Celie is the main character of the novel. She is shown to have experienced abuse at the hands of men for most of her life: she is routinely beaten and raped by her supposed father, with whom she has two children during her adolescence and whom he gives away. He later gives her away to be married to Mister, who is in love with Shug Avery, a blues singer. When Shug comes to recover from an illness in Mister and Celie's home, it leads to an intimate relationship between Celie and Shug.
Celie and Shug's relationship later develops a romantic and sexual dimension culminating in their sleeping together, this being Celie's first positive sexual experience. Shug has a significant influence on Celie, who begins to draw inspiration from Shug's independence, leading her ultimately to her own independent attitude. Shug not only influences the way that Celie allows Mister to treat her, but also shows Celie that actions deemed sinful by others may not truly be evil or transgressive and that they do not prevent one from believing in and living for God, thereby broadening Celie's views on religion and ethics.
It is also Shug who frees Celie from Mister's bondage, first by loving her, then by helping her to start a custom sewing business. From Shug, Celie learns that Mister, now revealed as Albert, has been hiding letters written to her by her sister Nettie, who is in Africa working as a missionary. These letters, full of educated, firsthand observation of African life, form a moving counterpoint to Celie's life. They reveal that in Africa, just as in America, women are persistently oppressed by men.
Nettie is Celie's younger sister, whom Celie loves and saves from living the tragic life that she had to endure. Because Nettie is prettier than Celie, who has been deemed ugly, Mister is originally interested in Nettie as a wife, but settles for Celie. Nettie runs away from home to be with Celie, but is unable to stay with Celie as Mister tries to assault her sexually. As a result, Nettie leaves home and before leaving, promises to write to Celie and tells her that only death can keep them apart. Nettie is eventually taken in by Samuel and Corrine, a missionary couple, with whom she travels to Africa as a missionary.
While in Africa, Nettie becomes the caregiver of Samuel and Corrine's children and faithfully writes to Celie for decades. Nettie marries Samuel after Corrine's death and moves back to America with what are revealed to be Celie's biological children. Through explaining her experiences to Celie, Nettie encourages Celie to be more enthusiastic and optimistic about life. Nettie finds that while there is not racial disparity in Africa, gender disparity exists. The women of the tribe are not treated as equals, and are not permitted to attend school.
A sultry blues singer who first appears as Mister's mistress, Shug becomes Celie's friend and eventually her lover. Shug remains a gentle mentor who helps Celie evolve into an independent and assertive woman. At first, Shug doesn't appear to be the mothering and nurturing kind, yet she nurtures Celie physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Shug helps Celie discover the letters from her sister Nettie that Mister had been hiding for decades. In allowing Celie to view these letters, Shug supplies her with even more hope and inspiration, letting Celie see that in the end, everything works out for the best.
Albert (known as Mister)
Mister is the man to whom Celie is married. Originally, he seeks a relationship with Nettie but settles for Celie. Mister mistreats Celie just as her stepfather had, although Celie does not understand that she doesn't have to tolerate the abuse. Mister uses Celie to help raise his children, who give her a hard time because she is not their biological mother. When Shug Avery comes to town, Mister falls for her and makes her his mistress. Through Shug's seductive influence, Albert begins to treat Celie better. In the end, Albert realizes that he has mistreated Celie and seeks a friendship with her.