When Ugwu first encounters the lifestyle of the indigenous educated elite, he can only make sense of it in terms of traditional culture, village life, and nature—the only things he knows. But Ugwu is like a sponge. He is a keen observer of people and interactions, and he is an empathetic caretaker. Odenigbo begins educating him, and Ugwu is soon spending all his free time studying the books and manuscripts he finds in Odenigbo's study. He begins to form political opinions, at first mimicking Odenigbo's. He becomes a teacher, swept up in the Biafran fervor. A turning point for Ugwu is when he finds Fredrick Douglass's autobiography. Around the same time he is conscripted into the Biafran army. After he gets out of the service, he is no longer impressed by politics or the idea of revolution. Inspired by Fredrick Douglass, he begins to write the story of Biafra through the lens of the people he knows and sees. In this way Ugwu heals and makes meaning for himself and others.
Foreign educated and wealthy, Olanna is known for her beauty, kindness, and empathy, which earn her the attention of men as well as some amount of privilege during the war. Her great flaw, as other characters point out, is she needs the affirmation of others to feel whole. She falls in love with Odenigbo and his revolutionary charisma, leaving her luxurious upbringing behind. The turning point for Olanna is when Odenigbo sleeps with Amala. Deeply wounded, Olanna responds by sleeping with Richard (an act which fractures her relationship with her twin sister Kainene) and then deciding she will raise Amala's child. These two acts of personal agency allow Olanna to rise above Odenigbo's spell and begin to direct her own life. When war comes Olanna doesn't flee to Britain with her parents but throws herself into the effort, teaching refugees and then running her own school when the local school is bombed. She loses her favorite family member and her money during the war but rises above these sorrows by reclaiming her personal power and helping others. When Kainene doesn't return from trading behind enemy lines, Olanna, once scornful about traditional ways of understanding the world, begins to find strength there.
Richard Churchill grew up in England with parents who didn't pay much attention to him, but young Richard found moments of comfort in nature. A journalist, he comes to Nigeria to indulge his fascination with ancient Igbo-Ukwu art, where he struggles to fit in and to understand his own identity, as a writer and person. Despite being from the land of the colonizer, he isn't racist or interested in exploitation, like his fellow expatriates. Nor is he "a real" Biafran, no matter how well he speaks Igbo and despite the fact he was in Biafra when it was "born." His identity struggles parallel his struggles with his writing craft, and he discards many manuscripts before he finally finds his voice, writing for the Biafran press about wartime events. This earns him the respect of Biafrans, even the thanks of Ojukwu. After the war Richard is finally comfortable with the fact that Biafra is not his story to tell.
Kainene is Olanna's twin sister, less beautiful but confident, independent, and fearless. She is a pragmatist and takes on the operation of her father's businesses in the east. When war comes she isn't swept up by Biafran fervor. She sees the war as Ojukwu's personal egoic ambition, and she shifts her business to fulfill wartime contracts to the army. Kainene is unforgiving and stops speaking to Olanna after she sleeps with Richard. It is only after she sees Ikejide's death that she softens and reconciles with her sister and becomes invigorated by her participation in the war effort. She runs a refugee camp and tries to organize farming efforts. Always a leader, Kainene becomes empathetic and compassionate. Kainene disappears right at the end of the war when she goes behind enemy lines to trade for food, and the novel ends without her returning.
Odenigbo is a socialist, a tribalist, and a fervent believer in the Biafran cause. He rejects traditional superstition, having been educated in the Western style, and he lives in Western-style comfort while simultaneously preaching the evils of colonization. Before the war his house is a hub of intellectual and political discourse. He disclaims any responsibility for sleeping with Amala, which earns Olanna's disgust. She realizes he is not as sophisticated as she first believed. Their relationship never recovers from this fracture, and Odenigbo's true character, which is weak, is revealed as the war progresses. When his mother dies without their reconciling, he becomes devastated and turns to drinking, leaving Olanna to handle the responsibilities of raising a family during wartime. His revolutionary ideals fail to lend him strength of character.