guests. James thus becomes the second person in his family to die violently through a connection to Dorian Gray.