John Bender (Judd Nelson) is a classic bad boy with a heart o' gold. He's not a bully, exactly—more like a juvenile delinquent. He gets some of the movie's most famous lines, and his constant obnoxious pestering and joking kicks the whole plot into gear. He's the straw that stirs the drink—the spur, the provocateur. Bender's personality is defined by its total compulsiveness: He alternates between wisecracking and indulging his genuine anger, delving into his messed-up family life.
Bender will always sacrifice his own wellbeing for a good joke. He continually harasses the supervising teacher, Richard Vernon, with jokes like "Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?" (which has a homophobic edge to it, since Manilow's gay) and with outright insults like "Eat my shorts" and even "Fuck you!" after Vernon assigns him two months' worth of extra detentions for talking back to him repeatedly. Vernon sees him as a total punk, and at one point personally threatens to beat him up once Bender's graduated—real professional, Vern.
Sometimes his jokes are pretty funny—like when he pretends that he's going to urinate in the library:
ANDREW: Hey you're not urinating in here, man!
BENDER: Don't talk! Don't talk! It makes it crawl back up!
But other times his jokes get kind of excessive and offensive and dark. Like when early in the movie, he fake-threatens to sexually assault Claire, telling Brian:
BENDER: Hey, homeboy... Why don't you go close that door. We'll get the prom queen—impregnated.
His humor is usually a form of aggression. Bender's jokes are never purely light-hearted: They have an edge, and are aimed to irritate. All his insults toward Claire are pretty clearly masking his sexual attraction to her—which barely remains hidden, if that. ("Hey, Claire… You want to see a picture of a guy with elephantiasus of the nuts? It's pretty tasty!") Also, it was a disruptive prank that got him sentenced to detention in the first place—he pulled the fire alarm.
Like everyone else in the movie early on, he buys into all the stereotypes about himself and about all the other kids in detention. So, a lot of his humor involves attacking them for embodying stereotypes (even though he personally embodies a stereotype). He calls Brian a "parent's wet-dream" and says he could be a wrestler like Andrew if he just had a "lobotomy and some tights." Also, his destructive tendencies manifest when he starts tearing the pages out of a library book recreationally.
But without Bender's constant pestering, the story wouldn't go anywhere. It's his constant instigation that actually prompts everyone else to realize that they're not really their respective stereotypes—they transcend them.
The movie explains that Bender's delinquent tendencies stem directly from his messed-up home life. After he does an imitation of what he thinks Brian's family must be like (some 1950s artificially happy TV family), he has an exchange with Andrew:
ANDREW: All right, what about your family?
BENDER: My family? Oh, that's easy. "Stupid, worthless, no good, goddamned, free loading son-of-a-bitch! Retarded, big mouth, know-it-all asshole jerk!" "You forgot ugly, lazy, and disrespectful!" "Shut up, bitch! Go fix me a turkey pot pie!" "What about you, Dad?" "Fuck you!" "No, Dad, what about you?" "Fuck you!" "No, Dad, what about you?!" "Fuck you!"
Yikes, that's bleak.
He also shows Andrew a scar on his arm from where his father burned him with a cigar for spilling paint all over the floor—which is a pretty horrific form of abuse. So we get the sense that Bender's wildness and constant joking around are kind of escape mechanisms. They're ways of dealing with or minimizing the suffering he undergoes at home.
Oh, and part of his delinquency involves doing drugs too. At one point, he leads everyone else into the hall to retrieve a bag of pot from his locker. And then they all smoke it, with the exception of Allison Reynolds.
As the movie goes on, Bender seems to realize more about himself. He understands that, in a different way, Andrew's dad abuses Andrew too by forcing him to compete so intensely and against his will. (They all bond over hating on their parents.) At the beginning of detention, Bender thought that he and Andrew were worlds apart, but he ultimately realizes that they both have Daddy issues.
Finally, instead of sexually harassing Claire, Bender understands her better, and she understands him. So—they make out. (It was inevitable from the beginning.) And Claire gives him one of her earrings as a keepsake token.
When Bender leaves detention and pumps his fist in the air at the end of the movie, he's triumphant. Why? Well, he managed to win the heart of the girl he'd been harassing for most of the movie, for one thing. So, that's kind of an accomplishment. But also, he's likely happy because he attained some greater understanding of himself and others. He's discovered the joys of learning, though not in an academic way: He's become a student of people.
Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) is a snob. She's viewed as an entitled, stuck-up, rich girl by the other kids, and lives up to her reputation… at least on the surface. Her parents clearly spoil her—when her Dad drops her off at the school, he implies there's nothing wrong with what she did to gain her detention (skipping school to go shopping). This cushy family life makes her seem far from relatable, but the whole point of The Breakfast Club is that appearances aren't what they seem.
