The hero is Howard Roark, a hard working, aspiring architect whose plans and goals are waylaid at every end by "the hostility of second-hand souls". His pleasure is in the act of creation, and his calm, reserve, and selfishness are woven together into a person Rand means for us to admire and emulate.
The story is also about Dominique Francon, a woman torn between two loves â€" not of men but of power, pleasure, and a self-dominance she grows to understand through her relationship with Roark. Roark and Dominique first see each other while the former is working in a quarry owned by the latter's father. He later comes to her home and rapes her, an event that leaves Dominique filled with a possessiveness for Roark that drives her into the arms of another man.
Gail Wynand, a newspaper mogul who raised himself by the bootstraps from the ghettoes of New York City, believes himself to be the highest of men. He has the power to do anything, command anything. Until, that is, he meets Roark, a man whom he helps to destroy. Wynand, after seeing a naked statue of Dominique sculpted by Steven Mallory, a friend of Roark's for one of his buildings, the Stoddard Temple, falls in love as much with the woman as the artistry of the statue. Dominique and Gail are married.
There are many other characters â€" Henry Cameron, Roark's mentor who was destroyed by "the system"; Peter Keating, a colleague and friend of Roark whose only individuality is a direct reflection of others; Ellsworth Toohey, the man whose power is directly proportionate to the number of times he says he is unimportant.
Cameron is a former architect who, at one time, enjoyed a period of prosperity. However, when his practice of originality becomes rejected in favor of reproducing classic architecture, his firm slowly dies and eventually becomes nonexistent; Cameron and Roark being its last employees. His philosophy in architecture is something that Roark has based his own philosophy on, to an extent, which is why, at the outset of the novel, Roark is so determined to work for him.