Tough and lonely, Violet is an eccentric woman whose years of accumulated hardship finally catch up with her at the age of fifty-six. Violet was raised by her mother, Rose Dear, in Vienna, Virginia, as one of five children. Her father would leave the family for long stretches of time and when the family's belongings were repossessed, Violet's mother committed suicide by throwing herself down a well. When Violet married Joe Trace, she sought to escape the hard-knocks lifestyle of her childhood by moving to the City. Neither she nor Joe had wanted children, but as Violet grows older, she begins to feel a deep longing for something to love. Her relationship with Joe becomes strained when she falls into depression. When she finds out that Joe has cheated on her with Dorcas, Violet projects all of her anger, sadness and frustration by slashing Dorcas's face at her funeral as she lies in her open casket. In the months that follow, Violet searches for peace and longs to heal herself and her marriage, discovering, finally, that she has to "make it" by taking ownership of her happiness and refusing to be a victim.
Joe is a kind-hearted and fundamentally good man who is driven by sadness and fear to shoot and kill his young lover, Dorcas. Like his wife, Violet, Joe's suffering stems in large part from his unstable and painful childhood. At a young age, Joe is told that he was adopted and that his mother left him "without a trace." A feeling of abandonment and an uncertainty about his identity plagues Joe from that moment on. Joe therefore does not know where he comes from and thinks, mistakenly, that he cannot be complete without this information, thereby deferring his happiness and looking to others to make him whole. He is highly regarded in the Harlem community for being a decent man and something in his face reminds recent migrants to the City of their rural roots. He treats Violet well but when she becomes depressed he cannot maintain a sense of completion. He still looks for a woman to provide the love that his mother, Wild, did not, and for this reason he tries to secure Dorcas's affection by adoring her. When Dorcas scorns him, his pain is compounded by a deeper anguish as he watches the third woman in his life abandon him. Therefore, Joe's suffering explodes into an act of violence in his murder of Dorcas.
As with Joe and Violet, Morrison recounts the pivotal events in Dorcas's life that shaped her personality, making her more sympathetic than she would at first appear. As a young girl, Dorcas lost both of her parents in the same day when her father was killed on a streetcar and her mother died in a burning building during the East St. Louis riots, which left her orphaned and homeless. Like so many of the characters in the book, Dorcas migrated to the City where her life was to be rebuilt by the obsessive care of her aunt, Alice Manfred. However, as a teenager, Dorcas begins to rebel against her aunt's old-fashioned tastes, and refashions herself as a sexually-desirable woman. Dorcas wants to be looked at and admired and when Joe visits her aunt's house she successfully captures the older man's gaze. The morality of sleeping with a married man who is old enough to be her father does not factor into Dorcas's decision to be with Joe. Like a little girl, she is eager for the gifts that he brings her and she becomes petulant and moody when she does not get her way. However, Dorcas also wants an authority figure and when she realizes that Joe is completely malleable she bores with him quickly. Her new boyfriend, Acton, promises to shape Dorcas and control her, so she allows her identity to be created for her. When Joe shoots Dorcas, she chooses to die in order to be watched, making herself a martyr by bleeding to death rather than going to the hospital. However, Morrison's narrator pieces together the threads of her story to show how Dorcas as one sees her does not correspond with her inside life.
The interracial son of Vera Louise Gray and Henry LesTroy, Golden Gray is the result of a forbidden love between a white woman and black man. With his golden curls and light skin, Golden looks completely white and he is raised to believe that he is so. His mother does not claim him as her own but says that he was adopted. When his nurse, True Belle, tells him the truth of his parentage, Golden's sense of his own identity is destroyed. He sets out to hunt down and kill his father, because he assumes that the black man violated his mother. He holds a racial stereotype of black deviance that is deeply set in white male consciousness. Once in Virginia, Golden's plans change when he witnesses Wild give birth to Joe Trace. Rather than strike out the part of his identity that does not correspond with his own sense of self, Golden seeks refuge in Wild's blackness and escapes from society with her, roaming free in the woods. Golden abandons the white upbringing that his mother offered him and also knows that the black community will never fully accept him. He straddles the two worlds but belongs to neither so he reverts to a natural existence that lies beyond the community. With Wild, Golden reverses the racial scheme of his parents' sexual and romantic relationship, continuing a legacy of interracial companionship and passing it down to the next generation. Both of the interracial couples, that of Vera and Henry and of Golden and Wild, disprove the common association of biracial babies with the physical assaults of slave owners on black, female slaves.