When the novel begins, Scarlett O'Hara is a spoiled, vain, attention-seeking 16-year-old who attracts men at every turn. She is also extremely strong-willed and determined. Over the course of the book she marries three times and is widowed twice; she also has three children, one of whom dies young. Scarlett's two driving passions are her obsession with her neighbor, Ashley Wilkes, and her love for her family plantation, Tara. She will do whatever she must to keep Tara, and in her pursuit of Ashley she doesn't pay attention to whom she hurts.
Rhett Butler is a gambler, a speculator, and a man who has experienced far more of life than the sheltered—and much younger—Scarlett can imagine. He frankly admires Scarlett from the first time they meet; he enjoys her spirit and finds it refreshing she is passionate and blunt and demonstrates other "unladylike" qualities. Rhett encourages Scarlett to break mourning after her first husband dies, helps her start her own businesses, and eventually proposes to her. However, Scarlett is too focused on Ashley to appreciate Rhett. After she rejects him and their daughter, Bonnie, dies in an accident, Rhett's spirit is broken.
Ashley Wilkes, Melanie's husband, is a soft-spoken, intellectual man who prefers to avoid conflict and difficulty. He is a good officer in the Civil War, although he is at heart a pacifist. After the war he feels lost and unsure how to make his way in an unfamiliar world. He allows Scarlett to take care of him and his family and is constantly in her vicinity, even though their attraction puts his marriage at risk. In the end Ashley realizes he loves his wife, but by then it is too late.
Melanie Wilkes, Ashley's wife, is a deeply good person. She loves Scarlett wholeheartedly, even though Scarlett does very little to deserve that love. Melanie is a passionate supporter of the Confederate cause. She has one son, Beau; when she tries to have another baby, she dies in childbirth. Although Scarlett has a low opinion of Melanie through most of the novel, in the end she realizes Melanie was her closest friend.
Mammy is one of the only characters who speaks truthfully to Scarlett and understands what Scarlett is capable of. Even after she is freed, Mammy keeps working for the O'Hara family. In some ways she is a stereotype, but she demonstrates the honest loyalty and affection some slaves felt for their former owners.
Charles Hamilton, Scarlett's first husband, is a handsome, rich young man. He and Scarlett barely know each other when they get engaged, and their marriage is brief; he dies of pneumonia two months after the Civil War begins. Still he will remain a part of Scarlett's life forever, both because they have a son, Wade, and because Charles's sister, Melanie, keeps his memory alive. Otherwise Scarlett would just as soon forget him.
Frank Kennedy is an older man who is engaged to Scarlett's sister, Suellen, until Scarlett—desperate to get money to save Tara—manipulates him into marrying her instead. Frank is seemingly gentle and kind and allows Scarlett to do what she wants most of the time, including running her own business. After Scarlett is attacked, Frank, as a member of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), helps to hunt down her attacker, and he gets killed in the process.