When she enters detention, Claire gets off on the wrong foot right away. Surveying the peons around here, she feels miffed. She tells Vernon:
CLAIRE: Excuse me, sir? I think there's been a mistake. I know it's detention, but... um... I don't think I belong in here...
But one of those ragged plebeians is kind of into her: John Bender, the juvenile delinquent. He expresses his sexual interest in Claire by continually harassing her, saying things like "Claire is a fat girl's name" and generally provoking her wrath.
Even though Claire reacts the way you would expect her to, Bender on some level has apparently charmed her. When he removes a screw from the door's stopping mechanism, making it impossible for Vernon to prop it open, Claire denies knowing who's responsible, telling Vernon that it just fell out—it's obvious she's kind of into Bender, too.
Psychologically, this might have something to do with the fact that Claire's parents use her against each other, and she wants to date someone who will irritate them. At least, that's a point Bender makes while successfully coaxing Claire into making out with him.
Why does Claire act so snobbishly toward the other kids? Why does she swim with the current, accepting and embodying even the negative preconceptions people have about her? The answer seems to be that she feels security in following the crowd, embracing the stereotypes about her clique. She brattily asserts that Brian and the other nerds look up to her and her rich friends, prompting Brian to call her conceited.
Claire reveals that, beneath her snobby queen bee exterior, she's not content:
CLAIRE: I'm not saying that to be conceited! I hate it! I hate having to go along with everything my friends say!
BRIAN: Well then why do you do it?
CLAIRE: I don't know, I don't... you don't understand, you don't. You're not friends with the same kind of people that Andy and I are friends with! You know, you just don't understand the pressure that they can put on you!
So, Claire seems to be overriding her need to run with the crowd by the end of the movie. She's starting to recognize that the other students transcend their stereotypes, and she's beginning to transcend hers, too.
Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) has the misfortune of being the Nerd Stereotype in this story. Even though everyone else pairs up at the end, Brian's left alone—and he has to write the essay explaining "who they think they are" for the others, while they all skip the assignment.
Hughes—who probably identified with Brian to a fair degree—was just trying to be realistic when he wrote this part. Having Brian pair up with Claire would've seemed like fantasy wish-fulfillment to audiences. (But what about Allison? Wasn't she in Brian's league?)
So, this dude winds up with the short straw. But he also learns a lot and pens a manifesto. Maybe that's breaking even, eh?
At the beginning of the movie Brian articulates the lesson he—and presumably everyone else—has learned:
BRIAN (voiceover): Saturday, March 24, 1984. Shermer High School, Shermer, Illinois, 60062. Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did was wrong. But we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us—in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Correct? That's the way we saw each other at 7:00 this morning. We were brainwashed.
By the time, the movie ends, they've realized that each one of them is all of the above— a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. They all can relate to each other's experiences. Or, at least, Brian's realized this—since he wrote the essay.
When we first see Brian, his angry mother is needling him to do homework while he's in detention and not waste time. Brian has to deal with this kind of academic pressure constantly. He tries to explain he's not a huge fan of his parents, but Bender argues that his parents are worse:
BRIAN: [...] I don't like my parents either, I don't... I don't get along with them... their idea of parental compassion is just, you know, wacko!
BENDER: You are a parent's wet dream, okay?
BRIAN: Well, that's a problem!
In fact, all this pressure to be a model student is the reason why he's in detention in the first place. As he reveals later on, in a tearful speech, he flunked shop class after he built a lamp that didn't work—the lamp was supposed to look like an elephant, and it would light up when you pulled the trunk. But Brian accidentally built a non-functioning lamp: pull the trunk, nothing happens.
This totally messes up his GPA and jeopardizes his chances of getting into the very top tier of colleges. So he brings a flare gun into school intending (apparently) to shoot himself with it. But the flare gun goes off in his locker, leading him to receive detention.
So, it's a peek into just how pressured Brian feels, to put it mildly—he's been penned into this academic, grade-obsessed lifestyle, yet he hates it. He doesn't like the way he appears when he's locked into this hyper-competitive academic mode. But the tension between who he is and who he's expected to be causes him to make this half-baked suicide attempt.
The other kids finds this concerning at first—thinking Brian intended to kill himself with the gun—but amusing when they find out it was a flare gun that accidentally went off. Brian has to laugh too. So, thanks to all this academic pressure, he's managed to look pathetic and ridiculous and kind of crazy all at once—remember, all that Bender's in detention for is pulling the fire alarm.
So, in the end, Brian's explored his emotional issues, smoked marijuana with Bender and the others, cried in front of everyone, written everyone's joint-essay for them, and failed to get with either of the girls. But the human insight he's gained is what's really important, right? Maybe?
