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Jules might be the protagonist, but Ethan is the brains of the outfit. He's the one with the most talent, the most success, and the most ugliness.
We're not being haters—this book make a huge deal about how ugly Ethan is, especially when comparing him to Ash. It's like the story itself can't even comprehend all that horrible lack of attractiveness. It's the whole trope where the character with all the talent is so ugly or socially awkward or whatever that the other characters are shocked that he or she was able to make it so far in life.
Besides his appearance, there are two major parts to Ethan's character: his friendships, particularly with women (and particularly with Jules), and his talent. Let's take them in order, shall we? We shall.
As far as friendships go, Ethan is definitely the best at being a friend out of everyone in this book. He's the one who includes Cathy when others toss her aside, reaching out to her following the rape and 9/11. And his friendship and support of Ash is what leads to their relationship, and probably what keeps them coming back to each other after they break up a few times. He's just so freaking reliable—something he proves time and again, though the swiftness with which he clears his schedule following her mother's death comes immediately to mind.
It's Ethan's friendship with Jules that's the kicker, though. "When things go bad," he says, "I revert to the desire I've always held" (10.77) for Jules. Oh, wait… that doesn't sound so friendly, right? More romantic, if you ask us. In a sort of twist on the Ash equation, the torch Ethan carries for Jules fosters their friendship. She's not into him that way, so he settles into a lifetime of friendship with her, though we know he still has feelings for her since he tries to kiss her near the end. In his defense, he is dying at this point.
Now let's look at Ethan's talent, which is the thing that really separates him and Ash from the rest of their friends. Or really just Jules and Dennis, since Jonah is pretty talented.
Jules readily points out that money is what makes Ethan successful, but we'd say that speaks more to her values than his. Ethan is an artist from the moment we meet him, and without his talent, he wouldn't have had anything going for him. Animating stuff is pretty much his one ability. Jules recognizes it immediately when he first shows her the "contents of [his] brain" (1.113): "He was a genius," and "his cartoon was mesmerizing" (1.115). And this, of course, is way before he makes any money off his art. So yeah, talent wins with Ethan.
Interestingly, Ethan doesn't burn out and die young like a lot of people with talent—he keeps his head on straight through all the fame and ends up dying as a middle-aged guy with skin cancer. Ethan is one of the lucky few who is actually good at the thing he loves doing, and is paid to do it by other people. So while Jules may think it's all about the Benjamins, when it comes to Ethan, we think it's all about the art, and trying to make his way through life in a way that is satisfying. Jules should probably be taking notes.