By focusing on selected characters, Crane attempts to portray the various types of soldiers and reactions to battle that can be found in any regiment of any war.
Henry represents the young soldier who initially views war as an adventure, as an opportunity for glory. That view changes quickly — as quickly as Henry's first combat experience from which he ends up running. The rest of the novel is the story of the rebuilding of Henry's shattered confidence, his recognizing the reality of war, his overcoming his doubts, and his recognizing and embracing his duty as a soldier.
Jim Conklin, the tall soldier, represents the confident, realistic, experienced soldier. Jim has enough confidence to be humorous and carefree, and his confidence buoys up the younger, inexperienced soldiers. Jim is the kind of soldier who Henry, and any young soldier, hopes to be. Jim is the soldier who shows no fear, who finds a way to inject humor into battlefield situations. He is the soldier who can keep everyone else relaxed. As a result, when Jim is mortally wounded, his death weakens the confidence of all his comrades because they reason that if Jim, the wise, veteran soldier, can be killed, then certainly that same fate awaits every other soldier — most with far less confidence and savvy than has Jim Conklin.
Wilson represents, initially, the pragmatic, if not somewhat boastful, soldier prior to his being in combat. He is the I'll-do-my-job-and-you-do-yours type of soldier. However, after being in combat, his attitude changes; he recognizes his own mortality (as do all soldiers after being in combat), and he becomes more compassionate and caring in his treatment of his comrades.
The tattered soldier
The tattered soldier represents the soldier who talks too much, who asks too many questions. The tattered soldier tries to be everybody's buddy, but, ironically, ends up being alone.
The cheery soldier
The cheery soldier represents most soldiers in most wars. He is compassionate while practical. He knows his way around the battlefield. He knows what questions to ask and what questions not to ask. He leads with quiet confidence and keeps everyone focused.