The novel's protagonist, Anne Elliot is the middle daughter of Sir Walter Elliot, a landed baronet from a socially important family. Quiet and reserved, yet clever and practical, Anne sees the foolishness in her father's lavish spending. Because she is neither the most beautiful nor the most image-conscious of his daughters, Sir Walter often overlooks Anne, slights her, and dismisses her opinions. Though Anne seeks love, she is conscious of her duty to her position and the prudence of making a suitable match. Seeking to please those around her, in her youth, she was persuaded from following her true desires. In contrast to both of her two sisters and to the other young female characters in the novel, Anne is level-headed, considerate of others, and humble. She balances duty and passion in a composed and respectful way.
The object of Anne's affections, Captain Wentworth is a gallant Naval officer who, well-educated and well-mannered, has made his own fortunes by climbing the Naval ranks. He values constancy, practicality, and firmness of mind in women, characteristics that will make a good Navy wife. Though Captain Wentworth is almost universally liked and respected for his gentle nature and kind attentions to others, Sir Walter disdains him for his 'lower' birth.
The father of Anne Elliot, baronet, and owner of Kellynch Hall, Sir Walter is a caricature of the impractical titled upper classes. Extraordinarily vain, Sir Walter lines his dressing room with mirrors, and agrees to be seen in public only with attractive or well-born people. Conscious of keeping up grand appearances, Sir Walter spends lavishly, and brings his family into debt. A poor judge of character, he is easily fooled by those who would take advantage of him.
The eldest daughter of Sir Walter and the older sister of Anne, Elizabeth Elliot is her father's favorite. Like her father, she is vain and primarily concerned with keeping up appearances and associating with important people. At the end of the novel, Elizabeth is the only one of the Elliot daughters to remain single, there being no one of adequate birth to suit her taste.
Anne Elliot's cousin, and heir to Kellynch Hall, Mr. William Elliot is a smooth talker who everyone agrees is "perfectly what he ought to be." Only six months after the death of his first wife, and at the end of a marriage that was generally known to be unhappy, Mr. Elliot is searching for a new bride. Good- looking and well-mannered, Mr. Elliot talks his way back into the good graces of Sir Walter, yet Anne questions his true motives.
The youngest Elliot sister, Mary is married to Charles Musgrove and has two small boys. She is high strung, often hysterical, and always aware of the imagined slights others have done to her. A rather inattentive mother, Mary focuses on social climbing.
Mary's husband, and heir to the great house at Uppercross, Charles is a relatively good-natured man who patiently endures his wife's trials. He would have preferred to marry Anne Elliot.
Charles's younger sister, Louisa is young, accomplished, and headstrong. She falls easily in love and admires the Navy excessively.
Younger sister of Charles and older sister of Louisa, Henrietta is also young and fun-loving. Though she is not as decisive as Louisa, Henrietta sees the charms both of her cousin Charles Hayter and of the dashing Captain Wentworth.
The parents of Charles, Henrietta, and Louisa, the Musgroves have provided a balanced, happy home for their children at Uppercross. They are a landed family, second in rank in the parish only to the Elliots. They are practical, and want only happiness for their children.
Cousin to the Musgroves (his mother is the sister of Mrs. Musgrove), the Hayter family is nevertheless enmeshed in a much lower social circle because of their 'inferior, retired, and unpolished way of living.' Charles Hayter, the eldest son, however, chose to be a scholar and a gentleman, and consequently has much more refined manners. He will one day inherit his family's land, and he hopes to court his cousin Henrietta and make her his wife.
Once engaged to the Captain Harville's now-deceased sister, Fanny, Captain Benwick is a depressed naval officer who mourns the death of his lost love. He is a shy man and an ardent reader of poetry. When Anne meets him, he is on leave from his ship and he is living with Captain and Mrs. Harville. He seeks a young woman to help him get over Fanny, and his attentions turn, surprisingly, to Louisa Musgrove.
The former best friend of Anne's deceased mother, Lady Russell is a woman of considerable birth and wealth who serves as advisor to the Elliot family. A practical woman, she is conscious of class interactions and finances. Anne is her favorite of the Elliot daughters and, though she means well, she sometimes gives Anne bad advice.
The amiable couple that rents Kellynch Hall when Sir Walter can no longer afford to stay there. The Admiral is a decorated Naval officer and his devoted wife travels with him when he is at sea. The Crofts are one of the few examples of an older happily married couple in any of Austen's novels.
The daughter of Mr. Shepard (family advisor to Sir Walter), Mrs. Clay soon becomes the friend of Elizabeth Elliot. Though she is of much lower birth, freckled, and not so very attractive, Mrs. Clay is a well-mannered widow. Anne, however, sees danger in the way she endears herself to Sir Walter, and suspects she may seek to marry in a class far above her own.
The girlhood friend of Anne Elliot who is currently living in Bath, Mrs. Smith has fallen on hard times. After her husband went into debt and left her a widow, Mrs. Smith was left with nothing. Now crippled by an illness, Mrs. Smith rekindles her former friendship with Anne and provides her with information that helps Anne learn more of Mr. Elliot. Mrs. Smith functions in the story to highlight Anne's high value on friendship and disregard for maintaining appearances at all cost.
The Irish cousins of the Elliots, Lady Dalrymple and her ugly daughter, Miss Carteret, come to Bath. Though they are uninteresting and unclever, Sir Walter seeks their renewed acquaintance because of their high social position.
Friends of Captain Wentworth, this couple resides in Lyme and kindly cares for Louisa after her fall.