Key Characters


  • Kes symbolises Billy’s escape from the harsh realities of the life he is in.
  • It shows he has the ability to look after something (something his own mother lacks) and when in the right circumstances he is caring, mature and resourceful in a positive manner.
  • He talks to it gently which is the opposite to how most people talk to him.
  • Although Billy steals the library book (because he is abused by the adults again) he is genuinely interested in kestrels and the book will tell him how to look after one.

Billy Casper

  • Billy Casper is the central character of the novel.
  • His life is a dismal one and the novel follows a typical day in his life. He is one of life’s losers: in the bottom stream at school and about to leave with no qualifications.
  • He has problems with reading, writing and maths and few social skills.
  • He is not trusted by the shop keeper and this sets up the lack of faith anyone has in Billy, which explains his behaviour (cheating on him and gaining revenge) and the desire to escape the world he lives in.
  • He is regarded by some adults as a nuisance or a threat (Mr. Porter, Mrs. Rose).
  • He spends a lot of time hating and being hated, swearing or making rude gestures at people, arguing and avoiding punishment.
  • Billy is rude and unwilling to make an effort to meet teachers, family and other adults half way. He is dishonest; he steals chocolate from Mr Porter, eggs and orange juice from the milkman and a book from Priors bookshop. He has been in trouble with the police for breaking and entering, and his breaking into the Palace cinema shows how familiar this activity is. He is deliberately destructive, he breaks the stolen eggs rather than eating them for breakfast and trespasses on private land.
  • Billy has a vivid imagination and this comes out in many scenes, including his reading of the Desperate Dan comic (where he can escape into another world) and the assembly.
  • He is strong, resourceful and independent.
  • He is the ‘knave’ in the title.
  • Knaves were generally thieves, liars and cheeky, all characteristics Billy has through necessity to survive.
  • Physically he is smaller and weaker than the other boys, but he has more endurance as shown by the cold shower episode. Billy is a natural victim. MacDowall and the other bullies at school pick on him, taunting him because of his small size but also because he is less fortunate than they are.
  • Billy is often described as dirty and it seems he rarely washes, but this is due to the bad example set for him at home.
  • At 15, Billy is about to leave school and is expected to work down the mine.
  • At school Billy gets most satisfaction from his English lessons where he is allowed to use his vivid imagination.
  • He is intelligent and, when given the chance, very skilful (especially with Kes)
  • He seems to be underfed and doesn’t get much love or kindness.
  • Billy is a victim at home as well. He is bullied by Jud both physically and mentally.
  • Mrs Casper does not appear to love Billy and he misses his father but does not seem to see anything of him.
  • Billy’s other side is not influenced by his home or school life but by the natural world. This is where Billy feels at home. He is patient when he needs to be, hardworking, athletic and physically competent, and in total sympathy with the environment. He shows skill and expertise far beyond his years.
  • Billy is in tune with Kes because like himself, Kes is not tamed and does not care about anyone or anything. Both have the will to destroy or to be destroyed and tragically, at the end of the novel, both are destroyed.
  • Kes is the only ting in the world that Billy trusts and the ending of the novel leaves us feeling that Billy will never trust anyone or anything again.


