Violet is a fifty-six year old woman living in Harlem with her husband Joe. Hopelessly scrawny with very dark skin, Violet is beautiful if one looks at her long enough. She has a reputation in Harlem for being odd and she does not quite fit in with the other ladies. She becomes sullen and taciturn with her husband and explodes into violence at his lover's funeral, earning herself the nickname "Violent." An orphan raised by her grandmother in rural Virginia, Violet herself has no children and, after several miscarriages, she longs for a child.
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Violet's husband, Joe Trace is a good looking man in his late fifties who, despite having lived in the City for twenty years, retains the boyish innocence and dignified comportment of a hardworking outdoorsman. Joe works hard, shuttling between a job as a waiter and a cosmetic salesman. The women in Harlem trust and respect Joe because he seems decent and honest. Joe loves his wife but is hurt when she closes herself off from him because of her depression. A sympathetic character, Joe is nonetheless a murderer and adulterer, cheating on his wife and then killing his lover.
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With her acne, light skin, straight hair and womanish figure, Dorcas is neither decidedly pretty nor flatly unattractive. Precocious and romantic, Dorcas seeks male attention at a young age and yearns to live a racy, adult life. She wants to attend nightclubs and parties and most importantly she wants to adore and be adored. She quickly becomes bored with the infatuation of her older lover, Joe, and is eager to track down a more desirable catch.
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A widow in her late fifties, Alice is Dorcas's aunt and legal guardian. She lives alone in Harlem, works as a seamstress and is deeply mistrustful of young people and the sinful lives they seem to be leading. Alice is overly protective and concerned for Dorcas, and hopes to shelter her from what she sees as a threatening world. Her own husband had an affair with another woman and died soon after.
Dorcas's best friend from school, Felice lives with her grandmother while her mother and father work elsewhere. She is darker-skinned and less attractive than her friend Dorcas but she has a much stronger sense of self and she disapproves of the other girl's reckless behavior even though she often acts as an accomplice or provides Dorcas with an alibi.
The son of Vera Louise Gray and Henry LesTroy, Golden Gray is half-black and half-white although his golden curls and light skin make him appear completely caucasian. Raised by his mother and True Belle in Baltimore, Golden Gray leads a privileged existence and is told that he was adopted at a young age. When he is eighteen, he learns the truth about his parents and flies into a rage. He travels to Vienna, Virginia, intending to hunt down and kill his black father but he runs off in the woods with Wild instead.
A very dark-skinned woman who roams through the woods near Vienna, Virginia, she is called "Wild" because she bites Henry LesTroy's arm as he helps her to deliver her child. Her origins are mysterious, and she is presumed to be the mother of Joe Trace although this is never confirmed. Golden Gray accompanies Wild into the woods and the two of them make their home in a secret hovel.
Vera Louise Gray's black lover, Henry LesTroy resides near her family's old plantation in Vienna, Virginia. He does not know where Vera goes when she leaves for Baltimore and he is surprised when Golden Gray appears at his door, claiming to be his son. Dubbed "Hunters Hunter" by the locals, he is an expert hunter and he becomes a kind of surrogate father for Joe Trace when the younger man is under his tutelage.
An upstairs neighbor to Joe and Violet, Malvonne agrees to rent out her nephew's spare room to Joe so that he can have a private place in which to meet Dorcas. She works cleaning the office buildings of powerful white executives during the evenings and she reads and amends unsent letters that she finds in her nephew's bedroom.
The white daughter of wealthy plantation owners, Vera Louise is sent away by her parents when they figure out that she has become pregnant with the child of her black lover. They give her a large sum of money as a kind of bribe, and she takes her servant True Belle with her to Baltimore where the two women raise her son, Golden Gray.
Violet's grandmother and a figure of heroic optimism in the novel, True Belle leaves her family and moves with her mistress to Baltimore in order to raise the woman's half-black baby boy. When she learns that her daughter, Rose Dear, is in trouble back in Virginia, True Belle moves back home to put the family back together and raise her grandchildren.
Rose Dear is Violet's mother and True Belle's daughter. Her husband abandons the family for long stretches at a time, squandering their money and getting them further into debt. When she and her children are driven into utter poverty, Rose Dear loses faith and commits suicide by throwing herself into a well.
Dorcas's cocky and self-absorbed boyfriend after she tires of Joe, Acton constantly criticizes her and advises her on how to behave and what to wear. He is a young, good-looking man whom all the girls adore.
Honor is the young boy who helps to take care of Henry LesTroy's livestock when he is away. He arrives at LesTroy's house and finds Golden Gray standing in the doorway and then he helps to deliver Wild's baby.
Joe Trace's adoptive brother, Victory accompanies Joe and Henry LesTroy on their hunting expeditions. He is the only person to whom Joe would have confided about Dorcas.
Colonel Wordsworth Gray is a wealthy plantation owner who sends his daughter, Vera Louise, away when he learns that she has become pregnant with the child of a black man.
Malvonne's nephew, Sweetness, no longer lives with his aunt in Joe and Violet's apartment building. For unknown reasons he had stolen a bag of addressed and stamped letters and hid it in his room before moving off to either Chicago or San Diego (the narrator cannot remember which).
The reader learns very little about Gistan and Stuck other than the fact that they are friends of Joe's living in New York City. Joe does not tell either of them about his relationship with Dorcas because he knows they will not understand.
The Miller Sisters are Alice Manfred's neighbors. They take care of Dorcas in the afternoon when Alice works. They disapprove of the styles and fashions of the era and worry, like Alice, about moral corruption.
Winsome Clark is a woman in the City whose letter falls into Malvonne's meddling hands.