Peter Pan wants a mother. So he convinces Wendy Darling to come to Neverland and be a mother to him and his crew of lost boys. She doesn't face an easy task. Peter's behavior is impulsive and sometimes reckless. Repeatedly described by the narrator as conceited—and by his nemesis Capt. Hook as cocky—Peter often abandons his friends, subjects them to near-fatal jokes, or forgets about them entirely. But Peter can also be fun, and he leads Wendy, her brothers, and his lost boys on a series of adventures. He also displays a fascinating ability to believe so fully in whatever he imagines that for him, at least, it appears to become real. He is happy because he is getting what he wants, but then it all falls apart. Upset that Peter can see her only as a mother, Wendy decides to return home. Hook kidnaps Wendy and the lost boys, Tiger Lily and her tribe are nearly wiped out trying to prevent it, and Tinker Bell nearly dies keeping Peter from being poisoned. Peter kills many pirates and forces Hook overboard to his death, saving Wendy and all the boys. But Wendy still wants to go home. Peter's heart is broken when he hovers outside her window and watches her reunion with her mother, something he can never have with his own mother. But Peter recovers quickly. Perhaps his ability to forget is a gift. He will forget first Wendy, then her daughter Jane, and then her granddaughter Margaret when each one grows too old to take care of him. Peter will always long for a mother—but will always make it impossible to keep one.
Although there are sparks of imagination and determination in Wendy Darling, the main drive that animates her through the entire novel is her desire to be a surrogate mother—not just to Peter Pan, but to her brothers and the lost boys as well. This desire is what enables Peter to overcome her initial reluctance to leave her parents, and what induces her to stay in Neverland as the situation moves from drudgery to danger. Still, even when she is so exhausted by the endless tasks of being a mother that she expresses regret for her choice, it lasts only a moment. Wendy loves being a mother to the boys—but she longs for something more from Peter. She wants him to be a father/husband, but when he tells her that his feelings for her are purely filial, she is wounded. This causes a rift in their relationship that prompts Wendy's decision to return home. Even after Wendy is kidnapped by Hook and Peter rescues her, she still wants to leave. Back in London, Wendy has second thoughts. She agrees to return with Peter to Neverland once a year for spring cleaning. However, when he forgets her, she is able to grow up and get married without regret. It isn't until Peter unexpectedly shows up to ask her daughter Jane to be his mother that Wendy feels "guilty" and "big." She allows Peter and Jane to head off to Neverland, feeling a deep pang for the days when she was a girl and still believed enough to fly.
The narrator hints that people would be scandalized to find out Captain James Hook's true identity as a well-known member of the English aristocracy who even attended Eton. Captain Hook is indeed obsessed with showing the kind of "good form" cultivated at Eton. One of the many things Hook despises about Peter Pan is that despite being "cocky," Peter still may show better form than Hook does. Hook spends the entire book either inveighing against Peter or running from the crocodile who ate his hand and wants to finish off the meal. When Hook learns that Peter has brought Wendy to Neverland as a mother, he plots to kidnap her for himself and kill all the lost boys. Despite this dastardly behavior, Hook is, at times, almost a tragic figure. He feels lonely and isolated among his raffish crew. He knows he falls short of his own ideals—twisted through they may be—and lives in constant fear of death. Once he even laments that children don't love him. At the end of the book he gets nothing he has yearned for. He is defeated by Peter Pan after Peter shows the "good form" that Hook himself knows that he lacks. Hook dives overboard, thinking he has escaped Peter's sword—only to find himself in the jaws of the crocodile. It is the fate Hook feared more than any other.
Tinker Bell is so attached to Peter Pan that it's almost as if she is his second shadow. Tinker Bell resents Wendy deeply and tries to get her killed multiple times. But she redeems herself when she drinks the poison Captain Hook intended for Peter, saving his life and dooming her own. She is saved only when Peter appeals to readers who believe in fairies to clap their hands. Her reprieve does not last long, however. Fairies live only a year, so by the time Wendy returns to Neverland for her second visit the following spring, Peter says he doesn't even remember Tinker Bell, so she must be dead.
Pretty and charming but sometimes vapid, Mrs. Darling's words and actions nevertheless leave no doubt that she loves her children deeply. She does everything for them, including "tidying up" up their thoughts each night so nothing naughty will remain the next morning. It is in Wendy's thoughts that Mrs. Darling first learns that Peter Pan has been visiting the nursery, although at first she dismisses this as a dream. Even after she finds Peter's severed shadow on the floor, Mrs. Darling postpones telling her husband about it until it's too late. The three children slowly start to forget their mother while they are in Neverland. Mrs. Darling doesn't reappear until the last two chapters. She has been visibly aged by grief over the fate of her children. She insists on sitting in the nursery every night with the windows open, her hand moving "restlessly" on her chest as if she feels pain there. She is overjoyed when the children come back to her, and she convinces her husband to adopt all six of the lost boys. Peter Pan refuses this offer, however, and pleads to take Wendy back with him to Neverland again. Her mother's heart is large enough to include Peter as well, because Mrs. Darling takes pity on him and allows Wendy to visit him once a year to help him with spring cleaning. Years pass before Peter finally returns, and Wendy has grown up and has a daughter of her own. Meanwhile, Mrs. Darling has died and is somewhat brutally dismissed by the narrator as being "dead and forgotten."
Although any of the warriors in her tribe would be thrilled to marry her, Tiger Lily "staves off the altar with a hatchet." Peter Pan is the one she cares for, but he doesn't have romantic feelings for her any more than he does for Wendy or Tinker Bell. Peter's complete misunderstanding of her feelings causes tension between them. Nevertheless, Tiger Lily is grateful to Peter Pan for saving her life when the pirates Smee and Starkey capture her after she boards their ship with a knife. In thanks, she and her tribe stand guard every night over Peter's underground home, and sacrifice themselves to protect the children when the pirates inevitably attack. Tiger Lily survives with a handful of her warriors. That is the last readers hear of her. Her fate after the pirates' defeat and the departure of Wendy and the lost boys is unknown.
Mr. Darling, whose first name is George, is lampooned by the narrator for his nearly paranoid concern that he won't have enough money to support his family, but he is also constantly worried about what other people think about him. Despite this, he believes himself to be the bastion of reason and common sense. This blindness to his own foolishness leads him to a series of unwise decisions that ultimately make it possible for Peter Pan to enter the nursery and entice the children to Neverland. Mr. Darling feels so guilty about this that he moves into the canine nanny's kennel, literally enacting the cliché about being in the dog house. He even has the kennel transported to his office each day, a practice that gains him such notoriety that wealthy people start inviting him to dinner at their homes—as long as he brings the kennel, too. Mrs. Darling complains that he is enjoying his punishment too much. Although his wife has died by the time Wendy marries and has a child of her own, Mr. Darling is still alive though suffering from the infirmities of age. He has sold the house to Wendy's husband because it is too hard for him to go up and down the stairs any longer.