Warning: Some of the movie plot is revealed below
Andy Dufresne is the primary character of the story. Andy arrives at Shawshank Prison in 1947, after being convicted of killing his wife and her lover. Unlike most of the inmates at Shawshank, Andy is innocent. Andy settles into his two consecutive life sentences. He befriends Red (see below) and several other inmates. Andy has a passion for rocks, and Red gets him a rock hammer. Andy uses the rock hammer to shape himself the pieces of a chess set. Whilst carving his name onto the wall of his cell Andy realizes that the walls of the prison are not so strong as one would think. During his 19 years at the prison Andy cuts a tunnel through his cell wall, onto the outside. After Warden Norton removes Tommy from the prison, and also any chance of Andy being proven innocent, Andy makes his escape from Shawshank. Once on the outside Andy uses Norton's embezzled funds to make a new life for himself. With his new identify he settles in Mexico.
Real name Ellis Boyd Reading. Red is the "the guy who can get stuff" inside Shawshank, and has a good relationship with the inmates and guards. Red and Andy become good friends over the years they spend together in Shawshank. Their friendship started when Andy asked Red to get him a rock hammer, which Andy later uses to cut his tunnel to freedom. During his many years inside Shawshank Red looses his hope of a life outside. Andy restores his hope in Red, not whilst inside Shawshank, but when Red gets paroled. Instead of following the same path of most inmates, such as Brooks, Red is given a helping hand by Andy. Red goes to a spot he and Andy discussed whilst inside Shawshank, and Red finds money and a brief note from Andy. Red remembers where Andy said he intends to go (Mexico). The novella doesn't reveal if they finally meet, but the movie has a final scene where we see them reunite on a Mexican beach.
Warden Samuel Norton is a man who believes in god, and also money. His "Inside-Out" program, which offered cheap prison labor, gained him finances, which Andy "cleaned" and banked. Norton destroys Andy's chance of a re-trial, and possible release, by removing Tommy from Shawshank. Andy gets his revenge by taking all of Norton's embezzled money, when he escapes from Shawshank. Norton believes in the bible, and quotes many passages during the story. Due to his hypocritical nature almost all of the themes of the passages, such as retribution, come back to haunt him. Norton shoots himself when the police come to arrest him after Andy escapes.
Heywood is a friend to Andy and Red. He has a love of country music, which he is able to enjoy when Andy improves the prison library, which includes a gramophone and selection of Hank Williams records.
Byron Hadley is the captain of the guard. He is a hard man, although the story occasionally exposes his compassionate side. Hadley carries out the instructions of the wardens, including the shooting of Tommy, although this only happens in the movie. The two key moments involving Hadley are when Andy arranges to complete his inheritance tax paperwork, with which he secures his position with the guards and his fellow inmates, and secondly when Hadley "takes care" of Bogs, after Bogs and The Sisters attack Andy. Hadley is arrested by the police after Andy escapes.
Brooks is the veteran inside Shawshank. He has a rook called "Jake" in the movie, although Jake was a pigeon in the novella. Brooks is the librarian of Shawshank. When he gets paroled he holds a knife to Heywood's neck. Brooks is afraid of life outside of Shawshank, as he has become institutionalized. Inside Shawshank he is a respected man, outside he is a former convict, and of a low position in society. Once outside of Shawshank Brooks works in a grocery store, but later hangs himself as he feels he has no quality of life. His actions cause the remaining inmates of Shawshank to fear the outside world. Andy tries to remind his fellow inmates that they must believe in hope.
Tommy is a young convict who joins the other inmates for a brief time. Andy helps Tommy gain his high school diploma, which Tommy hopes will help him to support his family when he is released. Tommy has previously shared a cell with an inmate who boasts that he killed a bankers wife and her lover, but the banker was convicted of the murder. This previous inmate of Tommy's is the real killer of Andy's wife. Andy approaches the warden with this information. The warden, fearing he will lose Andy if he gets a re-trial, tells Andy to forget the story, which he claims Tommy has invented. Andy objects and is sent to solitary confinement. Whilst in confinement the warden talks with Tommy. Tommy says he will give his evidence on oath. In the novella Norton arranges for Tommy to be transferred to a minimum security prison, on the agreement he never discusses this information again. In the movie Byron Hadley shoots Tommy.
Bogs is the leader of The Sisters, a groups of prison rapists who attack Andy on various occasions. Andy is able to fight them off on several occasions. After Andy helps Byron Hadley with his tax paperwork the guards offer Andy some protection from the aggressive inmates. After Bogs attacks Andy again Byron Hadley beats Bogs to almost death. Bogs is said to "spend the rest of his days drinking through a straw".