Norton—a ten-year-old boy and the son of Sheppard. His mother died a year before the story opens, and he misses her very much. Lacking friends, he also lacks the unconditional love of his father, who wants his son to be “good and unselfish” yet thinks “neither seemed likely.”
Sheppard—Norton’s father. He is the city’s recreation director but volunteers on Saturdays at the reformatory, thinking he can make a difference in the lives of wayward children. An atheist, he wants to pass on his rationalist view of life to his child, and while he hopes to inspire empathy in him, he lacks the empathy to understand his son’s confusion and sadness over the death of his mother. He expects Norton to feel the same way he feels. Sheppard wants to give Rufus, a boy he counsels at the reformatory, a better chance in life.
Rufus Johnson—a very intelligent but ultimately evil boy. Rufus was raised by his grandfather and has been poor throughout this life. He has a clubfoot, covered by a worn shoe that accentuates the deformity. In trouble much of his life, Rufus meets Sheppard in the reformatory.
The Grandfather—Rufus’s grandfather. Although not active in the plot, the grandfather is a background figure who represents a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible that can corrupt, for he teaches Rufus only about hell and damnation rather than the power of good.