John Keating has an immediate effect on the boys in his class since his teaching methods are highly unorthodox and emphasize breaking the school traditions to create a different dynamic of teacher and students. He emphasizes reading and reciting great poetry to free oneself and become an individual rather than following the century-old traditions and authority of Welton. He helps Neil Perry to fulfill his dream of acting even if his family opposes it, but the boy's dangerous decision backfires and ends tragically, also causing his teacher to lose his job.
Neil Perry discovers the past existence of the Dead Poets Society and helps revive it. Of all the boys who take part in the Dead Poets Society, he is the most open to influence and acts as a leader in connecting the boys to their teacher. They are inspired by the poetry they read and recite together. He is friendly and helpful to his shy new roommate Todd Anderson. Neil recognizes in Todd someone needing support and connection and leads him to greater self-acceptance. His own dream of acting and using his true talent is met by the rigid attitude of his family, and when he goes too deeply into rebellion he cannot survive their repression.
Todd Anderson finds it difficult to become a member of the group of boys around him because he lacks any confidence as his own person. He becomes open to Keating's influence and learns to express himself through imaginative language. His self-acceptance grows slowly as he becomes part of the group. At the end of the story he has matured and takes a vital stand for his own independence.
Charlie Dalton is popular and at the center of the group, having the daring to challenge authority with humor and impact. He has a strong personality and learns to mature into being an individual and his own person. He eventually stands up alone for what he believes and has to leave the school.
Knox Overstreet has a wealthy and prominent family. He meets a beautiful girl through his parents' friends and forms a huge crush on her. He uses the romantic imagery from the poetry Keating has given the students to win her heart from a more popular and stronger rival.
Dean Nolan runs the school with unbending authority and adherence to tradition and conformity. Parents send their sons to Welton because of the image he has created and the opportunities it seems to offer them. He wants subject matter taught strictly and according to old-fashioned traditions. He uses verbal and physical punishment on anyone stepping out of line. In investigating the tragic end of Neil Perry, he finds a scapegoat in Keating. He banishes Keating and ends his teaching career.
Mr. Perry will drive his son to a tragic end by refusing to allow him any self-expression in thought or behavior. He cripples Neil with guilt and fear of disappointing his parents and will not consider any compromise in private or public. He resents Keating's influence. His accusations lead to the teacher being blamed for Neil's death and fired.