Julien Sorel, the novel's 19-year-old protagonist, possesses striking looks and intelligence as well as sensitivity, driving ambition, and overweening pride. Born into a working-class family, Julien is determined to become a great success; his role model is the world conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte. Although he has no faith in God or the Church, he aspires to become a priest and then move up in the ranks of the Church hierarchy. Meanwhile women find him irresistible, and his romantic entanglements, fueled by his pride and ambition, lead him into grave trouble.
Madame de Rênal
Madame Louise de Rênal is the beautiful and unassuming wife of the most important man in town, Mayor M. de Rênal. She marries M. de Rênal because he is the least obnoxious of the men who court her as a young woman; together they have three children whom she adores. She is about 30 when Julien arrives to tutor her children; suddenly she is in love for the first time. Her passion for Julien is all-consuming; she loves him even more than God. This liaison leads to tragedy for both her and Julien.
Mathilde de la Mole
Mathilde de la Mole, daughter of the Marquis de la Mole, is an aristocrat who is used to being fawned over for her standing, her beauty, and her intelligence; in return, she treats most people with disrespect. She has many suitors, but when Julien arrives as a secretary to her father, she develops a fascination for him that leads to a dark love affair. Mathilde becomes pregnant with Julien's child and then embroiled in his previous romance.
Marquis de la Mole
The Marquis de la Mole is Mathilde's father and Julien Sorel's benefactor. The Marquis is an old-school aristocrat, but he also recognizes merit and nobility in people who are not of his class. Julien is one such person; the Marquis advances him in society and becomes his friend. In the end Julien betrays him by having an affair with Mathilde.