The Mahabharata is a complex story with complex characters, and you can spend hours thinking about the characters, what they did, why they did it, and what else could they have done?
Before reading the books, Karna was easily my favorite character, he is noble, he is loyal, he is brave, life has been unfair to him, but he has been devoted to his cause throughout his life. He gave his word to Kunti that he will only kill Arjuna, and in the war he spares the life of the other brothers when he could have killed them.
Arjuna certainly seems the hero of the epic, he is free from fear, never retreats from battle, is immensely powerful, supremely confident of his strength; the reason he remorses before the battle is not because he is afraid but because he is tormented at the prospect of killing all his friends and relatives whom he is certain he can and will kill.
Draupadi is an amazing woman, she is beautiful, loyal, lusts for blood when it is warranted, is supremely wise and asks question that not even Bhishma could answer. During her vastra – haran she asked everyone in court whether Yudhisthara lost himself first or her? And if he lost himself first then what right does he have to put her at stake? Bhishma acknowledges that dharma is subtle and he can’t answer her question.
Bhishma himself is one of the greatest warriors of his time, who even defeated Parshurama, who rid the earth of all Kshatriyas 22 times. He is devoted to his family and took up brahmacharya for the sake of his father. He is loyal to the throne, and at the end tells Yudhishthara everything about Dharma, and Moksha and was an extremely wise person.
Bheema has the strength of 10,000 elephants, gets angered when one should get angry, restrains himself for the sake of his brother, and every time Draupadi needs help in the Mahabharata she goes to Bheema and he delivers without fail.
Duryodhana caused great destruction due to his greed and envy, but he was as strong as any of the Pandavas save perhaps Arjuna. He governed the kingdom well, and built strong alliances; he calculated correctly that he could win the war, and if it had not been the deceit brought upon by Krishna, he would have won the war.
Gandhari was a great, strong woman who endured the sadness of the death of her 100 sons, had great tej herself and when the Pandavas visit her after the Kauravas are killed, she glances at Yudhisthara’s nails and they get malformed because of her grief and rage. All the Pandavas then hide behind Krishna due to her anger. This is perhaps the only instance in the story where Arjuna himself is scared. She is a wise woman who tries to dissuade Duryodhana from certain destruction, she is a kind woman who forgives the Pandavas, and she is a stern woman who curses Krishna himself, and brings about the destruction of the Yadavas.
Krishna is of course one of the most revered Hindu gods, he was Vishnu reincarnate, without him the Pandavas could not have won, perhaps it is not even fair to think of Krishna in the same vein as the other characters, but he was not without his flaws either.
The worst episode related to Krishna in my opinion is the death of Ghatotkacha. Karna gets the divine spear from Indra in exchange for his kavach and kundal and he is certain to kill Arjuna with this weapon. Krishna knows this and goads Yudhishthara to unleash Ghatotkacha and his asura army on the Kauravas knowing that only the divine spear can stop him. Karna has to use the divine spear and kills Ghatotkacha.
Krishna then promptly proceeds to dance over the dead body of Ghatotkacha in his glee and that makes for a very ugly scene.
My favorite character however is none of these, over the course of the books I have strongly identified, and come to appreciate Yudhishthara.
He is wise, he seeks knowledge, he is the son of Dharma, but he still feels confused, he heads the army of Pandavas which has Arjuna and Krishna, but the sight of Kaurava army instills fear in his heart, and he seeks reassurance from Arjuna that they can still win the battle. He aspires to do the right thing, and does it more often than not.
He is addicted to vice, and of course he lost all his riches in the game of dice where he was bound by Dharma to play the game knowing what it will lead to, but he was completely reckless at the end of the battle when he offers Duryodhana to pick any of the Pandavas to fight with a weapon of his choice, and if he won then he could have everything back. He was promptly censured by Krishna and luckily for him Duryodhana picked Bheema because of his own pride and ego.
He laments the great grief he has brought upon to his brothers and Draupadi, but is wise enough to understand the true destruction this war that his brothers are craving for will bring, and tries his utmost to avoid it. He is free of greed, and follows the right path as much as he can.
He does everything for the sake of his family, and subjects, and yet causes great sadness to them at times.
He wins the war, and the great destruction causes such grief to him that he is willing to give up everything and go to the forest after winning.
He has great wisdom, and composure and realizes that Draupadi is not being allowed entry to heaven due to her loving Arjuna a little more than others. He has always known this but never held it against her.
Towards the very end, he is asked to desert a dog if he wants entry to heaven, and he refuses to abandon his loyal friend. This is his final test and he passes it.
Yudhishthara to me is always seeking to do the right thing, not always succeeding, but always trying.
He gives in to his vices, laments, and tries to reform, he succeeds, but he fails too. He aspires to do the right thing when at times he struggles to even know what the right thing is. He is wise in his ways, but he is not infallible, he is strong, but he is also weak, he is devoted to his family and friends, but also causes them great grief.
He is every man and woman.