Jack Gladney is a middle-aged father and professor on his fifth marriage, and he is haunted by questions about death. He has invented the department of Hitler Studies to create proximity to a man who cheated death through immortality. Yet, Jack struggles to keep the border between reality and illusion clear in his life. As Jack cultivates the image of a respected professor, he lacks the substance to back it up. He doesn't speak German nor is he really interested in facts regarding Hitler. When Jack questions the purpose of the constant media overload in his life, his colleague Murray defines this as a distraction from death and man's lack of control over it. When Jack is exposed to a deadly chemical during an "airborne toxic event," his fears about his mortality intensify.
Babette Gladney initially seems open and honest, a loving wife and mother to her family. Yet she is plagued by her own fear about death, a fear that unites her with Jack. In an example of role-reversal, Babette plays the role of daughter to her daughter Denise's role of mother. Denise consistently warns Babette about health issues. Babette prefers to spend time with her son Wilder, who is too young to fear death; Babette finds his ignorance comforting. Babette's fear of death causes her to have an affair in an attempt to take a drug that might get rid of her fear by destroying her memory.
Murray Siskind is Jack's colleague and closest friend, and he functions as a philosophical sounding board for Jack on the nature of society and death. Murray understands the basic human fear of death, and he concludes that people are using media and consumerism to clog their senses as an escape or distraction from the encroaching presence of death. While perceptive, Murray's flaw may be his brutal honesty. He doesn't filter his insights in any way, regardless of their effects on his listeners.
Wilder, age 3, is the only character who never speaks in the novel. He is a constant reassuring presence to both Jack and Babette because he is oblivious to death. As a mostly silent child, Wilder is able to absorb both the hopes and fears of his parents. Wilder can ride his Big Wheel with joy because he has no sense that riding across a highway holds any alternative to joy. Yet, Wilder's unexplained fits of crying cause distress for his parents as they fear a change in Wilder, a change that includes a consciousness of death. Wilder's innocence suggests the futility of worry over the inevitable.
Denise is hyperobservant and very skilled at digesting and using media. In fact, the rate at which Denise consumes media seemingly causes her to mature beyond her years, and she becomes a kind of parent to Babette. Deeply concerned about Babette's health, it is Denise (the daughter) and Jack (the father) who collude to discover the nature of Dylar to protect Babette (the mother). Denise's character highlights one effect of media saturation: an inversion of society. In the world of White Noise, the fake is real, and children take on parental roles.
Willie Mink was the project manager for the research program studying the anti-fear drug Dylar. Mink serves as a kind of future projection of who Jack or Babette might become. Mink's fear of death is so acute that he chooses brain-death or memory-death over life, stuffing his body full of pills to the point of madness. Mink shows the natural progression of any indulgence of an obsession within a consumer culture.