As a child Jeanette is completely under the domination of her controlling, religion-obsessed adoptive mother. Jeanette is sheltered from the world outside of the church until age eight, when she is legally forced to go to school. She is naive in many ways and subject to the cruelty of other children. Jeanette copes by remaining deeply focused on her church duties. In her teens Jeanette begins to question her church and her mother's black-and-white perception of the world. Entering into a lesbian relationship at around 16, she does not understand it is homosexual, for no one has talked to her about sexual relationships. Her strength of character and honesty about herself give her the strength to leave home and the church, and live her own life.
Jeanette's mother does not develop much during the course of the novel. She is very sure of the rightness of her position on all things and can neither admit her own errors nor accept other points of view. She has planned her daughter's life on the basis of her own world view and allows no deviation from that course. She loses Jeanette because she refuses to understand her daughter's sexual orientation as anything but sinful. Even this loss—and the eventual loss of her religious community as a result of their corruption—does not seem to affect her unwavering commitment to fundamentalist beliefs.
Melanie seems malleable and eager to please. When she comes to church with Jeanette for the first time, she immediately converts. When Jeanette wants their relationship to go to a sexual level, she does not resist. Then when the church demands she and Jeanette repent, Melanie does so readily. Lacking Jeanette's depth and perhaps authentic sexual orientation, Melanie soon marries a man, has children, and strikes Jeanette as docile and content in a traditional role.
Elsie Norris's steadfast friendship with Jeanette is important as Jeanette grows up and then later as she begins to rebel against the church. Whereas Jeanette's mother is often cold and unaccepting when she begins to come into her own, Elsie offers her wise counsel and support but does not reveal her sexual orientation until after Jeanette decides to leave the church. When Elsie dies, Jeanette is honored to prepare her body for viewing and spends the entire night talking to her and thanking her for the goodness she has given her.
Miss Jewsbury goes in and out of Jeanette's life. Sometimes she is a helpful presence but at other times takes advantage of the girl, whose sexual orientation she recognizes early on. When Miss Jewsbury briefly reappears in Jeanette's life after a long absence, at the time of Elsie Norris's funeral, Jeanette has the good sense to know it is best to keep her distance.
Katy is a sweet-natured, kind lover for Jeanette and restores Jeanette's belief in romance after she feels betrayed by Melanie. Indeed Katy seems worthy of the action Jeanette takes to accept blame from the church to spare Katy the ordeal of exorcism Jeanette has experienced.