The character of protagonist Robert Ross was inspired by T. E. Lawrence and the author's uncle, Thomas Irving Findley, to whom the author dedicated the novel. Findley named the character after Canadian literary figure Robbie Ross.
Robert Ross enlisted when he was eighteen and served as a second lieutenant in the Canadian field artillery from 1916-1917.
He is a compassionate, handsome fellow. He is also an idealist, hindered by youth and inexperience. Robert's personality is serious, practical, determined, and observant of things that other people cannot see. His observations also allow him to react quickly to the situations he encounters in this novel. Robert suffers great guilt over the accidental death of his sister, Rowena, who died from a fall onto cement ground in the barn. After Rowena's death, Robert became distant from his mother and much closer to his father, who continued to support and encourage him throughout his experience in the war.
Rowena's death also leaves him with violent streaks and leads an internal war with himself while also trying to cope with the war going on in the world. Even though Robert is determined, he was not a natural killer; this weakness was seen in his inability to kill the injured horse or Rowena's rabbits. Robert strove to learn from Eugene Taffler, whom Robert hoped could help teach him to kill by example. After all the terrible things Robert witnesses, he gradually descends into madness, and goes AWOL. He kills two fellow officers in an attempt to save hundreds of horses from slaughter.
He dies of his war wounds several years after the war ends.
Rowena is Robert's older sister, with whom Robert felt a connection from a very early age. She was hydrocephalic, meaning she was born with water in the brain. This caused her to have an adult-sized head but a body of a ten-year-old, and made her unable to walk. Robert acted as her guardian for most of his life. She was 25 years old when she fell out of her wheelchair onto the concrete floor of their barn and shortly after died. Robert took it as his duty to protect her, but Robert was in his room masturbating when she fell out of her chair. Thus, he feels guilty throughout the novel for inadvertently causing her death. She remains in Robert's heart and mind throughout the novel and is constantly referenced.
Rowena had ten rabbits that she looked after and kept as pets while she was alive, but Mrs. Ross insisted that they be killed, against Robert's wishes, shortly after Rowena's death. Robert's desperate attempts to save animals throughout his war experiences reflects his love for the dead animal-loving sister.
The character of Rowena was inspired by Mary Macdonald, daughter of Sir John A. Macdonald, who was similarly afflicted with hydrocephalus.
Commonly referred to as Mr. Ross in the novel, he is the wealthy father of protagonist Robert Ross. He was the more lenient parent in the family and loved every member enough to encourage Robert to go for what he wants while withstanding the accusations surrounding Rowena's death. His relationship with his wife became helpless after Rowena's death and Robert's enlisting in the army. He has a strong relationship with his son Robert, and he is the only member of the family to attend Robert's funeral.
Marian Turner is a young nurse during the war. She cares for Robert when he is injured late in the novel, but the reader is introduced to her earlier. Via transcripts of interviews, an 80-year old Marian gives accounts of what Robert was like as a young man, and of life during the war.
Lady Juliet d'Orsey
Juliet d'Orsey gives an account of Robert, whom she knew at the age of twelve and for whom she had romantic feelings. She is Barbara d'Orsey's younger sister, who saw too much and acted too maturely for her age. Interestingly, she seems to be the only character who understands the delicate homoerotic undertones in male friendships without being confused or disturbed by them.
Lady Barbara d'Orsey
This lady is Juliet's older sister, who became Robert's lover at a point in the novel. She was uncaring and moved easily from one man to another. She admired athletes and heroes. She constantly frustrated the delicate homoerotic relationships around her without understanding her own destructiveness.
This man was a war hero who was often accompanied by a dog and a horse. From the very beginning when he is first introduced, he plays the game of hitting bottles off of posts with stones, displaying strength and perfect accuracy. This reflects Taffler's reputation in the war as a soldier who kills as though it were some kind of game.
He later loses his arms. When Taffler loses his arms he no longer wants to live because his arms were so much a part of him and his identity that without them he doesn't have the will to live. He attempts suicide, by rubbing his stubs against the wall, but is thwarted by Lady Juliet d'Orsey. Taffler's reputation and self-image are linked closely with his arms. First as he's introduced using them to hit bottles with stones, and even later when he helps Robert toss Harris's ashes into the river.
Taffler is a complex character because although when introduced, Robert makes Taffler his model of masculinity. Later, upon discovering him having sex with the Swede, Robert's homophobia causes him to cease regarding Taffler as a role model. Nevertheless, Taffler goes on to have a seemingly heterosexual relationship with Barbara d'Orsey. It is also noteworthy that Robert himself may have been struggling with his own homosexual tendencies.
Robert meets Harris in the ship's infirmary. Harris's condition grows progressively worse while in England and he eventually dies before being sent off to France. While under Robert's care at a hospital, Harris talks at great length of his love of the sea. Robert describes Harris as someone he loved deeply.