Sonny’s older brother. Compared to Sonny and many of the young men in Harlem, the narrator is a success, working as a math teacher and raising a family. However, he also feels trapped in Harlem, where he has lived his entire life. He knows he has an obligation to Sonny, but it takes him a while to get over his skepticism and devote himself to helping Sonny as best he can.
The narrator’s wayward younger brother. Sonny is a troubled young man who becomes addicted to heroin at an early age. Unlike many of the young boys in the neighborhood, Sonny is not hard or brutal. He keeps all of his problems bottled up—except when he plays music. Music, for Sonny, is a freeing and ultimately redemptive outlet and perhaps the only means he has for keeping himself away from prison and drugs. He channels into his performance not only his own frustration and disappointment but also that of the entire community.
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The narrator’s wife. Unlike the narrator, Isabel can make Sonny feel comfortably at home in their house after Sonny is released from prison. She draws him out of his shell and makes him laugh. She can, in her own way, accept Sonny with less hesitation than the narrator. She is a caring wife and mother who watches over the narrator much the same way his mother watched over his father.
The mother of Sonny and the narrator. She dies while Sonny is still a boy. Before she dies, she expresses her deep concerns about Sonny’s future to the narrator. She is acutely aware of the dangers facing her youngest son, and her final request to the narrator is that he protect his brother, just as she protected their father. Kind and loving, she has spent much of her life trying to protect her family from the darkness of the world.
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A drug addict who meets the narrator early in the story to tell him what happened to Sonny. Despite his addiction, he is able to eloquently explain the hardship that comes with drug addiction. He is a troubled, nameless soul whose brief presence in the story speaks for the countless young men in Harlem who struggle with a drug addiction.
The father of Sonny and the narrator. He has the same spirit as Sonny, and as a result he fights constantly with his son. When he was a young man, he lost his brother and was haunted by it his entire life. He constantly searched for a better reality but died without finding it.
The leader of Sonny’s band. An imposing older black man, Creole guides Sonny through his performance at the end of the story. He controls the playing of every member in the band.
The narrator’s daughter. Grace dies of polio while Sonny is prison. Her death prompts the narrator to write to Sonny. Her dying, although not discussed in great detail, becomes an act of grace, allowing the narrator to reach out to his brother for the first time.