For most of her life Celie is brutalized, sexually assaulted, and treated unjustly. Alphonso denies her any schooling, saying she is too ugly and stupid. She never understands she is a beautiful, intelligent person, capable of realizing personal and financial joy until Shug Avery becomes her advocate. Her role with Alphonso is that of a sexual outlet and a caretaker to her younger siblings. Her husband, Albert, whom she refers to only as Mr. ___, continues to abuse her physically, mentally, and emotionally by forcing her into a life of servitude until she abandons him to live with Shug in Memphis.
Through her relationships with assertive, independent women she begins her quest to find a life where she will be free physically, sexually, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. Shug Avery teaches her how to love herself, to enjoy romantic love, to defend herself from male dominance, and to use her own skills to become independent financially. Sofia models assertiveness, attitude, and strength under pressure. Nettie, as well as Shug, represents all that is good, pure, and decent in life as they are the only people who have ever shown Celie love. She is the only family Celie has ever known and wanted. Her disappearance cracks Celie's heart. These three women are significant influences in Celie's transformation from a submissive victim to a formidable woman.
Nettie is a witness to her sister's physical and sexual assaults, but is not a victim of them. Alphonso permits her to remain in school because she shows academic promise. Understanding how much Celie wants to learn, Nettie teaches her sister the same lessons she learns. When she moves in with Celie and her husband to avoid Alphonso's advances, she continues to tutor Celie. When Albert evicts her from his home because she shuns him, she moves in with Samuel and Corrine who continue her education. Her views about social expectations and mores, religion, and people mature as she travels to New York City, London, and Africa. Still Celie's teacher, through her letters, she shares her experiences and thoughts with her sister.
Alphonso, also known as Fonso and Pa, is Celie's first abuser and a rapist. He impregnates her twice. She refers to him only as He. After each baby is born, he takes it from her. Upon his death, he leaves his house and store to Celie as a way to atone for the wrongs he inflicted upon her.
Although his given name is Albert, Celie calls him Mr. ___. He is a domineering man who practices the belief that a wife is nothing more than her husband's property and should be beaten into submission. His father refused to allow him to marry Shug Avery, the woman he truly loves, so he takes out his anger on Celie.
After Celie and Shug leave him, he falls into a deep depression and almost dies. He starts to recuperate when Harpo convinces him to send Celie the rest of Nettie's letters. Purged of his deceit, he transforms into a thoughtful man, always searching to find answers to life's Why questions. He not only takes pride in keeping himself neat and clean, but he tends his fields and renovates his home. When Celie returns to town, he initiates a civil relationship with her that evolves into an abiding friendship.
Named Lillie by her mother, but known as Queen Honeybee to the people who follow her singing career, and as Sugar to Celie, Shug Avery is a woman who craves male attention. Initially, she acts hatefully to Celie because Albert chose to marry the timid girl instead of her.
After appreciating Celie's sincere care while she nurses her back to health, Shug is angered that Albert cruelly dominates his wife. Shug pushes Celie to find intelligence, beauty, and value in her body, mind, and heart. She teaches her that her emotions are a valuable asset and that once she frees them, her confidence will grow. She is Celie's true friend and staunch supporter, and also her lover.
Harpo truly wants to be a kind-hearted and supportive husband to Sofia. He admires her boldness, her honest approach with people, and her substantial physical appearance. He is conflicted by his father's oppressive ways toward his wives and tries to rule his wife. She refuses to obey him and fights back when he tries to beat her and deflate her spirit.
He is a natural at cooking and taking care of the children, and he enjoys these responsibilities. Tending the crops and repairing their home's roof are tasks Sofia likes. These gender role reversals do not conform to society's standards, though, and add stress to his life. Only after Sofia leaves does he understand and accept that it is acceptable for men and woman to have traits that cross gender lines.
Sofia is a forceful female who never flinches from standing up to family, friends, and social norms. Although she loves Harpo, she can't stay with him because of his domineering attitude and actions. She seethes at Miss Millie's condescending scrutiny of her children. She verbally disrespects a white woman, punches the mayor, and is jailed for 12 years. Her inner strength empowers her to survive an 11-and-a-half-year sentence as a maid to Miss Millie and a nanny to the woman's children. She and Harpo resume their marriage after she is paroled.