The only wage earner in the family, Tom is frustrated by having to work at a job he detests to support his mother and sister. He desires adventure and seeks escape by drinking, writing poetry, and going to the movies. He is desperate to leave home and be on his own. His mother's tight and relentless control over his life has tested his tolerance. He knows if he doesn't leave soon, he will bury his dreams and happiness in his present "coffin-like" existence. However, he is torn between his devotion to Laura, whom he cannot abandon emotionally, and his own needs. Eventually he does escape by joining the Merchant Marines, yet he cannot be content because of his attachment to her.
Amanda Wingfield is a middle-aged woman struggling to function in difficult times with little money and less hope. She is characterized by her ineffectual attempts to ensure financial stability and her often annoying, unrealistic, and equally ineffectual attempts at optimism. Williams calls her "heroic." She is a combination of selfishness and selflessness: she honestly believes what is good for her children is good for her, and vice versa. She wistfully remembers her days as an attractive and flirtatious "Southern belle," enjoying a carefree life and courted by prominent and financially secure young men. She clings not only to memories but to the manners and customs of her youth, which are outdated and out of place in Depression-era St. Louis and thus may seem ridiculous. She tries to control her adult children, both of whom are completely unlike her—much to her confusion—with her exacting demands, but she does love and worry about them even though she cannot understand why their aspirations are not the same as hers.
Laura Wingfield is a 23-year-old woman with a beauty as delicate as handmade lace and as fragile as her glass menagerie. She contracted the respiratory disease pleurosis as a child, and it left her with a slight limp, a leg brace, no confidence, and little sense of social interaction. Her mother's and brother's attempts to protect her because of her incapacity have caused Laura to feel ashamed, unequal to other young women, and incapable of living in the real world. Instead, she lives in an illusionary world of glass animals she endows with thinking and feeling abilities, and she listens to records her father left behind when he abandoned them.
According to Tom (and the playwright), Jim O'Connor is the only person who functions well in the world as it is. A clerk in the shoe warehouse, Jim has conventional ambitions of working in the new field of television and is taking courses to prepare for the future—which seems clear to him. He is a gregarious extrovert and was popular in high school. Laura had a crush on him in those days, drawn to his melodious singing voice, his genuine good nature, and his nickname for her: Blue Roses.