Marlowe is 33 years old, college educated, independent, and irreverent. In his clipped dialogue he makes wisecracks and sarcastic remarks to everyone from millionaires to dangerous thugs. When there's no one else to defy, he turns witty lines in his head, for his own—and the reader's—entertainment. He dresses well but lives a lonely man's life, conducting business from a cheap and unimpressive office. He can read people and situations, an essential skill in his profession, and one that puts him at the top of his field, despite his lower level earnings. Unlike Sherlock Holmes's reliance on logic alone, Marlowe's detection technique consists of getting directly involved in a situation, stirring things up to see what happens, reading cues and clues, and following up despite risk and temptation. His loyalty, once given, is absolute. He serves his client's interests, protects his reputation, and suffers beatings. He is a modern-day knight.
Despite his wealth and position, General Sternwood seems quite powerless, his physical incapacity a metaphor for his emotional ineffectiveness. His daughters, especially the younger one, have disappointed him, living on the wild side. A first-time father in his mid-50s General Sternwood attributes his lack of parental control to his age and inexperience with children. His immense wealth, physical immobility, and choice not to interact with them suggest a laxity that accompanies great privilege.
Well-educated and sophisticated Vivian Regan is used to getting what she wants because she is attractive and rich. She uses her looks and wealth to manipulate people, especially men. When crossed she is known to explode with anger. A verbal equal to Marlowe, she seems less of a moral equal, for she gambles heavily and associates with gangsters. However, she shows great loyalty to those she cares about and goes to great lengths and risks to protect them.
At first Carmen Sternwood seems merely a cliché: a spoiled rich girl used to toying with people's affection and getting what she wants. She attempts to seduce Marlowe but he finds her methods cloying and off- putting. More than a spoiled rich girl, Carmen is seriously disturbed and violent. A casual and often excessive user of dangerous, addictive drugs, she is so far from the social and ethical norm she can sit naked in a room with a newly dead corpse and laugh. When she gets upset, she becomes unhinged, hissing at Marlowe and eventually having something like an epileptic fit. When Marlowe turns her sexual advances down, she tries to kill him. He eventually surmises she is a killer.