Dodge is a symbol of failure. He used to have a thriving farm, but his crops have failed since the 1930s. After that, he tried to have a dairy farm and was successful. However, in recent decades, he has been drinking on the sofa and expressing discontent with his life. His sons didn't turn out the way he wanted. One was kicked out of New Mexico, another is dead, and the third hacked his own leg off. His wife is cheating on him, and he knows it. He doesn't think he did anything wrong and seeks to justify his actions. He knows he is dying and, perhaps, feels an urgency to set things right by leaving his farm to Vince.
It seems hard to believe that Tilden was ever successful at anything or independent enough to have moved out or fathered a child. He is described as "profoundly burned-out and displaced." He seems to suffer from some form of mental illness or, perhaps, an intellectual disability. A mental illness may be a result of having seen the baby born and killed, or perhaps it is because of a relationship with his mother that resulted in that baby. He is the only family member who isn't overtly unkind to the others. If anything, his picking of the corn and trying to persuade his family that it is growing out there is helpful. That he once showed promise is clear in the fact that he was once an All-American halfback. That he is now so messed up is an example of the failure of the American dream.
Bradley is a bully who is involved in a power struggle with his father, Dodge. He bullies Shelly, calling her a prostitute and putting his fingers in her mouth. Then, he lies about it. He is the middle son, approximately five years younger than Tilden. He doesn't live with the family. However, he is around a great deal and sleeps there. He has been emasculated by the loss of his leg, an injury he seems to have inflicted on himself. In Act 3 first Shelly then Vince take Bradley's prosthetic leg away from him in a power move.
Halie is the mother of Bradley, Tilden, Ansel, and the unnamed baby who died. Embittered by life, she sometimes tries to be excessively cheerful to make up for it. She is forgetful or not always truthful. She insists that her late son, Ansel, was a brilliant football or baseball or basketball player and a war hero. In fact, he seems to have played none of those sports and died in a motel room. She tells Dodge that she will be home at four o'clock but comes home the next day in different clothes. She is openly cruel to Dodge and to her sons. She is disappointed in her sons and her life, which is why she tries to make it seem like Ansel would have been a success. She cheats on her husband, Dodge, with Father Dewis and probably cheated on him with their own son, Tilden. She is absent during Act 2 and is only a voice offstage for much of Acts 1 and 3.
Vince's history is uncertain. He is Tilden's son, but it's uncertain who his mother is. He plays the saxophone and wants to be a musician. Vince says he saw the family six years ago. However, no one remembers it and, when pressed, he isn't certain when he was there, exactly. Still, he desperately wants to connect with the family and tries to make them remember him.
Shelly is the only outside person in the play. Attractive and intelligent, she stands in contrast to the rest of the cast and shows the audience how a normal person would react. At first, she is very optimistic, saying that the house looks like a Norman Rockwell cover. However, as soon as she gets inside and meets Dodge and Bradley, she is understandably unnerved. She tries to persuade Vince to leave. Not only does he not leave with her but also he leaves without her. Shelly tries to look on the bright side of things, cleaning the house and examining family pictures. After witnessing Dodge's confession, she is more than ready to leave. She does leave when Vince says he's staying.