Miss Emma Woodhouse is a smart, beautiful, rich gentlewoman. Because she is naturally assertive and headstrong, she is accustomed to getting her way and giving other people advice in strong terms.
Mr. George Knightley is a gentleman and a longtime family friend of the Woodhouse family. Mr. Knightley has the perfect manners of a gentleman. Mr. Knightley is landed gentry, meaning that he owns property that is farmed. He is Emma's counselor and friend and has the courage to reprimand her and tell her when she is wrong.
Mr. Woodhouse, a widower, is pampered and humored by both family and friends, in part because of his high social status in the community. He has an estate but does not own as much land as Mr. Knightley. The narrator refers to him as a valetudinarian—a fancy word for a hypochondriac. Mr. Woodhouse is fearful of change of any kind.
Miss Harriet Smith is beautiful and not very intelligent. No one in Highbury knows anything about 17-year-old Harriet's background, except that she is the illegitimate daughter of some wealthy person. With encouragement from Emma, she begins to aspire to rise above her class and station in life.
Mr. Philip Elton has somewhat lately entered the society of Highbury as the town vicar (clergyman). He gets a small living as well as the vicarage house in return for ministering to the spiritual needs of the congregation. Like any country vicar, he has also become part of the social scene. Although he owns some property, he hopes to marry a woman of means to increase his fortune.
Mr. Frank Churchill is the son of Mr. (Captain) Weston, but he was raised by his aunt and uncle, the Churchills. Frank is handsome, charming, and witty. He is revealed over the course of the novel to be a scheming, insincere, and somewhat cowardly man. His primary concern is with his inheritance.
Jane Fairfax is an orphan and also the niece and granddaughter of Miss Bates and Mrs. Bates, respectively. She is a native of Highbury, although she was educated and nurtured by the Campbells, who had been friends of her father. Jane, the same age as Emma, is also beautiful and smart, but she is much more accomplished than Emma because she has applied herself to her studies. Because the Campbells have limited means, everyone expects her to take a position as a governess.