The characters in Catch-22 are to a large extent subjugated to the authorial message about the role of the war and the concomitant institution of the air force in their lives. Using a tableau of characters with varying roles, Heller puts across to the reader the idea that these people are only a handful of those that are victim to (and those that sustain) the callous institutions he presents. This impression is created by the surreal and highly improbable way they act, which draws out the common feature of lunacy and detracts from each individual's story. Having commented on this, we can still make some interesting observations about each of the characters. Robert M. Young points out some significant symbolism in his psychoanalysis essay, 'Deadly Unconscious Logics in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22'.

Milo Minderbinder and Snowden are two main symbolic figures in the novel. Milo does everything; Snowden does one: he dies. Milo is pure opportunist, Snowden pure victim. Milo is the spirit of capitalism incarnate, as well as the embodiment of its false consciousness, its confidence tricks and its painted smiles.
We might say that Milo represents what it is the American air force is fighting for, a view consistent with the fact that he is allowed to pursue his farcical activities unchecked by his superiors. Yossarian and his colleagues constantly have their lives pointlessly and unfairly put in danger, for example when American planes bomb the base for profit, on behalf of the Germans but at Milo’s command.

Catch-22 constantly links the war with insanity, and inherent in this seems to be immense brutality. Of all the recurring episodes throughout the novel, the one we see the most, and indeed seems to haunt Yossarian terribly, is the incident in which he is unable to save Snowden from an horrific death. The discovery that Snowden’s guts are falling out of his body is described graphically to the reader. The intermingling of such scenes with scenes of comic madness on the part of the likes of Colonel Cathcart leaves us with a clear picture of the link between the callous, selfish actions of the officers and the suffering that occurs. Indeed, the brutality is so all-encompassing that not even civilians are safe from the arrogance and lunacy of those in the military, as we see by the rape and murder of prostitutes in Rome by air force men.

In the context of scenes like this, the character of Snowden comes in as almost the polar reverse of characters like Milo and Colonel Cathcart, the victim of the former’s reckless and dubiously justified drive for profits over safety, and the latter's careerism, which causes him to keep perversely increasing the number of missions the men must fly. Indeed, Cathcart acts in a manner that perfectly typifies the attitude of the senior officers – it is as if they and Milo are in collusion to victimise the lesser men; as good an example as Snowden would be Mudd, the dead man in Yossarian's tent, who serves no other purpose in the novel than being dead. Interesting to note, as part of the deliberate unrealisticness of the characters, is their appositely humorous names, such as the unpleasant Lieutenant Scheisskopf (in English, 'shit head') or the unfortunate Major Major Major Major who is forever ostracised, his laughable name a further curse and the subject of mockery. The name Snowden echoes the phrase 'snowed in', perhaps a deliberate reflection of his helpless situation.