In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.
Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success! (1.1-2)
These first two paragraphs of Howl's Moving Castle tell us a lot about both Ingary and Sophie. First of all, we know that Ingary is going to be a place full of clichés. Second, we find out a lot about Sophie's mindset here. It seems like the third-person narrator is talking when the book tells us that Sophie is "not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success!"—but that exclamation point implies a degree of frustration and annoyance that could come straight from Sophie herself.
Sophie really does feel doomed by her role as older sister, which is consistent with fairytale clichés, but which Sophie's actual experience in the plot of Howl's Moving Castle totally undoes.
[Sophie] was still discontented, alone in the shop next morning, when a very plain young woman customer stormed in, whirling a pleated mushroom bonnet by its ribbons. "Look at this!" the young lady shrieked. "You told me this was the same as the bonnet Jane Farrier was wearing when she met the Count. And you lied. Nothing has happened to me at all!"
"I'm not surprised," Sophie said, before she had caught up with herself. "If you're fool enough to wear that bonnet with a face like that, you wouldn't have the wit to spot the King himself if he came begging—if he hadn't turned to stone just at the sight of you." (2.30-31)
Even before Sophie turns old, she can be deeply snarky—she's just too afraid to let loose with this kind of trash-talking (usually, at least). Why is Sophie willing to be so honest with this woman when she has so much trouble leveling with her stepmother, Fanny? What provokes her to talk so harshly at this specific point in the second chapter? What does this outburst tell us about Sophie's character that we may not know before this point of the book?
"I came because I'm your new cleaning lady, of course."
"Are you indeed?" Howl said, cracking the eggs one-handed and tossing the shells among the logs, where Calcifer seemed to be eating them with a lot of snarling and gobbling. "Who says you are?"
"I do," said Sophie, and she added piously, "I can clean the dirt from this place even if I can't clean you from your wickedness, young man." (4.40-2)
Sophie is really embracing this old lady thing, and here she talks to Howl as though he's a grandson she's scolding. In this case, Sophie allows her appearance to structure her identity and behavior: as an old woman, she feels totally free to say and do whatever she wants. In an odd way, before she turns old Sophie feels that her identity is out of step with her outside appearance as a young woman. Being old feels more true to her in some sense—at least until Howl provides her with a good reason to de-age herself.
And [Sophie] was a little upset at the thought that she was here on false pretenses. Howl might think Calcifer liked her, but Sophie knew Calcifer had simply seized on the chance to make a bargain with her. Sophie rather thought she had let Calcifer down.
This state of mind did not last. Sophie discovered a pile of Michael's clothes that needed mending. She fetched out thimble, scissors, and thread from her sewing pocket and set to work. By that evening she was cheerful enough to join in Calcifer's silly little song about saucepans. (6.1-2)
Sophie occasionally worries about things like breaking Calcifer's contract or being in Howl's castle without his official permission. But she soon gets rid of those worries by doing something active: by cleaning or cooking or, in this case, mending Michael's clothes. When Sophie feels a sense of purpose, she seems a lot more secure and sure of herself. It's when she has nothing to do that she starts to think too much.
"Can you pick up logs?" Sophie asked, intrigued in spite of her impatience.
For answer, Calcifer stretched out a blue arm-shaped flame divided into green fingerlike flames at the end. It was not very long, nor did it look strong. "See? I can almost reach the hearth," he said proudly. (6.18-19)
Calcifer is so adorable, don't you think? The way he shows off his flame arm proudly to Sophie reminds us of a kid showing his mom how high he can jump or how long he can hold his breath under water. Calcifer's moments of pride or insecurity give him a depth of character that he might not otherwise have, since he generally stays in his fireplace and tries not to get involved in Howl's shenanigans.
"By the way," Howl said, "Mrs. Pentstemmon will call you Mrs. Pendragon. Pendragon's the name I go under here."
"Whatever for?" said Sophie.
"For disguise," said Howl. "Pendragon's a lovely name, much better than Jenkins."
"I get by quite well with a plain name," Sophie said as they turned into a blessedly narrow, cool street.