  • Jud is Billy’s half brother.
  • He is aggressive, violent both physically and verbally not only to Billy, but his mother. He bullies Billy – beginning his day by thumping Billy, who is smaller and younger than him, before pulling the blankets off him.
  • He uses bad language to Billy and calls him many unpleasant names, threatening him with murder amongst other unpleasant things. “Hands off cocks, on socks” are his opening words to Billy in the morning and “What’s the matter wi’thee, shit th’bed?” when for once Billy is up early.
  • He is arrogant, thinking he is 'God’s gift to women'.
  • His natural response to most situations seems to be swearing or violence.
  • His murder of Kes at the end of the novel seems to destroy all hope.
  • When we first see Jud he is fighting and kicking Billy in their bedroom, which shows their poor relationship.
  • He hates his job, down in the mine, but that is where most of the men are expected to work.
  • Jud makes fun of Billy for getting a book from the library.
  • He treats Billy as his slave, expecting his underage brother to put bets on for him, and only communicates with him by hitting and abusing him verbally.
  • He treats his mother almost as badly as he treats Billy. He makes disrespectful remarks about her sex life, taunting her about her behaviour when drunk, and refusing to do anything he is asked to around the house. He appears to treat her like a slave too.
  • His attitude to women seems generally disrespectful. He anticipates his night out as one where he will get drunk and see how far he can go sexually with the nearest available woman.
  • The question can be asked: is Jud realistic? Or is he just a caricature, too extreme to be convincing? Perhaps he feels as deprived as Billy does by his mother’s attitude, and perhaps he, too, has always missed his own father and that has helped to make him into the unsympathetic person he is.
  • He is understandably furious when Billy keeps the money and the bet wins. What he says about having a week off work, had he been able to collect the money, is the nearest we get to an insight into Jud’s mind: maybe he did not want to be a miner any more than Billy does. However, the author does not explore Jud’s character in enough detail for the reader to find out.

Mrs Casper

  • Mrs Casper (Billy’s mother) is presented as a pathetic figure.
  • She is not much of a mother as the description of the house at the start of the novel proves; it is cold, unwelcoming and there is no food.
  • She is a coward and doesn’t stand up to her own son Jud.
  • She treats Billy badly, getting him to run errands for her.
  • She uses bad language around Billy and even asks Billy for a cigarette showing the bad example she is.
  • She spends ages getting ready for the pub, showing her vain side.
  • She is more concerned about this than she is about Billy.

Mr Sugden (PE Teacher)

  • Mr Sugden -  The PE teacher
  • A comic figure who is a bully and just a big kid.
  • He appears in the comic centrepiece of the novel, the games lesson.
  • He is unfit and a cheat, a figure of ridicule amongst the boys.

Mr Gryce (Headmaster)

  • Mr Gryce - The headmaster of the school
  • He is presented as a comic figure.
  • In the assembly his behaviour is vindictive and indiscriminate.
  • He is made to seem foolish with the description of the papers falling off his lectern at the end of the assembly.
  • In his study he is boring and does not listen to the boys, including the one who is just there to pass on a message, punishing them all indiscriminately.
  • He is totally disinterested in caring for the youth of his day.
  • His violence is shown fully with the caning of the boys in this scene and the seeming pleasure he gets from it.

Mr Farthing (English Teacher)

  • Mr Farthing - Billy’s English teacher
  • He understands Billy the most and is interested in him. This is because he is a more sympathetic person, with a more humane approach to others, than any adult Billy encounters.
  • He has the respect of the class, unlike the other teachers we meet. From the start of the lesson where he is described, Mr Farthing is shown as empathising with the boys who have been caned, suggesting that he does not really approve of physical punishment.
  • He can joke with the class, but has firm discipline when required. He uses talk and the boys’ own experience as a way into the lessons, and when Anderson is telling his story about the tadpoles he is listening for the interesting content and responding to Anderson rather than looking for errors in vocabulary.
  • Mr Farthing shows a genuine interest in Billy's kestrel and comes to see it at lunchtime. He does become impatient with Billy when he is not listening, but is willing to listen to Billy’s point of view after the fight at break when they talk. Though Billy is amongst the least able academically, Mr Farthing learns something from him when he talks about Kes.
  • He asks intelligent questions, allowing Billy to show his knowledge about kestrels.
  • When he breaks the fight up in the yard he shows he is not to be taken lightly. Mr Farthing is strict and will stand no nonsense: when he calls for quiet and moves towards the boys they are silent. He can break up a fight in a way which suggests that he can easily exert his authority over the toughest of the boys. He is also fair. He will not tolerate MacDowall bullying Billy because he is smaller and more vulnerable. He is forceful in making his point, and showing MacDowall what it is like to be bullied by picking on him physically.


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