As the first-person narrator of the story, Ponyboy Curtis is the most complex character in the book. He is an intelligent but downtrodden teen with two older brothers. Their parents have died in a car accident. Ponyboy is often at odds with Darry, his oldest brother who is now head of the household and in charge of Ponyboy. But by the end of the novel, Ponyboy realizes Darry has his best interests at heart and is always looking out for him. Ponyboy is a greaser but doesn't really fit into the mold of a typical hood due to his brains and sensitivity. Still he is close with the other greasers and feels as if they are his other adopted brothers. He is especially close to Johnny, another sensitive greaser who breaks the mold. Ponyboy almost drowns when a Soc holds his head under water, but Johnny saves him by knifing one of the Socs. Ponyboy and Johnny run away together and end up heroes when they save some schoolchildren from a burning building. When Johnny dies from severe burns and a broken back, Ponyboy takes it very hard and becomes physically ill and psychologically tormented. He copes with his losses by writing about them.
Johnny Cade, a member of the greaser gang, has it "awful rough at home." His alcoholic father beats him, and his mother uses her only son as a scapegoat. Even more damaging is the fact that his parents don't even notice whether or not he comes home at night. Four months before the story begins, Johnny was jumped by a carload of Socs and brutally beaten, which has further increased his depression and anxiety. All the other greasers know Johnny's situation and try to help him. Ponyboy, Johnny's best friend, describes him as a "puppy that has been kicked too many times and is lost in a crowd of strangers." But Johnny also shows a certain fearlessness. To protect Ponyboy from drowning, Johnny knifes Bob, the aggressive, bullying Soc. And Johnny doesn't hesitate to run into a burning building to rescue some schoolchildren he doesn't even know. He dies from his injuries and will be remembered as a hero.
Dally Winston is the most hardened criminal among the greasers, though he is only 17. He has been in and out of jail ever since he was 10 years old. He spent a stint living in New York City and running with true street gangs. Dally's life philosophy is not to get too attached and always look out for number one. But his one weak spot seems to be Johnny, whom Dally tries to help and protect. Johnny's death rips Dally apart emotionally, so he robs a grocery store. When the police corner him, Dally pulls out an unloaded gun, causing the police to open fire and kill him.
Darry Curtis, older brother of Ponyboy and Soda, functions as the head of the family since both their parents died in a car accident. He is strict with his brothers, especially Ponyboy, the younger and more promising brother. Darry had ambitions and a scholarship to attend college, but he dropped out to support his two younger brothers by working two jobs, one as a roofer. Darry is both brawny and brainy. Two-Bit once remarks that "the only thing that keeps Darry from bein' a Soc is us," and Ponyboy agrees that Darry is "too smart to be a greaser."
Soda Curtis is Ponyboy's favorite brother, the middle child in the family. He is movie-star handsome and has all the girls swooning over him. He dropped out of high school due to abysmal grades and works full time in a gas station, a job he seems to enjoy. He wants to marry his girlfriend, Sandy, even after she gets pregnant by another boy. But Sandy refuses his offer and instead moves in with her grandmother in Florida. Soda often functions as an intermediary between strict Darry and sensitive Ponyboy. When he admits to his brothers at the end of the book that he isn't comfortable with that role, his brothers agree to stop arguing so much.
Cherry Valance is one of the two Soc girls that Ponyboy and Johnny meet and befriend at the drive-in movie theater, the event that kicks off a storm of aggression from the Socs toward the greasers, even worse than their usual rivalry. She is Bob's girlfriend and is able to see his better qualities, though she doesn't deny his tendency to bully others. Cherry isn't comfortable with violence and tries to help the greasers, even after Bob's death. But she refuses to visit Johnny in the hospital because Johnny is Bob's actual killer. Cherry is full of contradictions, but her contrasting traits make sense in her violent, nonsensical world where social class differences can lead to death.
Two-Bit Mathews is easygoing and loves to wisecrack. Having been left back, he is still a junior in high school though he is 18 years old. He likes school despite his poor performance, probably due to its more social aspects. He is famous for shoplifting and his jet-handled switchblade. His tendency to steal anything not nailed down, coupled with his lack of ambition, make Two-Bit seem like a true greaser. Though not the best role model, he is like another older brother to Ponyboy, often hanging out with him and always having his back.