The narrator and protagonist of the novel, an intersex man who struggles to find peace with his body and the courage to pursue romance. Mistaken for a girl at birth, the stigma around sex in his family in addition to a deep-seated desire to be “normal” causes Cal to hide his body for as long as possible. Intellectual and thoughtful by nature, Cal uses the exercise of tracing his family history and examining the fears and patterns he shares with his ancestors to come to terms with himself, finally allowing him to begin an honest relationship with Julie Kikuchi.
Cal’s paternal grandmother, a neurotic, traditional Greek woman from Asia Minor. Desdemona grows up in a small village on Mount Olympus with the desire to be pure in body and soul. When she falls in love with her brother Lefty, she never forgives herself for giving in to his advances. She manifests this guilt by both assuming the worst of her physical health and blaming herself for any misfortune that befalls her children. She is deeply religious and resists assimilation into American life as much as possible, keeping Greek traditions alive in the family. Despite her long convalescences and complaining, she loves her children and Lefty deeply.
Cal’s paternal grandfather and Desdemona’s brother and husband, a carefree, dashing man with a love of gambling. Always optimistic, Lefty throws himself into the things he wants to do—marrying Desdemona, immigrating to America, opening a speakeasy—with enthusiasm and energy, not paying heed to tradition. Lefty’s gambler’s personality causes him to ignore risks in many arenas of his life. He resents being pushed aside as he ages, especially as his mind declines from multiple strokes, but he is a loving and involved father and grandfather.
Cal’s mom, a modest and open-hearted woman. The daughter of the scandalous Sourmelina and her bootlegging husband, Jimmy Zizmo, Tessie cultivates a “good girl” persona out of embarrassment but finds it difficult to maintain when she falls for Milton. Kind and traditionally feminine, she loves her children deeply and cares for Desdemona and Lefty through their old age. She considers Callie to be just like her, a true confidant who understands her.
Cal’s dad, a traditional and sometimes judgmental man. A lover of all things American, after joining the Navy, Milton becomes even more assimilated into American life. He espouses conservative values and rejects his Greek heritage by considering himself American only. He is obsessed with money and business to the detriment of his marriage, and he works hard for material success. However, he loves his wife and children and wants to see them happy, though he struggles to understand their choices.
Cal’s older brother. A curious and scientifically-inclined child, Chapter Eleven becomes rebellious as the Vietnam War rages. Although he receives a draft number too high to ever be called, Chapter Eleven is changed by thoughts of war and drops out of college to embrace many tenants of the hippie movement, including free love, mind-expanding drugs, and vegetarianism, which brings him into conflict with his conservative father. Although he reconnects with Tessie and Milton after Cal runs away, his lack of discipline causes him to fail in running the family business.
A world-renowned specialist in gender identity who studies the teenage Callie. He treats Callie as more of a specimen for study than as a person, forcing her to watch pornography and take humiliating photographs and bringing his colleagues to stare at her in vulnerable positions. His unwillingness to share information openly causes Callie to be suspicious of him. He also focuses so hard on proving his theory of gender identity that he manipulates Milton and Tessie and tries to rush Callie into a surgery that would have physically scarred her.
Desdemona and Lefty’s cousin and Cal’s maternal grandmother, an exuberant, scandalous woman. Sourmelina leaves her village after she’s caught in a relationship with another woman, and she uses her marriage in America as a disguise for her sexuality. She embraces an American lifestyle and dismays Zizmo by driving. Although fun and lively, she has little interest in being a mother and treats Tessie as an accessory.
Sourmelina’s husband, a mysterious and jealous conman with an angry, patriarchal sense of authority. Zizmo has flexible morals that allow him to make money selling alcohol even though he refuses to drink it himself. He also keeps his past and his true thoughts shrouded in mystery, which makes him dangerous. After faking his death, he takes on the persona of Minister Fard of the nascent Nation of Islam in order to con the vulnerable black population of Detroit out of their money.
