Elinor Dashwood is one of the two sisters at the heart of the novel; her marriage to Edward is the novel's happy ending. Elinor's composed, measured approach to life—her "sense"—contrasts with her sister Marianne's "sensibility" and seems, initially, the wiser of the two approaches. However, Elinor learns the limits of a cool, reasoning mind and develops a warmer balance of reason and emotion, propriety and expressiveness as she assists Marianne through her troubles.
Marianne Dashwood is musically talented, beautiful, and lively. She favors "sensibility"—passion, emotion, and drama—over a cool, reasoned approach to life. Unlike her calmer, more restrained older sister, whom she loves but can't quite understand, Marianne throws herself into events, expecting a fairy-tale ending to love with Willoughby. Bitter experience forces Marianne to leaven her sensibility with a pinch of Eleanor's sense, preparing her to recognize Colonel Brandon's worthy love for her.
Edward Ferrars, brother of Fanny Ferrars Dashwood and Robert Ferrars, doesn't fit in with his family. Fanny, Robert, and their mother (Mrs. Ferrars) value wealth, status, and reputation. Edward, in contrast, values education and good conversation. Retiring and modest Edward is also loyal to a fault, which nearly costs him his marriage to Elinor.
Colonel Brandon earns the description "an officer and a gentleman." In his mid-thirties, he has seen enough of the world to be alert to manipulation, scandal, and lies, yet he is also a good judge of character and knows worthy traits when he sees them. Because he is capable and compassionate Colonel Brandon wins Elinor's admiration, Edward's friendship, and Marianne's love as he works behind the scenes to undo the damage more selfish characters cause.
John Willoughby is the novel's scoundrel. Handsome and charming, Willoughby uses the people in his life to meet his needs, especially for pleasure and leisure. He relies idly on the promise of an inheritance, squanders his wealthy aunt's trust in him, and seduces and then abandons a vulnerable girl. Yet Willoughby changes to a degree when he courts Marianne; he realizes that he could actually love her and be a better man. His realization comes too late but earns Elinor's sympathy.