Humbert Humbert is a European intellectual, an émigré who lives an itinerant life in the United States, working as an academic at both Beardsley College for Women and Cantrip College. He is self-absorbed, condescending, sardonic, and cold, an intellectual snob who sees himself as superior to everyone he meets. He has been in and out of psychiatric wards in his life, although he is disdainful of Freud and psychology. So used to living in his mind, in his own imagination, that he sometimes seems insane, he does not find adult women sexually attractive. He is a pedophile who is aroused by prepubescent girls. He is sexually obsessed with one 12-year-old in particular, Dolores Haze, whom he calls Lolita. Throughout the novel Humbert attempts to deceive his readers (and a potential jury—he is awaiting trial for murder) into believing he was wronged by Lolita, not the other way around. He presents himself as a dramatic, romantic hero, but his behavior is in turn self-pitying, violent, self-dramatizing, cowardly, and cold, and he seldom shows empathy for other human beings. Though he denies it through his elaborate language, Humbert has held Lolita captive, raped her, kept her isolated, and threatened her.
Humbert portrays his victim Lolita (real name Dolores Haze) at the beginning of the novel as a lively, innocent 12-year-old girl who is vulnerable because she has been neglected by her mother. He characterizes her as spirited, intelligent, and sly, trying to get attention and her own way. He views her as a bit dramatic, and he notes later that she enjoys being involved in the theater. She loves American pop culture—movies, movie magazines, and advertisements—and speaks using typical American teenage slang. As the novel continues over six years, and because of the trauma of Humbert's cruel treatment of her, Lolita becomes alienated, cynical, and quick to see through adults' pretensions. She has ceased to expect much from life. When readers last see her she is a pregnant, tired, world-weary 17-year-old wife (Dolly Schiller), who still has it in her to call Humbert Humbert "honey" even as she refuses to leave with him.
Charlotte Haze is Lolita's mother. She is, at least according to Humbert, a 30ish, conventional, humorless, unimaginative, and somewhat desperate widow from whom Humbert rents a room. She neglects her daughter and sees her as nothing but trouble. She attempts a sophistication that is often comic, and idealizes Humbert partly because of his European background.
Clare Quilty is a playwright and a friend of Lolita's mother, Charlotte. He has written many plays for children, including The Little Nymph and The Enchanted Hunters. He is a pedophile and a pornographer. He meets Lolita when she performs in a rehearsal of The Enchanted Hunters at the Beardsley School for girls, and the two concoct a plan for her escape from Humbert. Clare Quilty is also Humbert Humbert's double, or shadow. He shadows Humbert throughout the novel, following him across the United States in his Aztec-red car, fighting with him hand to hand, and even showing up in Who's Who in the Limelight, which Humbert finds in the prison library. Quilty is a more negative version of Humbert, with fewer morals and a simpler, more rapacious lust for Lolita. Some critics have said that when he kills Quilty, Humbert is killing the worst part of himself.