Sethe, an escaped slave, is the main character of the novel. Her major role in life is that of mother; her children are everything to her. Sethe experiences the brutality of slavery firsthand, being beaten and dehumanized. In a culture of servitude, where family relationships don't matter to the slave owners, Sethe feels blessed that all four of her children have the same father. Sethe is a strong woman. On her own she manages to get her children safely to Cincinnati, where they will be free. When their freedom is threatened, she will do anything to keep her children from having to live through the horrors she has endured. Out of love she makes the "rough choice" to kill them. She manages to kill one of her children and is sent to jail. Freed from jail, she is alienated from her community. She tries to keep memories of the past at bay, but, with the help of others, including the ghost of her dead child, she finally faces those memories. She accepts the past and moves toward the future. Sethe is a symbol of motherhood in its most profound form. By killing her child, she "saved" it from a life of servitude and despair.
Beloved is murdered by her mother when their former master comes to reclaim them after they escape slavery. At first, she haunts the family as the ghost of a baby, playing planks that gradually become more serious. Later, she returns in the form of an 18-year-old woman to manipulate her mother and sister and to drive away her mother's new lover. Her disturbing and demanding presence forces them to face the memories of their past. She is eventually driven out of their lives.
Denver, Sethe's youngest child, is an innocent victim of the events of the novel. She spends her childhood isolated from the outside community because her mother killed her older sister and the tragedy caused their neighbors to shun them. She becomes a teenager constantly searching for her own identity. At the same time, she craves attention from her mother and Beloved. Learning what her mother has done, she lives in constant fear that her mother will kill her too. She dreams about her father coming to live with them and is resentful when Paul D moves in. Throughout the novel Denver becomes more independent. At one point she becomes the caregiver for both Beloved and her mother. Desperate, she summons the courage to leave the house to ask community members for help. It is then that she feels herself become a woman. When Beloved is driven out for good, Denver finds a job and begins to prepare to go to college.
Paul D is a fellow slave at Sweet Home farm when he meets Sethe. When she chooses Halle, Paul D and the other men still fantasize about her. Paul D is caught, trying to escape, and taken back to the farm in chains. He is sold and attempts to kill his new owner. Forced to work on a prison chain gang, he is miraculously able to escape to the North. For years he wanders around, never putting down roots, and not wanting to. Finally, he ends up in Cincinnati, at Sethe's home. Paul D and Sethe are lovers until Beloved begins to control him and he is tormented by her. When he finds out that Sethe murdered her own child, he is appalled, compares her to an animal, and leaves her. Slowly, he comes to terms with his own and Sethe's past and determines to make a future with her.
At the beginning of the novel, Baby Suggs is dead. The reader learns about her through flashbacks. During her time as a slave, she became crippled and was only allowed to raise one of her eight children, all of whom had different fathers. Baby Suggs was the matriarch of the family whose freedom was bought by her devoted son, Halle. She asserted her newfound freedom and independence by taking her husband's name. Baby Suggs welcomed Sethe and the children into her home and became a stabilizing force for them. She was also prominent in the community, holding gatherings in the Clearing, teaching them to love themselves. After Sethe killed her daughter in the woodshed, Baby Suggs slowly died, believing that white people were bad luck.