- Mark Renton – the main character and antihero of the novel, Renton is the voice of (relative) sanity among his group of friends, many of whom he cannot stand. He narrates his daily life – from supporting his heroin addiction with dole money and petty theft to interacting with the "normal world" – with a cynical, black-humoured eye. He is capable of fitting in well enough to common society, is relatively good-looking and of above-average intelligence, but is misanthropic and depressed, and uses heroin both as a means to withdraw and to give meaning to his life. Despite his dislike of animals, he is a vegetarian, and unlike most of his circle an avid reader, at one point being caught for shoplifting political theory books.
- Simon "Sick Boy" Williamson – A slick, promiscuous, amoral con artist, and Renton's oldest friend. He picks up women with ease on account of his handsomeness and facile charm and flaunts this quality in front of his friends. He is often on the lookout for potential scams, and despite his friendly, charming facade, he generally regards the women he seduces, who he often subjects to confidence tricks, with little more than contempt. By the end of the novel, he has become a pimp of young girls. He also practices blackmail and makes a hobby of shooting dogs. Essentially, a combination of Byronic hero and villain, he becomes even more immoral after the death of his daughter Dawn, who asphyxiates while her mother Lesley and Sick Boy are on a heroin binge (Sick Boy outwardly denies parental responsibility until years after the fact, but it is heavily implied that he blames himself for Dawn's death). Sick Boy considers himself above everyone he interacts with in terms of restraint, and moral fibre, despite being one of the most shallow and callous characters in the novel. It is revealed throughout the novel that even the psychotically violent Begbie at times has a superior moral compass. When thinking to himself, he often imagines he is speaking with Sean Connery. While Begbie represents unavoidable, unanswerable violence to the antihero of the novel, Sick Boy represents cold, calculated expediency, the type of life that Renton would have if he had no conscience or moral restraints. In spite of his apparent sociopathy he has historically shown himself to have been more disciplined in terms of substance abuse than Renton, having gone through a period of alcoholism once during withdrawal from heroin, but still having found it easier than Renton to come off it at various times, and Renton believes he gets pleasure from reminding him of the fact.
- Daniel "Spud" Murphy – Naive and childlike, Spud is both the whipping boy and only real source of comfort among Renton's circle of friends; they feel genuinely protective of him, even as they repeatedly mock and take advantage of him. Although very light-fingered, Spud is notably more kindhearted than his friends, shown, for instance, in his love for animals. Spud represents the product of a society indifferent to social ills; he uses heroin because it feels good and because the simple truth is that he would not be able to achieve anything even when sober. He suffers from kleptomania. Spud is sent to Saughton prison for a section of the novel for petty theft.
- Francis "Franco" Begbie – A violent psychopath, Begbie terrorises his "friends" into going along with whatever he says, assaulting and brutalising anyone who angers him. He expresses intense loyalty to his friends, who nonetheless are terrified of him, though he considers junkies to be the lowest form of life, despite being thoroughly addicted himself to alcohol, amphetamine, and, most notably, the adrenaline rush of violence. He is part of the Capital City Service football hooligan gang.
- Davie Mitchell – The "everyman" of the novel, Davie seems to be the most "normal" of the characters. Unlike the others, he is a university graduate and holds down a decent job, and represents, to a degree, the "straight life" most of the characters try to avoid. He is not immune to the dangers of his environment, however, and his life is thrown into chaos when he contracts HIV; his experiences with the disease form the basis of the story in the chapter "Bad Blood".
- Tommy Laurence – A childhood friend of Renton's, Tommy does not use heroin and seems completely content to drink, use speed, play football, and listen to Iggy Pop. However, he is insecure and depends on others for validation; when his girlfriend dumps him, he numbs the depression by experimenting with heroin, grudgingly provided by Renton. His resulting addiction, downfall and death weigh on Renton's conscience (and, in part, provoke him to seriously attempt sobriety).
- Rab "Second Prize" McLaughlin – A friend of the main group, who is often inebriated due to drinking vast amounts of alcohol. His nickname comes from the fact that he gets into many fights whilst drunk, and always loses. He had a promising career as a pro footballer lined up, but ruined his chances when he became an alcoholic, and returned home in shame. His girlfriend Carol eventually breaks up with him due to his constant inebriated state. Second Prize often makes a fool of himself whilst drunk, so far as to put his drug addicted friends to shame and embarrassment. He goes to London in the conclusion of the book with the others, and spends the whole time intoxicated.
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