Cal’s uncle, a soft and kindly priest often described as effeminate and small. Throughout his life, Father Mike often becomes people’s second choice, both in his personal and professional lives. Tessie calls off their engagement to marry Milton, and the church constantly sends priests from Greece to head the local Greek Orthodox Church instead of selecting Mike. Although he appears content to friends and family, he gradually becomes resentful, especially of his critical wife, Zoë. He tries to get revenge on Milton by pretending to be a kidnapper holding Callie for ransom.
Callie’s high school crush and best friend, a rebellious and beautiful redheaded girl. Although she doesn’t take school seriously, the Object is a dedicated and thoughtful actress. Bored and slightly troubled, she smokes constantly and pursues potentially dangerous boys like Rex. She is never clear about her intentions for a romantic relationship with Callie, but she accepts Callie’s physical affections. She is both dismissive of Callie’s devotion and possessive when Callie shows attention to others.
The Object’s older brother, who has a crush on Callie. He believes himself to be erudite and forward-thinking. He makes horror movies that he intends to serve as social commentary but also cover up his own issues with authority. A child of privilege, he paints his nails black and needles his sister when he can. When he catches the Object and Callie engaging in sexual activity, he shouts homophobic slurs at his sister and physically fights with Callie.
An Asian-American artist living in Berlin who dates Cal. Intelligent, slightly shy, and charmed by Cal’s old-fashioned demeanor, she also worries he may secretly be gay. When Cal reveals his truth, she decides that as long as he’s attracted to her, she has no problem with his body.
The owner of a sex club in San Francisco, an enterprising and exploitative man. Although he claims to be accepting of people who do not fit neatly into the gender binary, his true goal is to use their bodies to make money. He helps Cal find a safe place to live in San Francisco, but he also ignores Cal’s youth and vulnerability in order to have Cal perform in his peep shows.
An intersex performer at the Octopussy’s Garden peep show who takes Cal under her wing. Physically beautiful and unashamed of her condition, Zora believes being intersex is special, and she encourages Cal to see himself in the same light. She carries a lot of anger toward men and only dates lesbians. Her stage name is “Melanie the Mermaid.”
Cal’s aunt, Milton’s sister, and Father Mike’s wife. A strong and opinionated woman, she regrets marrying a soft and not particularly successful man like Father Mike.
The head of the women’s section of The Nation of Islam temple in Detroit. Although devoted to Fard’s principles, she’s also kind and practical and encourages Desdemona to conceal her race so that they can hire her.
Callie’s high school English teacher who encourages her to find beauty in her Greek heritage. He is passionate about literature and focused on his advanced students who share his enthusiasm.
A kindly and old-fashioned Armenian doctor who saves Lefty’s life in Smyrna only to see his own family murdered. He’s well-educated, generous, and philosophical. He immigrates with Lefty and Desdemona and eventually opens a medical practice in Detroit.
A family friend of the Stephanides family, a chiropractor whom others come to for medical advice despite his general lack of formal education.
A troubled man who picks up Cal as a hitchhiker. Although he appears worldly and erudite, he tries to get Cal drunk in order to take advantage of him.
A Black Power activist and law student who preaches in front of the Zebra Room diner. He’s kind to Callie but points out Milton’s racism. Despite his kindness, he has no qualms about burning the diner down during the riots of 1967.
A careless but popular teenage boy who desires the Object. Although he got his previous girlfriend killed in a drunk driving accident, he continues to party and pursues the Object when they stay at their summer homes. Callie is jealous of him.
Callie’s next-door neighbor at the Middlesex house, an eight-year-old girl who wants to practice kissing with her.
A trans woman who performs at the Octopussy’s Garden peep show. She is kind to Cal and goes by the stage name “Ellie and her Electric Eel.”
A friendly and chatty Greek salon owner who introduces Callie to the world of hair removal.