Nicholas Jenkins, the narrator, a sympathetic and contemplative, yet oddly detached, man. Jenkins begins as a schoolboy, the son of a mid-level army officer, who encounters his longtime associates Stringham, Templer, and Widmerpool in an aristocratic milieu. Jenkins goes on to university and then to the bare beginnings of a literary career in London. He develops a new, more bohemian circle of friends, including such men as Barnby and Moreland, and has a passionate, adulterous love affair with Jean Templer, who eventually leaves him to go to Latin America. Jenkins begins to lose touch with Templer and Stringham as they diverge on their own separate paths. He then marries Isobel Tolland and concurrently sees his novelistic career begin to blossom. Volunteering for the army with the onset of World War II, Jenkins is stationed with a Welsh regiment in Northern Ireland before moving on to more useful work as a liaison officer between Britain and the other Allied powers. After the war, Jenkins feels dislocated by the death of so many of his friends. He manages to maintain an equilibrium that few of his friends possess. This enables him to survive in situations in which men like Widmerpool undergo a calamitous fall. It is when Jenkins learns of Widmerpool’s death that he has a final meeting with Jean Templer and glimpses the lost possibilities of his early love.
Kenneth Widmerpool, Jenkins’ schoolmate, foil, and alter ego. Widmerpool is mocked and bullied at school, especially by Stringham, but by the time he reaches London and goes into the business world, he has earned increasing respect. Widmerpool pushes his way to the top, despite several mishaps and botched love affairs. During the war, he rises to become Jenkins’ superior and marries Pamela Flitton. He is named a Life peer but is ruined by his wife’s misbehavior. Eventually, he becomes entangled in a sordid cult during the 1960’s, and he dies ignominiously.
Charles Stringham, a sensitive, aristocratic boy who is Jenkins’ best friend at school. Troubled by his parents’ divorce and by alcoholism, Stringham leads a sad life until rising to heroism while imprisoned by the Japanese at Singapore, where he loses his life.
Peter Templer, an outgoing, likable boy who is friendly with Jenkins and Stringham. Templer never fulfills his potential and dies tragically helping the Yugoslav resistance in World War II.
Hugh Moreland, a composer and conductor, the representative of art and the aesthetic in the novel. He becomes Jenkins’ closest friend when both men are in their early adulthood in London. Moreland marries Matilda Wilson, the mistress of Sir Magnus Donners, and is devastated when she leaves him to go back to Donners. His life continues on in disrepair until his premature death during the 1950’s.
Jean Templer, Peter’s sister. During her first marriage, she has an affair with Nicholas Jenkins.
Pamela Flitton, the aggressive, mentally disturbed niece of Stringham. She grows up to have numerous affairs with men during wartime, eventually marrying Widmerpool. She is unfaithful to him on a massive scale and eventually drags him to defeat and ruin.
Sir Magnus Donners
Sir Magnus Donners, a prominent industrialist who marries Matilda after her divorce from Moreland.
X Trapnel, a talented young novelist who meets an early and tragic death.