Minor Characters (Main Story)
Plot-wise the Landlady doesn't have much going for her. She rents a room to Ai during his first stay in Karhide and gives curious visitors a tour of that room when Ai is away. She also arranges Ai's journey to Rer while squawking advice to him like a fretting grandmother.
However, she still plays a significant role thematically. The reader first meets her at the beginning of Chapter 5, and Ai refers to her as "my landlady, a voluble man" (5.1). This is the first time the dual male/female nature of the Gethenians toys with our expectations as readers and not just Ai's expectations as a character. We expect the Landlady to be called a woman and given the third person singular "she." Instead, the Landlady is a man and described with the "he" pronoun. Mind a little blown? Good. Now you're starting to know how Ai feels.
Goss helps Ai find his way to the Fastnesses and stays with him for a while. The two become friends, and Goss gives Ai a bit of advice about prophecies: "The more qualified and limited the question, the more exact the answer" (5.41). Sure, it's the same advice any story with a prophecy has, but hey, someone's got to give it. And that someone is Goss.
Foreth rem ir Osboth, a.k.a. Ashe
Estraven's former kemmering and a current Celibate of the Foretellers.
He tries to go with Estraven into exile, but Estraven turns him away. Not be deterred, Ashe goes all high school romance and uses Ai as a go-between. He presents Ai with money to give to Estraven. The money ultimately helps Estraven buy the equipment and goods necessary for Ai and him to travel the Ice. So, in a way, Ashe is one of the novel's few heroes.
We never know exactly what happened between Ashe and Estraven. Estraven believes Ashe to have betrayed him, but the mention of "false vows" suggests Estraven might not have been the most forthright lover (6.15). Ultimately though, their relationship is left ambiguous.
All they need now is a pregnancy, some amnesia, and a long-lost brother, and these two are ready for soap opera primetime. (And actually, we wouldn't have been surprised if Le Guin had come up with all three.)
Obsle is one of the 33 Commensals of Orgoreyn. Of all the Commensals, Obsle seems the most interested in supporting Ai and his cause. He takes Estraven's advice as a means to help Ai, and he wants the Ekuman ship to come to the planet to eliminate any doubt about Ai's mission.
But—isn't there always a "but"?—Obsle is not as selfless as the above description might make him seem.
Sure, he wants Ai to succeed, but only so he can further his own power in the Orgoreyn government. When it becomes clear Ai has lost to Sarf, Obsle gets out of Dodge and lets Ai fend for himself (knowing good and well Ai won't be able to defend himself). And though he keeps Estraven close, he tries to use Estraven's exile toward his own advantage. Just look at the way he questions Estraven about the Sinoth valley dispute in Chapter 6 (53-67).
But—and sometimes there's a second but—he's also the most honest of the Commensals. When Estraven asks Obsle if he should trust the Commensals, Obsle "puffs and does not reply" (11.36). Hey, that's pretty honest for a Commensal.
Another of the Commensals of Orgoreyn.
Yegey helps Estraven by giving him a job as his secretary. He also supports Ai's mission, even if it's only because he's using Ai as a power grab. When figures out that Sarf is moving against Ai, Yegey dumps Ai quicker than you can say, "hot potato."
Orgoreyn's First Commensal District Commissioner of Entry-Roads and Ports. Wow, wonder how he gets that all on his business cards?
Shusgis gives Ai a place to stay in Orgoreyn. Ai describes him as "a hard shrewd jovial politician, whose acts of kindness served his interest and whose interest was himself" (8.79). That's pretty spot on. Shusgis ultimately betrays his lodger, practically offering the police coffee and cake as they come to arrest Ai.
Still, Estraven manages to find some use for him. He threatens Shusgis, saying that if he doesn't tell him where Ai is, then he'll tell Sarf the man is a double agent. Works like a charm.
An agent for Sarf and not the most refined Gethenian on the planet. When he hears the news of King Argaven's child's death, Gaum proposes a toast (much to the disgust of others). Likewise, he tries to seduce Estraven with all the subtlety and wit of an Adam Sandler flick. (Jack and Jill? Really?)
Yet another Orgoreyn Commensal.
Slose believes in Ai's mission, but not because he thinks the Ekumen will help Gethen. Instead, he thinks the Ekumen ship represents the coming of the Second Age of Meshe, his religion's prophet. Of course, no amount of pious religious belief means Slose is going down with Ai. When Sarf takes Ai to the Volunteer Farm, Slose looks the other way, hands in pockets, whistling.
A spy for Erhenrang, although everybody in the Orgoreyn government knows it. So, he's not exactly a good spy. Maybe a 3 out of 10. Eh, probably a 2.
Man, are going to have to name all 33 Commensals?
Kaharosile opposes Ai's mission, thinking it's an attempt to make them all look dumb. He heckles Ai's testimony, calling Ai a "sexual deviant" and part of the "Dark Cult" of Karhide (11.53).
They must pull some elaborate pranks on Gethen.
Final Commensal. Promise. This old Gethenian doesn't buy Ai's story either, thinking it fiddle-faddle and poppycock and probably balderdash, too.
The official who presides over Ai's hearing for the 33 Orgoreyn Commensals. And, um, yeah, that's about that.
A fellow captive at the Volunteer Farm.
Asra has a kidney disease killing him at the same time Ai suffers from his torturous interrogation. While bedridden, the two tell each other stories to keep their minds off the pain and their inevitable fate. Asra dies soon afterward.
Sardon rem ir Chenewich
Estraven's contact within Sarf.
Chenewich gets Estraven's message through to King Argaven, telling him about Ai's imprisonment at the Volunteer Farm. For once, Estraven isn't betrayed by a friend.
A fur trader. Estraven joins his hunting party so he can travel north undetected.
Estraven's friend who agrees to hide him when he returns to Karhide after being exiled. As is the pattern, Thessicher betrays Estraven. This is the last chance anyone gets to betray Estraven, since this one leads to his death.
Arek is dead before the story begins and is only mentioned twice. When Estraven says, "The only true vow of faithfulness I ever swore was not spoken, and the man I swore it to is dead, and the promise broken long ago," he's probably talking about Arek (6.15). Also, when Ai uses mindspeech on Estraven, his voice sounds like Arek's.
At the end of the novel, we learn he and Estraven had a son named Sorve together. However, the nature of their relationship and Arek's death remains a mystery for speculation and maybe some fanfiction.
Lang Heo Hew
The captain of the Ekumen ship.
She is the first human to greet Ai and Faxe from the ship and the first woman Ai has seen in over three years. The fact that her lady-ness is so alien to him suggests just how much Ai has changed during his time on Gethen.
What? Yeah, we know. It was a surprise to us, too. At the end of the story, he wants to hear stories of "other worlds out among the stars" (20.103). His character suggests that new stories that will be added to the Gethen society in its new future.
Esvans Harth rem ir Estraven
Estraven's father. Like Sorve, he wants to hear Ai's tale of crossing the Ice to know his son's life better. Unlike Sorve, he doesn't ask to hear tales from the distant stars, suggesting that he's going to have a problem once the spaceships start landing.