Kinbote never says which department he teaches in, but he is a skilled translator of Shakespeare into Zemblan, the language of the novel's fictional country, Zembla. He is attentive to wordplay, poetic rhythm, and imagery. However, he is obtuse about other people's opinions. He sometimes appears to be unaware he is disliked in the town and at the university. He considers Shade a "dear friend," but he does not notice how Shade tries to avoid him. He blames any reluctance of Shade's on his wife, Sybil. Kinbote enjoys a steady stream of young male lovers, although he is sometimes disappointed by them. He is also petty and snobbish. He sometimes imagines he has delivered a crushing insult, though usually its meaning is too obscure to hit the mark. King Charles is an aesthete who enjoys the beauty of mountain hikes, theater, and poetry. He has loved men ever since he was attracted to his best friend Oleg, Duke of Rahl. As a king, it is Charles's duty to produce an heir, but although he loves his wife Disa, he cannot bring himself to consummate their marriage.
Shade is an unattractive man with a "misshapen body," a "gray mop of abundant hair," and "bags under his lusterless eyes." He enjoys some fame as a poet, and he also teaches in the English department at Wordsmith College. Shade is curious about the afterlife, especially after the death of his daughter, Hazel, in 1957. However, Shade is an atheist. He loves his wife deeply and he mourns his daughter. He tolerates his neighbor, Kinbote, rather than truly liking him.
Gradus is a man of action with a dull intellect. He studied pharmacology in Zurich and later become "an itinerant wine taster." Later, he "engaged in petty subversive activities" and joined the revolutionary Extremist party in Zembla. As a member of the Shadows, Gradus is chosen to assassinate the exiled King Charles. Gradus lacks curiosity and sophistication. He is satisfied with reading informational inserts in drug packages, rather than seeking out more challenging literature. He had a wife, and later he had an affair with his mother-in-law. But ultimately, he seems to dislike sex, and he tried to castrate himself to be rid of sexual urges.