Andrew (Emilio Estevez) is a stereotypical jock. But, as you're probably expecting at this point, he's not just some broad caricature of a meathead. Like everyone else in this movie, he possesses hidden emotional depths. No one's really a stereotype on the inside—they just act like stereotypes all the time on the outside.
But, at first, he conforms to all the stereotypes about him. He assumes that Bender is a "nothing," someone who "doesn't count." When Bender harasses Claire, Andrew sticks up for her and almost fights Bender—who pulls a knife on him. Technically, this is kind of chivalrous, but it feels like Andrew's just following what his persona demands. He's not actually a defender of the weak. As revealed later on, the whole reason he's in detention is because of a vicious act of bullying, performed to impress his friends and his Dad:
ANDREW: […] And my friends, they just laughed and cheered me on. And, afterwards, when I was sittin' in Vernon's office, all I could think about was Larry's father. And Larry havin' to go home and… and explain what happened to him. And the humiliation… fucking humiliation he must've felt. It must've been unreal… I mean, I mean, how do you apologize for something like that? There's no way… it's all because of me and my old man. Oh, God, I fucking hate him! He's like this… he's like this mindless machine that I can't even relate to anymore. "Andrew, you've got to be number one! I won't tolerate any losers in this family…. Your intensity is for shit! Win. Win! Win!!" You son of a bitch! You know, sometimes, I wish my knee would give… and I wouldn't be able to wrestle anymore. And he could forget all about me.
Whoa. Is this the Breakfast Club or the Daddy Issues Club?
So, Andrew discovers his emotional and empathetic core and learns that all the other characters have issues with their parents too. Unfortunately, he had to tear the skin off some kid's butt to do it. At this point, we're supposed to think he's not that bad. He's growing and revealing things about himself. He's not a total jerk.
To the end, Andrew gets together with Allison, the Weird Girl. But in order for this to happen, Allison has to receive a makeover from Claire so she looks more "normal" and befitting a guy like Andrew. It's probably the most controversial part of the movie, since, even though the movie argues against giving into other people's conceptions about you, Allison has to change in order to win Andrew over. A lot of people found that pretty lame.
In summary, Andrew overcomes his self-conception as an arrogant jock by bullying a kid, crying about it with a group of friends, and finally getting together with Allison Reynolds. Yet his future remains to be seen. Will he still be as tolerant and kind toward Brian and the other physics club kids when he gets back to school? Will he stick with Allison? These questions are yet to be answered.
Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) embodies the Weirdo stereotype. She's likely the most enigmatic character in the movie. When she's dropped off, she turns to say goodbye to her father, but he just drives off. It helps foreshadow the point that she makes later, that she's unhappy because her parents ignore her.
At first, during detention, she doesn't talk at all. We see her doing unusual things like removing the cold cut from a sandwich and then replacing it with cereal and sugar from pixie sticks. She proceeds to eat it. Also, she draws a picture and then creates snow in the picture using her own dandruff. So, her behavior's kind of off.
But Allison eventually starts to say things. (She's also the only student who avoids smoking pot with the others.) She reveals that she's a neglected girl who has her own outlook on life. Allison's also adept at getting the others to reveal more about themselves: By pretending that she had an affair with her psychologist, she gets Claire to admit that she's never had sex (Allison's actually a virgin too):
ALLISON: I'll do anything sexual. I don't need a million dollars to do it either...
CLAIRE You're lying...
ALLISON: I already have... I've done just about everything there is except a few things that are illegal... I'm a nymphomaniac!
Given her upbringing, Allison's feelings about parents and kids are sort of cynical. Yet, there's also a kind of sincerity and empathy underlying them. She wants to retain the passionate feelings of adolescence throughout her life and not give into numbness and middle-aged emptiness. She has this exchange with the others:
ANDREW: My God, are we gonna be like our parents?
CLAIRE: Not me… ever.
ALLISON: It's unavoidable; it just happens.
CLAIRE: What happens?
ALLISON: When you grow up, your heart dies.
BENDER: So, who cares?
ALLISON: I care.
Allison cares. She doesn't want to lose the magical warm-heartedness and humanity that supposedly attends your teenage years. She doesn't want to age into someone like Richard Vernon, who seems sort of arrogant and slickly villainous.
But despite the fact that Allison doesn't want to change, she actually undergoes a big change at the end of the movie. It's the most controversial part in the movie, actually. Allison and Andrew have started to hit it off, but in order for her to prove really attractive to Andrew, Claire needs to give her a makeover. She removes Allison's Goth-punk look, takes off her black eyeliner, and puts a bow in her hair. Andrew is smitten! They're gonna be together now! All she had to do was sacrifice her individual style and appeal to a more widely accepted image of sprightly young womanhood.
