- Joe Trace, a door-to-door cosmetics salesman and the murderer of his young lover.
- Violet Trace, an unlicensed beautician. Violet is married to Joe. She is nicknamed "Violent" because she assaulted the corpse of Joe’s lover with a knife at the funeral.
- Dorcas, Joe's young lover, who is shot down at a party. Dorcas is inspired by a picture from The Harlem Book of the Dead (a collection of funeral photographs by James Van Der Zee).
- Alice Manfred, Dorcas' aunt and guardian. A conservative Christian ashamed by her niece's behavior. Alice enters into an unusual friendship with Violet.
- Felice, a friend of Dorcas' who goes to the Trace household in search of answers.
- Golden Gray, a mixed race man from the 19th century. Golden appears in both Joe's and Violet's histories.
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