When the Bedwetters first arrive at Box Canyon Box Camp, they succeed at virtually nothing. John Cotton soon adopts the role of their leader. As a sixteen-year-old counselor, he accepts these misfits into his cabin and works with them throughout the novel. A natural leader, Cotton seems to know when to push the Bedwetters and when to let them determine their own fate. When they do in fact prove their independence, Cotton experiences mixed emotions. While he feels incredible pride in what the group has, he also recognizes that they no longer need him; this realization foreshadows his later death. At the conclusion of novel Cotton sacrifices his life for the good of the group. Despite the sadness of his death, which "cracked their hearts," the last image of Cotton is triumphant and celebratory. Cotton lived, and died, with tremendous vivacity; the mention of his desire to "red hair flaming like a torch" speaks to the strength of his personality. Cotton bears many similarities to Jesus Christ, in that he shares his initials, and in that the Bedwetters have adopted the role of the Disciples. Despite others' scorn and jeers, Cotton remains faithful to his misfit Bedwetters. At the end of this book John Cotton sacrificed his life for the boys just as Jesus Christ did for his disciples. In addition, Cotton gave whiskey to his boys only shortly before his death, much as Jesus partook of the Last Supper with his disciples.
Fourteen-year-old Goodenow has a complicated set of emotional problems. When Goodenow was four years old his father died, and consequently he developed an overly dependent relationship with his mother. In addition, he has a profound phobia of school. His sensitive, artistic temperament makes it difficult for him to make friends, particularly at Box Canyon Boys Camp, where athletics and physical strength determine status. However, Goodenow becomes a dynamic character as a result of the support of the other Bedwetters. In a supportive group setting he gains confidence in his abilities and begins to take initiative during their mission, volunteering to help in many different ventures. He also introduces "bump time," a huddle-like ritual, to the rest of the group. This ritual offers comfort and togetherness in several difficult instances.
A New York City native, Shecker is the son of a rich and famous comedian. Constantly reminded of the space he occupies living in his father's shadow, he does not possess nearly the same comedic skills, and often futilely attempts to use humor to hide pain. The Bedwetters, however, do not care for his jokes and discourage him from recounting them. A gross overeater, Shecker attempts to eat his problems away. Unfortunately, this only worsens the situation, as he becomes the subject of significant ridicule, even from his own father. His parents also have a difficult marriage and he often finds himself in the middle of their squabbles, in which his mother and his father each manipulate him for their own ends.
Tall, skinny, and rebellious, fourteen-year-old Lawrence Teft originates from Mamaroneck, New York, where his parents, whose high expectations he constantly fails to meet, have become frustrated with his explosive temper and violent tendencies. He has gotten into trouble with school and the law, and resents all manifestations of authority. His criminal aptitude, however, enable the Bedwetters to steal a car and to force the bowlers, who hassle them in Flagstaff, to retreat to their car.
The older brother of Billy Lally, Lally one, from Kenilworth, Illinois, demonstrates behavior bordering on the psychotic. Engaged in fierce sibling rivalry with his brother, at times he treats his brother and his fellow campers with vengeful cruelty. In one particular incident, he kills Goodenow and Billy's pets after Cotton prevents him from sending a letter home. Most of his temper tantrums relate to his parents' inattentiveness to his needs. Since they travel frequently and are seldom home, Lally one and his brother struggle with each other to win their love.
Billy Lally, the youngest of the Bedwetters, suffers from a strong sense of insecurity. His parents, despite their wealth, find little opportunity to give him the attention he craves. To somehow escape his profound loneliness, Billy develops imaginary friends called "Ooms" who inhabit his parents' sauna. Despite these problems, Billy demonstrates a natural comfort and ease with animals, contrary to his brother, who often acts cruelly toward them; when the group leads the buffalo over the fields, Lally two speaks softly to the buffaloes and establishes a profound connection with them. Billy is perhaps the most dynamic character in the novel. At the end of the novel he becomes willing to leave behind the pillow he has cherished as an item representative of his sense of security. In addition, while he remains exceedingly passive during the first part of the book, when the Bedwetters attempt their rescue mission, he volunteers to scale an intimidating catwalk.