Violet is a dark-skinned, skinny woman of about 50 at the time of the novel's main events. She seems worn down by life's difficulties as the novel opens. Nearly silent in her marriage, Violet is apparently depressed. She and Joe didn't have children, and now she longs for a child to love, but it is too late. Joe's affair with Dorcas provides a target for her anger, sadness, and sense of incompleteness and forces her to address her need to take responsibility for how she will live her later years. Violet is capable of love. Her affection for her pet birds, her early adoration of Joe, and her later compassion for Felice demonstrate this. It is as if love has somehow frozen within her. Her fears reach back to her father's abandonment of the family, which resulted in her mother's suicide.
Joe is a hardworking, pleasant man whom people like—especially the women to whom he sells cosmetics. But he suffers from what he calls an "inside nothing." He lacks an understanding of who he is, an orphan who can't even guess his father's identity and is unsure if Wild, a crazed woman who lived in a hovel in the woods, is his mother. Joe has two different-colored eyes that suggest his uncertain identity. His last name, Trace, also suggests this. He has given himself the name because his parents disappeared "without a trace." When Violet withdraws into depression, Joe is left alone in his own house, a second abandonment, and pours his affection into Dorcas. Her eventual rejection of him overwhelms his generally kind and decent nature. Yet Joe is not arrested or jailed for the murder and finds himself, as the novel ends, with an opportunity for renewed love.
Dorcas is a young woman who, like Joe and Violet, is also cut off from her parents, who were killed in a race riot. Dorcas watched her house burn with her mother (and her precious clothespin dolls) in it. Raised in a strict, oppressive home by her well-meaning aunt, Dorcas feels a glowing, hot need to experience passion. She is drawn to music, dancing, and young men. Whether she sees Joe as a man who can take her dead father's place for a time, as an escape from her stern aunt, or truly as a lover, Dorcas, too, struggles with identity. She allows her peers, especially Felice and Acton, to shape her emerging adult personality, at least until Joe shoots her. At that moment Dorcas's decisions wrest control away from her peers. She refuses aid and dies on her own terms, as unrealistically romantic as these may be.
Alice is a widow who has put the tragedy of her marriage far from her mind. Her husband had an affair before he died, leaving Alice with an unspoken, nearly unconscious sense that men are dangerous, exploiting women when they can. Alice was raised in a very strict and sexually repressed home; she tries to raise Dorcas in the same way to protect her. Dorcas's death, and Alice's failure to know that Dorcas and Joe were having an affair, forces Alice to face the anger in her own past. The unlikely friendship she and Violet form allows her to understand the motivations for her own actions and those of Violet and Dorcas.