As the novel opens, Inman is recovering from a serious neck wound in a Confederate military hospital. As soon as he has the physical strength, he begins walking home to Cold Mountain. He still suffers from deep emotional wounds, however—the result of horrible things he has witnessed in battle—and he worries his love, Ada Monroe, might no longer want him. As a deserter, Inman must try to avoid the Home Guard and others who might profit from his capture. Inman must also survive in harsh conditions. He has very little money and possessions, and is often without food. He survives being shot, and is nearly killed on several other occasions. His fighting skills and deep understanding of nature serve him well time and time again. Despite the incredible hardships Inman faces, he never stops acting honorably. He defends and protects people all along the way—and, in turn, he receives protection and support when he needs it most. When Inman finally reaches home, Ada shows him how deep and abiding her love for him is. Sadly, he is killed before they are able to begin their lives together, but their love lives on in their daughter who is born after his death.
Ada Monroe has been living in the mountains for six years as the novel opens, yet she has not adjusted too well, having come with her father from the refined, urban world of Charleston. She lives in a world of art, music, and literature, yet when her father suddenly dies, she finds herself nearly penniless and with no desire to return to city life. With the help of Ruby Thewes, Ada learns how to survive through hard work, bartering, and careful planning. She grows in emotional and physical strength, and by the time Inman returns to her she is ready to love him as a full partner. She also has developed the strength she needs to survive his loss, just as she survived the loss of her father.
Like Ada Monroe, Ruby Thewes grew up motherless, but this is where the similarities between the two young women end. Ruby was also practically fatherless because her father was a negligent, alcoholic, mostly absent parent. She learned to survive from toddlerhood by understanding nature and developing physical and mental strength. Ruby has a compassionate heart, however. She answers to no one, but she helps everyone who truly needs it, including her father. She is not well educated, but she knows more than most people will ever learn based on her keen observational skills and sharp memory. As the novel closes, Ruby is in healthy relationships with everyone, which is, in itself, remarkable given her childhood.
Monroe is already dead when the novel opens, but his presence still lingers. Having moved with Ada from Charleston six years ago in order to heal from a lung condition, Monroe has made his mark on Cold Mountain. The mountain people have come to trust his unique approach to Christian faith, and Ada has continued to view him as her one companion. Monroe's complexities are revealed as Ada recalls their important conversations. He loved her mother, who died in childbirth, even though they were together for only two years. He is educated but deeply respectful of the ways and beliefs of mountain people. He realizes he needs to let his daughter go and become her own person, which she accomplishes beautifully after his death.
Stobrod Thewes is hard to love, but he is also impossible to hate. Readers know he has been a terrible father and a man happy to shirk any duties he might face. During the course of the novel, however, Stobrod seems to develop in every way, and this is linked to his newfound love for playing the fiddle. As he builds a relationship with his daughter, he becomes a much more well-rounded character. By the end of the novel, it is clear Stobrod has learned how to lead a productive, healthy life with meaningful relationships.