In a way, it's kind of like the end of Grease: In that movie, Olivia Newton John's character abandons her nice-girl style to become a leather-clad greaser-girl who will appeal to John Travolta's character. But be that as it may, Allison's presumably learned all the lessons that everyone else has needed to learn about getting along.
Then again, there's the possibility she didn't need to learn those lessons in the first place—she didn't have any friends before going to detention, but she says the kind of friends she thinks she might've had wouldn't have minded if she hung out with jocks and rich girls and criminals. She's very tolerant.
Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason) walks around the school like he owns it. He's got this slick attitude that's intentionally super off-putting. He's the kind of repulsive adult whom all five of the main characters deplore.
But he's a hilarious character at the same time—you just laugh at him, not with him. In particular, Vernon gets into it with Bender a lot. Since Bender's ostensibly this juvenile delinquent, Vernon singles him out for discipline and comment. When Bender back-talks him ("Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?"), Vernon sentences him to another detention saying, "When you mess with the bull, you get the horns." After Bender tells him, later, "Eat my shorts," Vernon ends up sentencing him to two months' worth of detentions.
Finally, Vernon drags Bender out of the classroom and locks him in the closet. He dares Bender to hit him, so he, Vernon, will have an excuse to beat him up. But Bender looks more put-off and perturbed than anything:
VERNON: That's the last time, Bender. That's the last time you ever make me look bad in front of those kids, do you hear me? I make $31,000 dollars a year and I have a home and I'm not about to throw it away on some punk like you. But someday, man, someday. When you're outta here and you've forgotten all about this place, and they've forgotten all about you and you're wrapped up in your own pathetic life... I'm gonna be there. That's right. And I'm gonna kick the living shit out of you, man, I'm gonna knock your dick in the dirt!
BENDER: Are you threatening me?
VERNON: What're you gonna do about it? You think anybody's gonna believe you? You think anybody's gonna take your word over mine? […]
So, Vernon's a little psychotic. He's abandoning his own maturity and taking Bender's dumb jokes and back-talk way too personally. Why? Vernon reveals to the janitor, Carl, that he doesn't like or relate to the young people he's meant to be supervising. He thinks young people have gotten worse. Carl speaks truth to power, saying Vernon's the one who's changed, but Vernon's not buying it. He continues bemoaning the current generation:
VERNON: You think about this... when you get old, these kids; when I get old, they're gonna be runnin' the country.
VERNON: Now this is the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night... That when I get older, these kids are gonna take care of me...
CARL: I wouldn't count on it!
In the end, Vernon doesn't learn anything about the kids, and he doesn't relate to them in any new way. He remains utterly set in his ways. It would be kind of sad, if Vernon didn't seem so arrogant and unlikable.
Carl the Janitor (John Kapelos) only has two scenes in the movie. But they're still pretty memorable. He seems to represent an adult figure who isn't as repulsive as Vernon. Nevertheless, Bender acts like a jerk toward him:
BENDER: No I just wanna know how one becomes a janitor because Andrew here is very interested in pursuing a career in the custodial arts...
Bender's basically mocking Carl for being a janitor and predicting the same fate for Andrew. This is kind of ironic, given that Bender doesn't exactly have more social cache than a janitor. Carl responds with a magisterial rejoinder:
CARL: Oh, really? You guys think I'm just some untouchable peasant? Peon? Huh? Maybe so, but following a broom around after shitheads like you for the past eight years I've learned a couple of things. I look through your letters, I look through your lockers. I listen to your conversations. You don't know that, but I do. I am the eyes and ears of this institution my friends. By the way, that clock's twenty minutes fast!
So that's Carl's first scene. Later on, in his second and last appearance, he first tries to blackmail Vernon into giving him money when he catches Vernon looking at some high school kid's confidential mental health files. Then, they have a little chat.
Carl, being lower down the social hierarchy, has more sympathy with the students—he seems to get what's going on with them. But Vernon views them as a plague, a force that threatens his wellbeing deeply. After Carl says he wanted to be John Lennon when he was a kid, Vernon says:
VERNON: Carl don't be a goof! I'm trying to make a serious point here. I've been teaching, for twenty-two years, and each year these kids get more and more arrogant.
CARL: Aw bullshit, man. Come on Vern, the kids haven't changed, you have! You took a teaching position, 'cause you thought it'd be fun, right? Thought you could have summer vacations off and then you found out it was actually work, and that really bummed you out.
Carl is calling Vernon out on his lack of empathy with the kids. Vernon's just in it because he wanted a job with some nice benefits. But Carl remembers what it's like to be in high school because, in a sense, he never left. Briefly, at the beginning of the movie, we see an image of Carl in a class yearbook composite picture on the wall. So, he's remained at his alma mater, albeit in a different capacity.