A precocious, imaginative nine-year-old boy and the protagonist of the novel. Oskar’s dad’s death shatters his sense of security about his place in the world and his family, rendering him grieving and depressed. Furthermore, he feels incredibly guilty for not picking up the phone when his dad called for the last time from the World Trade Center on 9/11, believing that he failed to help his dad when he needed it most.
Oskar’s grandfather, a reclusive man who refuses to move on from the loss of his beloved Anna during the bombing of Dresden. Thomas’s loss causes him to lose his ability to speak and leaves him trapped in time. Thomas writes his true feelings in letters to Thomas Jr. that he never sends. Although he returns to America after his son’s death, when confronted with his son’s empty coffin, he tries to flee again, unable to face his grief head-on.
Oskar’s grandmother, a thoughtful, sensitive woman. Although she grieves those she lost in Dresden, she focuses primarily on moving forward in her life. She connects with Thomas as a way to honor her past and try to build a future, but his refusal to be honest with her destroys any hope they had at building a relationship. Instead, she focuses on her future through her son, Thomas Jr., and grandson, Oskar. Because Thomas Sr. refuses to commit to moving forward, she tries to keep him from her grief about Thomas Jr.’s death and away from Oskar.
Read an in-depth analysis of Grandma.
A loving, patient woman who nevertheless finds Oskar’s anger difficult to navigate. She takes her role as a mother very seriously and tries to hide her grief from Oskar, which, unfortunately, makes him worry that she isn’t grieving at all. Unsure of how to best help Oskar, she protects him from afar by calling the people named Black and letting them know that Oskar will visit.
A thoughtful, loving father and husband whose death shatters Oskar’s world. He encourages Oskar’s love of science and exploration through creating scavenger hunts and answering Oskar’s questions about the universe. He once went on his own quest to understand his place in the world by searching for his own father, Thomas Sr.
An outgoing, wise, and eccentric old man who lives in the apartment above Oskar’s. Although he hasn’t left his apartment since his wife’s death, he allows Oskar to bring him back into the world and joins Oskar on his quest for the key. Throughout Oskar’s journey, Mr. Black encourages Oskar to face his fears of public places and acts as a surrogate grandfather to him.
A beautiful middle-aged woman who hides the secret of the key from Oskar. She meets Oskar in the middle of what appears to be a painful divorce from William Black. The marital strife causes her to act selfishly and not tell either Oskar or William about the key. Although she only intends to hurt William, she hurts Oskar, too.
Thomas’s lost love who died in the bombing of Dresden. She was extremely insightful and able to see through Thomas’s bluster. She deeply loved both her sister and Thomas.
An old, standoffish man who is too ill to leave his apartment. Although he sounds hostile, he’s actually impatient because of his physical limitations and his regrets.
A mysterious and thoughtful old woman who has lived in the Empire State Building since her husband’s death. Because she associates the building with her husband, she has learned everything about it and gives tours to people who seem interested.
Abby Black’s ex-husband, an angry and frustrated businessman, and the owner of the mysterious key. When Oskar finally meets him at the end of the novel, he seems full of regret. He tries to reassure Oskar as best he can.
An intellectual man who loves books and his family. He struggles to do the right thing during World War II, weighing his desire to save his friend, Simon Goldberg, with the safety of his daughters.
Oskar’s mom’s friend who Oskar fears is trying to replace his dad. Ron is patient with Oskar’s hostility.
A caring man who lives near Coney Island and encourages Oskar to ride the Cyclone roller coaster.
Oskar’s psychiatrist, full of stereotypical questions and pithy answers. Oskar hates him because he tries to get Oskar to move on from his dad’s death.
A friend of Anna’s father and a Jewish philosopher. He sees potential in Thomas.
A bully at Oskar’s school. He often makes sexually inappropriate jokes to Oskar in order to humiliate him and expose his naivete.
A new father living in Harlem who introduces Oskar to his baby. He’s kind and reassuring.
An extremely wealthy woman who makes no apology for her privilege.
A middle-aged woman who loves her husband so much that she makes a museum of his life even while he’s still alive.
A Russian immigrant who once was an engineer but is now a doorman. He’s kind and allows Oskar to set up an email account for him.
A nervous artist living illegally in an industrial building. Her paintings all center on one man, whom she clearly misses.
A Chinese immigrant who buys “I Love NY” merchandise, mistaking “NY” to be the Chinese word for “you.”
A limo driver. He is a patient and kind man who drives Oskar to dig up his dad’s grave.
The famous physicist who Oskar writes to multiple times for advice. In his reply to Oskar, he encourages Oskar to seek value in the unknown instead of the quantifiable.
The doorman of Oskar’s building who is amused by and endeared to Oskar. He’s extremely friendly and plays along with Oskar’s quirkiness.