John Flory's opinions about the natives are far more enlightened than those of his British fellows, so he generally keeps his thoughts to himself. This—and the birthmark that has caused him shame all his life—makes him bitterly lonely; he has no one he can connect with on a deeper level. He can express his true thoughts to Dr. Veraswami, but he doesn't think Veraswami can understand him like another white could. When Elizabeth arrives in town, Flory feels hopeful; maybe this is someone he can share his life with. But his shame, represented by the birthmark, continues to hold him back. Although Flory eventually finds the courage to defend Veraswami and propose to Elizabeth, it is too late. When U Po Kyin publicly humiliates him, Flory realizes he will never be able to live the honorable life he dreams of, and he commits suicide.
Elizabeth Lackersteen's only chance to avoid a life of drudgery and poverty is to marry one of the bachelors at the Lackersteens' station in Burma. When Flory rescues her from a buffalo, Elizabeth sees an opportunity. But during their courtship, Elizabeth begins to have doubts about Flory. He seems to value the natives more than is proper for a white man. When a titled lieutenant, Verrall, arrives in town, she goes after him instead. But Verrall never proposes. Elizabeth is resigned to marrying Flory until Ma Hla May disgraces him at the church. In this moment, Elizabeth recognizes how hideous his birthmark is; she would rather die than be associated with him and his shame. She eventually marries Macgregor.
U Po Kyin
U Po Kyin's schemes drive the narrative. His main plan is to discredit Dr. Veraswami, his rival for membership in the European Club. Flory is collateral damage; his friendship with Veraswami lends the latter prestige. U Po Kyin writes anonymous letters denouncing Veraswami, helps a dangerous inmate escape Veraswami's prison, organizes a peasant rebellion that leads to several deaths, and ruins Flory's reputation. This last act is his masterstroke, provoking Flory's suicide. Veraswami loses his prestige, and U Po Kyin realizes his dreams. But he dies before he can build any pagodas, which leaves his wife, Ma Kin, to believe he is reincarnated as a rat.
Dr. Veraswami is one of the novel's few sympathetic characters. He refuses bribes, tries to act honorably, and is fiercely loyal to his friends and to the British crown. As the highest-ranking native official in the area, he is the natural choice to be admitted to the European Club if the members decide to allow a native. That makes him U Po Kyin's enemy. U Po Kyin schemes to ruin Veraswami's reputation, and eventually he succeeds. Veraswami is demoted and sent to Mandalay.
Ellis experiences no growth in the novel. He is racist from start to finish, constantly putting pressure on his fellow Brits to echo his opinions. He resents having to "rub shoulders" with the natives and violently rejects the idea of admitting Dr. Veraswami to the Club. He especially heckles Flory, deeming him a socialist for his friendship with Veraswami. Ellis acts out against innocent native boys, blinding one and inciting a riot. Despite his bad behavior, he suffers few consequences beyond a cold shoulder from Mrs. Lackersteen.
Ma Hla May
Like U Po Kyin, Ma Hla May is an opportunist. She does not love Flory, but she loves the prestige of living with him and the money he gives her. Flory finds her beautiful enough to use sexually, but he is disgusted with himself after. When Flory sees the chance to have a respectable relationship with Elizabeth, he throws Ma Hla May out. Ma Hla May is desperate to return to her position, and U Po Kyin uses this to his advantage, paying her to publicly shame Flory at the church. She ends up as a prostitute in a brothel in Mandalay, where she is treated badly.
As someone born with a title, Verrall has lived a life of privilege and does whatever he wants. He is disgusted by natives and stuffy British society alike. Until he meets Elizabeth, he has no intention of mingling with those stationed in Kyauktada. He finds her a pleasant distraction, but he never comes through with the marriage proposal she expects. He flees town to escape his debts.