At the start of the novel, Cole is a fifteen-year old convicted juvenile delinquent from Minneapolis. He most recently has been put in detention for violently hitting and assaulting a classmate named Peter Driscal who had turned Cole in for robbing a store. His parents do not know what to do with him anymore. In frustration and while drunk, his father often beats him while his mother rarely defends him. Cole initially shows no remorse for his actions, no intentions of changing his ways, and harbors a deep anger at the world and particularly at his parents. He is mean and uncharitable even with those who try to help him such as the prison guard Garvey and the Indian tribesman Edwin.
Garvey works in the juvenile justice system, and he has focused his efforts on helping Cole out of his difficult situation. He had his own run-ins with the law back in his youth, and he is determined to help other youth stop ruining their lives. He is the first one to propose that Cole go through Circle Justice, and he even comes in to the juvenile detention center on weekends to talk to Cole and help him through difficult times, even though Cole initially shows him no respect or appreciation.
Edwin is a Tlingit Indian from Drake, Alaska who is brought in to help Cole through his time of banishment on an island by the Tlingit village of Drake. In his youth, he was banished to the same island as Cole for a year, and he truly wants to help Cole in his path to healing. He often speaks in metaphor, using nature imagery, and he teaches Cole different Indian dances and routines on the island that help him through the difficult times.
Cole's father seems at first to be very generous in trying to help his son, but the reader soon learns that he has a terrible drinking problem. When he gets drunk, he used to beat Cole frequently, and this experience was central to Cole's own anger and violence. Recently, he and Cole's mother have been divorced.
Cole's mother is a very passive woman who always overdresses for events. For these and other reasons, Cole feels very distant from her and cannot truly open up to her. She shares in the drinking habit that plagues Cole's father, and as he would beat up Cole at nights, she would simply stand passively at the side, never defending her son. She is extremely frightened of contradicting her husband, even though they have recently divorced.
The Keeper, whose real name is never revealed, is a middle-aged woman who runs the "Circles" during which community members discuss Cole Matthews' sentencing. She insists that no one in the circle speak unless they hold a feather, and while at the beginning she portrays the air of an impartial and confident leader, when Cole's case becomes more challenging towards the middle of the book, she is portrayed as frustrated and unable to make sense of the situation.
Peter is a young fifteen-year-old who was badly beaten up by Cole. Since Cole went as far as smashing his head repeatedly against the sidewalk, Peter's injuries have left him with a speech problem and vivid nightmares. He is shy, quiet, and terrified of Cole's presence after that moment forward. He too harbors anger, but it is directed against Cole. The reader comes to know Peter and his own path to healing in the second half of the book, as Cole comes to see that their two paths of forgiveness and healing are intertwined.
Peter's parents are present at the circles and are portrayed as distraught about their son's condition following the beating. They fear that Cole will be released again and come to attack their son, and so they are opposed to any type of Circle Justice that would make Cole a threat to others. In the last few chapters of the book, they take on a bigger role and are portrayed as truly desperate in their search to find healing for their son Peter.
Although an animal, the Spirit Bear is a truly central character in this novel. Hardly a chapter goes by without a mention of him. His presence on the island is almost mythical since Spirit Bears are supposed to live somewhere southeast of the island. However, Cole repeatedly sees the bear in his first few days on the island. When he assaults the Spirit Bear, it violently retaliates against Cole. While the figure assumes a highly symbolic role, its real existence as a formidable beast to be reckoned with is a strong counter to Cole's own pride and anger.
Rosey is the nurse that treats Cole after he is mauled by the Spirit Bear. She treats him with the utmost compassion and understanding. She is also resourceful since she works by herself in the tiny town of Drake, Alaska where the Tlingit Indians live.
As Cole's parole officer, Garvey seems to be the only person in his life who continues to believe in Cole and is persistent in getting him to see his mistakes and change. At first, this kind of tenacity annoys Cole, and he constantly lashes out at Garvey and tries to get him to go away already:
Cole couldn't figure Garvey out. He knew the probation officer was super busy, so why did he visit so often? What was his angle? Everybody had an angle—something they wanted. Until Cole could figure out what Garvey wanted, he resented the visits—he didn't need a friend or a babysitter. (1.32)
But Cole's lucky to have someone like Garvey in his life. His parents haven't exactly been there for him every step of the way, and it's good for him to have an adult who is willing to fight for him…even if he doesn't realize it at first. Garvey is the one who gets Cole into the Circle Justice program because he believes Cole can still be saved and shouldn't go to jail where he'll just become a hardened criminal.
Later on, Garvey reveals that he keeps giving Cole second chances because he was once a troubled youth, too, and he wishes someone had seen the good in him the way he sees the good in Cole. That's why he and Edwin want to help him in any way that they can, even if it means they have to stick out their necks:
"We still believe in you and think there's hope," Garvey said. "Because of that, we've stuck our necks out so far, we feel like two giraffes." (15.59)
By remaining a constant, supportive presence, Garvey gives Cole what he's never gotten from his parents: an adult who believes in him and wants to see him succeed. He's able to see himself through Garvey's eyes, and in doing so, Cole realizes that he's not such a lost cause after all.