Pony Curtis is the narrator and protagonist of the story. His elder brother, Darry, brings him up after the death of his parents in a car accident. Though Pony resents him, he is also in awe of him. He also idolizes his middle brother, Soda. All three brothers belong to a gang of poor teenagers called the Greasers, named for their long, oily hair. Their bitter rivals are the Socs, the rich kids living on the west side of town. Pony is involved in the murder of a Soc named Bob. After the killing, he runs away with his friend Johnny to Windrixville. There they hide in an abandoned church. When the church catches on fire, they bravely rescue some children trapped in it. Johnny is badly injured and has to be hospitalized. When he dies, Pony is completely shattered. He cannot reconcile himself to his friend's death until he reads a letter Johnny has left for him telling him to 'stay gold' and to continue appreciating sunsets. He finally understands that with hard work he can overcome his circumstances and not remain an outsider all his life. Pony then adopts a mission for himself to tell the rest of the world about the odds that under-privileged children have to face. He also realizes and appreciates how much Darry loves and cares for him.


Johnny Cade is a member of the Greasers whom the other gang members try to protect. His father constantly beats him up, and his mother either ignores his presence or screams at him. He becomes a nervous wreck after he is terribly beaten up by the Socs. He starts carrying a switchblade in his pocket; when he and Pony are attacked by the Socs, he uses the knife to kill Bob in self-defense. He hides with Pony in an abandoned church in Windrixville and heroically rescues children who are trapped in the church after it catches fire. During the rescue, a burning beam falls on his back, and he later dies in a hospital. Before dying, he tells Dally that 'fighting's no good' and asks Pony to 'stay gold.' Even after death, his spirit reaches out to Pony in the form of a letter which he leaves for him, exhorting him to remain pure and rise above being an outsider. The letter motivates Pony to tell the rest of the world that it is wrong to judge children by the amount of hair oil they wear.

Dallas Winston (Dally) is the toughest, coldest, and meanest of the Greasers. He has been in and out of jail since the age of ten. He gives Pony and Johnny a gun and some money when they come to him after Bob's death. He also tells them where to hide. During the rescue, Dally plunges into the burning church to rescue Johnny, who is trapped under a beam. Upset by Johnny's death, he threatens the police with an unloaded gun after robbing a store. He dies without the world knowing about his qualities or the reasons for his delinquency.