Popeye, a cruel, passionless killer who is symbolic of the ruthless, sterile, and materialistic exploitation that destroyed the antebellum social order of the South. Ironically, he is executed for a murder he did not commit.
Temple Drake, a college girl of good family who is attacked by Popeye and then sent to live the life of a prostitute in a bawdy house in Memphis. Her family removes her from the house of ill repute, but her life has been ruined.
Lee Goodwin, a moonshiner who tries to protect Temple from a group of bootleggers and who is accused of murdering Tommy, a gang member actually shot by Popeye. He is convicted, but before he can be sentenced, he is burned to death by a mob that storms the jail to take him.
Gowan Stevens, a college student whose irresponsible conduct causes Temple to become Popeye’s victim.
Ruby Lamar, Goodwin’s common-law wife, who helps the officers locate Temple in Memphis.
Horace Benbow, a lawyer who defends Goodwin and who is symbolic of the early Southern historical tradition.
Tommy, a bootlegger whom Popeye kills, and of whose death Goodwin is accused.
Miss Reba Rivers
Miss Reba Rivers, the madam of the Memphis bawdy house.
Red, a young customer of Temple who is killed by Popeye’s gang because Temple hopes to escape from Popeye and run away with Red.
Judge Drake, Temple’s father, a wealthy, old-fashioned Southerner.
Senator Clarence Snopes
Senator Clarence Snopes, a corrupt Southern politician.
Van, a moonshiner who fights with Goodwin over Temple.