"We can't all be Mad Hatters," said Howl. (12.14-18)
Have you noticed how many names Howl seems to have? He's the Sorcerer Jenkin in Porthaven, the Wizard Pendragon in Kingsbury, and Howl in Market Chipping. His original name seems to be Howell Jenkins, which is what his family calls him in Wales. The multiple names seem consistent with the fact that Howl's personality is quite unstable: he is unpredictable, hard to pin down, and very slippery.
[The dog-man] sauntered beside them so friskily that Sophie was sure he thought Howl was done for. He was so pleased with life that when they turned onto the street where Howl's house was and there happened to be a stray cat crossing the road, the dog-man uttered a joyful bark and galloped after it. He chased it with a dash and a skitter straight to the castle doorstep, where it turned and glared.
"Geroff!" it mewed. "This is all I needed!" (16.35-36)
We know that the dog-man really seems to have it in for Howl early on—in fact, when Sophie first comes to Mrs. Fairfax's house to see Howl hitting on Lettie, she observes that the dog-man seems to want nothing more than to bite Howl. We thought that it was because of jealousy, since the dog-man has said that he loves Lettie—did you think the same thing?—but by the end of the book, when the dog-man has been transformed into Percival, we realize that his goals have been a little more complex all along.
"That's how I came to meet the Witch. She objected to [the garden at the edge of the Waste]."
"Why?" said Sophie.
The castle was waiting for them. "She likes to think of herself as a flower," Howl said, opening the door. "A solitary orchid, blooming in the Waste. Pathetic, really."
It's interesting to think of the Witch of the Waste as having an identity beyond Evil Villainness. Obviously she is an evil villainness as well, but she thinks of herself in sentimental terms just the way a lot of other characters do, without fully acknowledging her own moral horribleness. Her image of herself is full of self-pity and loneliness, which makes us feel a bit bad for her… even though it is, as Howl says, "Pathetic, really."
"I am very tired," [the Witch] said. "You people keep spoiling my plans. First Wizard Suliman would not come near the Waste, so that I had to threaten Princess Valeria in order to make the King order him out here. Then, when he came, he grew trees. Then the King would not let Prince Justin follow Suliman for months, and when he did follow, the silly fool went up north somewhere for some reason, and I had to use all my arts to get him here. Howl has caused me even more trouble. He got away once. I've had to use a curse to bring him in, and while I was finding out enough about him to lay the curse, you got into what was left of Suliman's brain and caused me more trouble. And now when I bring you here, you wave your stick and argue. I have worked very hard for this moment, and I am not to be argued with." She turned away and wandered off into the murk. (21.30)
Here is the real problem with the Witch's personality in a nutshell: she has an incredible ego. She really seems to believe that the rest of the world owes it to her to fall in with her plans. The fact that she is complaining that Prince Justin and the Wizard Suliman made it hard for her to take them apart and reassemble them in different bodies is a sign of how deeply self-centered she is.
"The only chance I had of coming at Prince Justin was to use that curse she'd put on me to get near her."
"So you were going to rescue the Prince!" Sophie shouted. "Why did you pretend to run away? To deceive the Witch?"
"Not likely!" Howl yelled. "I'm a coward. Only way I can do something this frightening is to tell myself I'm not doing it!"
Oh dear! Sophie thought, looking round at the swirling grit. He's being honest! And this is a wind. The last bit of the curse has come true! (21.57-60)
It's nice to know that Howl is working hard to trick himself out of being a coward. But isn't this deeply illogical? If you know you're a coward and you think of strategies to overcome that cowardice and fight the things you fear anyway—doesn't that make you not a coward? Howl is such a great hero: he turns out to have the traits that a fairytale protagonist is supposed to have—including courage, cleverness, handsomeness, and kindness—yet he has so many flaws that it takes us some time to see what makes him worthwhile underneath.
The book gives us time to get to know Howl, in the same way that you get to know anybody, and that time makes him seem much more familiar and personal as a character to us than some flat, two-dimensional Prince Charming.