Junior's humorous and reflective voice guides the novel. He is a Native American teenager whose unusual looks and intellectual curiosity set him apart from other members of his tribe. The bullying he receives informs his cynical worldview and strengthens his resolve to achieve his goals. He draws cartoons as a vital form of self-expression and hopes to become an artist. Junior aspires to the academic and artistic success his community members associate with white people, but feels connected and obligated to his Native American family and friends, whom he loves. He spends the novel caught between two worlds, a tension symbolized by his two names.
Rowdy, described as "the toughest kid on the rez" is tall, lean, and physically aggressive. His constant anger and abusive family cause him to get into fistfights frequently, including fights with Junior. Rowdy also has a gentle, vulnerable side; he loves comic books and values his friends. Since Rowdy doesn't like to display emotion, few people see this side of him. Rowdy is the most important person in Junior's life, and the temporary loss of Rowdy as a friend propels much of Junior's pain in the novel.
Dad lives on the reservation in poverty, drinking frequently. He enjoys singing and playing music but didn't have the money or support to become a musician. Dad's drinking often interferes with his responsibilities, and he's frequently depressed. But he strives to be a good parent to Junior and his sister, attending all their games and events.
Mom has an encyclopedic intelligence and memory. She loves reading and buys books whenever she can. She doesn't drink as much as Dad but is still affected by alcohol in the home. She supports Junior's academic ambitions, despite warning him the reservation will see him as a traitor. During the novel, Mom deals with the loss of both her mother and her daughter, and her grief compels her to protect Junior more.
Mary is smart, sarcastic, and curious. She's known as "Mary Runs Away" on the reservation, foreshadowing her move to Montana. Her dream to write romance novels shows creativity and longing for a better life. She's reckless, marrying a high-risk gambler. Though a teacher describes Mary as smarter than Junior, she lacks his drive and ambition, living in her parents' basement after high school. Mary's risky drinking leads inadvertently to her early death.