The protagonist in this story is Paul himself. He is a young man living in Pittsburgh and attending Pittsburgh High School at the beginning. Paul is a dreamer, and so lost in the glamour and glory of a rich life that he does not see the world with any sense of reality. His obsession with glamour leads him to be very involved with the theater and the opera, loving the sounds and costumes and backstage excitement. He finds school to be a drudgery, and eventually gets kicked out for failing to keep up his grades. Because he is so focused on his fantasy world, Paul does not behave in ways acceptable to society - he lies often, appears insolent to authority, and eventually resorts to stealing. Here is a quote:
This was a lie, but Paul was quite accustomed to lying; found it, indeed, indispensable for overcoming friction. ...Disorder and impertinence were among the offences named, yet each of his instructors felt that it was scarcely possible to put into words the real cause of the trouble, which lay in a sort of hysterically defiant manner of the boy's; in the contempt which they all knew he felt for them, and which he seemingly made not the least effort to conceal.
It is when reality finally comes crashing through his defenses that Paul despairs and commits suicide:
There came upon him one of those fateful attacks of clear-headedness that never occurred except when he was physically exhausted and his nerves hung loose. ...He saw everything clearly now. He had a feeling that he had made the best of it, that he had lived the sort of life he was meant to live....
Paul's father is his anti-thesis. His father is a hard-working man who clung to the rules of society. He saved his money in hopes of moving up in society, and pays off the money Paul steals in order to avoid the public disgrace. His father's hero is a young man of 26, who married early and went to work early and was working his way up in a steel corporation. Living the "American Dream", in other words:
...his father, on principle, did not like to hear requests for money, whether much or little. ...He was not a poor man, but he had a worthy ambition to come up in the world.
Other characters who are mentioned include Charley Edwards, an actor who encourages Paul in his interest in the theater. The other one is Paul's drawing teacher, who has more hope for him than the other teachers, and is more frightened for him as well:
"I don't really believe that smile of his comes altogether from insolence; there's something sort of haunted about it. The boy is not strong, for one thing. There is something wrong about the fellow."
The drawing master had come to realize that, in looking at Paul, one saw only his white teeth and the forced animation of his eyes. One warm afternoon the boy had gone to sleep at his drawing-board, and his master had noted with amazement what a white, blue-veined face it was; drawn and wrinkled like an old man's about the eyes, the lips twitching even in his sleep.