As a child Dagny Taggart dreamed of running the railroad. Even then she was called selfish, and she already was bored by the people around her. Her ambition and skill at finding and implementing solutions drove her rise through the ranks of Taggart Transcontinental. Trusting nothing above her own reason, Dagny makes decisions benefiting the railroad and national industry; James Taggart and his cronies often question these decisions. Dagny is a seeker and has always believed the rails are in the hands of a man beyond the horizon whom she will one day meet. Gradually, Dagny realizes time is not linear but circular. For her, the railroad represents linear time: progress toward a goal down a straight line of action. When she arrives in Galt's Gulch, she knows there is nothing more to achieve; she has found what she always sought. Here she realizes time is circular: a successful life involves a return to the unspoiled vision of youth. Her love for John Galt signifies this circularity.
When the owners at Twentieth Century Motor Company introduce communist principles to the factory where he works as an engineer, John Galt has a revelation: he recognizes the root of the world's tragedy and how to fix it. A man of thought and action, Galt is the first to reclaim his mind and his power from the looters—the government and others who take what they have not earned. He organizes a strike of the "men of the mind." His goal is to collapse an increasingly immoral society and rebuild it according to the principles of freedom, justice, and trade. He seeks to destroy the moral code underlying America's corruption, which he calls the Morality of Death, and to replace it with his own Morality of Life. Galt gains recruits by explaining these two moralities. Seeing the reason of his position, people shrug off their burdens with a feeling of deliverance. Galt loves Dagny from the first time he sees her; he spends 12 years as a track laborer at Taggart Transcontinental, right under Dagny's nose. His face is free of fear, pain, or guilt, but Galt is not immune to suffering: he simply fights it and throws it aside rather than let it mark his psyche. He refuses to answer the government's pleas for help, even when he is subjected to torture. He is a savior but not a martyr, and he achieves his goal: society collapses quickly, clearing the way for him to rebuild it.
Hank Rearden is a man of principle, but the inconsistencies in his moral code open him up to needless suffering and exploitation. He supports his ungrateful family out of a sense of pity and endures a loveless marriage to a woman who secretly wants to destroy him. When he begins his affair with Dagny, he struggles with shame; to his mind, sexuality is an irrational urge that degrades them both. Rearden begins to reclaim his power after he is put on trial for a secret business deal that goes against government regulations; he exposes and diffuses the charade by refusing to defend himself. The government blackmails him over his secret affair with Dagny; to protect her honor, he signs over the rights to Rearden Metal. Over time Rearden realizes he is guilty because he consents to the looters' manipulation. In this case, the looters include his own family. He has accepted parts of their moral code that conflict with his own principles. As he gradually withdraws his consent, he becomes more receptive to Francisco d'Anconia's message; when a mob of government goons attacks his mills, Rearden is finally ready to free himself of his burden and join the others at Galt's Gulch.
Francisco d'Anconia, a man of unmatched ambition and intelligence, has known Dagny Taggart for most of her life, but since she last saw him he has become a notorious playboy. This lifestyle doesn't mesh with Francisco's character, and he eventually reveals it is a camouflage for his true purpose: he is a recruiting agent for Galt's strike. He was the first to join the strike, after he realized Dagny, the woman he loved, was destined to be destroyed by the looters. Francisco works to bankrupt Taggart Transcontinental as well as the stockholders of his own company, d'Anconia Copper. He destroys d'Anconia Copper's properties around the world by setting off explosions on the day they are going to be nationalized by socialist Chile. The market's subsequent loss of copper hastens societal collapse. Throughout the narrative, Francisco counsels both Rearden and Dagny, attempting to make them see they should shrug off their burdens; they are working for the looters rather than fighting them. By taking a position as foreman at Rearden's mills, he protects Rearden from his attackers and stops the riot. After this, he secures Rearden's participation in the strike. Francisco comes to accept that Galt is Dagny's true love and blesses the relationship.
Ragnar Danneskjöld is a philosopher who becomes a pirate. He is working to destroy the Robin Hood principle of stealing from the productive rich and giving to the undeserving poor. Danneskjöld attacks ships bearing cargo en route to socialist countries; he lets the crew escape and lets the cargo sink to the sea floor. He says he is draining the world's body while Galt is draining its soul. He works as a pirate for the day when piracy is no longer necessary: when justice returns to the world. When Rearden accuses him of living by force, Danneskjöld says he uses force openly and honestly. He gives Rearden some gold in token repayment for the injustices Rearden has suffered. When Orren Boyle begins to produce Rearden Metal, Danneskjöld attacks and destroys Boyle's factory. Danneskjöld is wanted around the world but always manages to evade capture. As his attacks increase, the press stops reporting them because Danneskjöld's recurrent success demonstrates the government's impotence. After the collapse of society, Danneskjöld plans to return to his original love: philosophy.
James Taggart, Dagny's brother, is her opposite in every way. He seeks power, influence, and admiration, and constantly berates Dagny while also depending on her to run Taggart Transcontinental. James always blames others for his failures; he is a man of indecision and excuses who is determined not to think. He maintains a network of cronies with whom he trades favors. He believes success will come from influencing bureaucrats to pass regulations that give him an unearned advantage. James marries Cherryl because he thinks she is worthless and therefore will be obligated to love him. He feels he deserves love because he is needy and unhappy, but Cherryl recognizes him for what he is: a "vicious moocher." He tells Dagny she has the "privilege of strength" but he has the "right of weakness"; thus, to his mind, she must take care of him while allowing him to take credit for her achievements. James avoids facing himself until he participates in John Galt's torture. His desire to kill Galt makes him recognize his self-hatred, and this realization destroys him.
Lillian Rearden is a superficial society woman who manipulates those around her in hopes of destroying her husband, Hank Rearden. Sexually passive, cold, and superficial, Lillian ridicules the Rearden Metal bracelet Hank gives her as well as his genius and dedication to his work. She insists he is responsible for her happiness and constantly tries to make him violate his own principles. When Lillian discovers Hank's affair with Dagny, she delivers the evidence to the government, which uses it to blackmail Hank into signing over the rights to Rearden Metal. Despite her efforts, Lillian can't shame Hank because he doesn't respect her judgment; he merely pities her. After Hank divorces her, she keeps living with his family and with his support, without his knowledge. When Hank refuses to extend the family credit for a grocery bill, Lillian insists she betrayed him out of love and asks for mercy. This, too, is an act. After Hank rejects it, she realizes her own impotence. Without the power to manipulate Hank, Lillian ceases to exist.