Roy Grimes, John’s younger half brother. He is indifferent to religion and expected to be in trouble; he does not disappoint. Roy is the favorite of the Reverend Gabriel Grimes, whereas John is the child of his mother’s heart–and sin.
The Reverend Gabriel Grimes, a tyrannical, puritan man, the husband of Elizabeth and father of three of her children, but not of John. Gabriel cannot love John because he cannot forgive the circumstances of his birth; he idealizes his “natural” son, Roy. John represents a child whom Gabriel had conceived with a lover out of wedlock, then abandoned. John thus serves as a reminder of the failure of his own flesh. John also symbolizes for the preacher the former sinfulness of his second wife, Elizabeth.
Brother Elisha, a seventeen-year-old preacher in the storefront church of John’s family, the Temple of the Fire Baptized Congregational Church. He is a young, handsome man, consumed by religious fervor, and he is the object of John’s spiritual and physical longing.
Florence Grimes, Gabriel’s sister and the only person who will stand up to him. She hates him and knows the secrets of his dissolute youth and his fall from grace even after he professed himself saved. In many ways, she is his conscience and his scourge.
Elizabeth Grimes, perhaps the most complex character. She has no conflict with her faith. She is a true believer in the sense that she bears the cross of her past sin–John’s conception–as well as the burdens of her poverty, blackness, and hidden hatred of white people, a loathing brought on by her lover’s suicide. Richard, John’s real father, represented for her a choice between God and lust, a corruption to which she had gladly succumbed. The two leave the South, but before they can be married, yet after Elizabeth is pregnant with John, Richard is jailed for a crime he did not commit. After being acquitted, he cannot live with his understanding that as a black man he is truly “invisible,” denied his humanity. He slashes his wrists, despite Elizabeth’s great love for him. After his death, Elizabeth is lonely, poor, and guilt-ridden; she turns to Gabriel, who promises to become a true father to John.