A senior at a prestigious girls' college, Franny Glass is very bright but emotionally fragile and confused. She's overwhelmed by what she views as the pretension, triviality, and conformity of people in her world, and she's trying desperately to find her purpose in life. To this end, she has taken to repeating the Jesus Prayer whenever she gets the chance. Part of the reason she's confused is that her older brothers trained her in religion and philosophy before she was old enough to process what she was learning. From them she absorbed the ideals of the ascetic life, but she's not sure how to disengage from her own annoying life. Franny has been seriously dating Lane Coutell for a year, but she is beginning to tire of him. Although she's an excellent actor, she has abruptly decided to stop pursuing an acting career: she no longer respects audiences or her fellow actors. This decision, a symptom of her deep depression as well as her desire to renounce the world, reveals her barely veiled contempt for others—although she hates herself as well. She is nevertheless a charming and attractive young woman.
Zooey Glass is brilliant, extremely learned, and strikingly handsome, though he's always tried to ignore his good looks. He's also remarkably rude to his mother and, at first, to Franny. Though he doesn't realize it, Zooey is almost as despairing as Franny about the state of American culture. In addition, they're both mourning the death of their oldest brother, Seymour, who committed suicide. At first Zooey seems more irritated by Franny's behavior than concerned about her. This is partly because he knows he shares the attitude he deplores in his sister. It's also because—despite his own callous treatment of their mother—he thinks Franny takes Mrs. Glass for granted. But Zooey is also a loving older brother who wants very much to help his sister. When it looks as though Franny is through talking to him, Zooey comes up with an ingenious way to continue their conversation: he pretends to be their older brother Buddy calling Franny on the phone.
Mrs. Glass—often called "Bessie" by the children—gives the impression that she's not sure how she hatched this particular brood with their inexplicable sorrows and unconventional interests. Though she's slightly afraid of Franny and Zooey—she doesn't want to look stupid in front of them—she's perceptive about their problems and secretly enjoys Zooey's rudeness. Though Mrs. Glass is presented as a robustly comic character, she has an underlying streak of sorrow herself. Two of her sons have died—one by suicide—and she can't bear to be reminded of them. She misses the days her children were "so smart and happy and—just lovely." She makes one of the book's most important points when she tells Zooey she doesn't see the point of being "smart as whips and all if it doesn't make you happy."
Lane Coutell is an A-level student who wants the world to know it. As he talks to Franny Glass over lunch, Lane gradually reveals himself as a self-important snob. He brags about his academic achievements while pretending they don't matter; he belittles Franny while pretending to be interested in her ideas. He also becomes increasingly grumpy as he realizes that this weekend won't turn out the way he had wanted. It's clear that story's narrator isn't fond of Lane. Lane "very closely [follows] the train of his own conversation" and is "not one to keep a punch line to himself for any length of time." Still, Lane has some redeeming qualities. He does care about Franny, though it would seem he's more interested in having sex with her than listening to her. In "Zooey," Mrs. Glass makes the point that Lane is still very young and that Zooey intimidates him.