Nel grows up with Sula and is the better behaved of the pair, having been raised by a mother, Helene, who is determined to keep Nel from becoming a prostitute like her own mother. Nel is the perfect wife for Jude, a man who wants someone to care about him, have his kids, and continue to be a respected part of the Bottom community.
Sula, Nel's best friend, is the daughter of a woman who sleeps around with other women's husbands, and her family is a chaotic group with new people and boarders being adopted into the house by her grandmother, Eva, all the time. The braver of the two friends, she longs to leave the Bottom and does so but returns 10 years later, sleeps around, sometimes, rumors claim, with white men, and becomes a symbol of evil around town.
Eva is a woman who has sacrificed a great deal to keep her children fed and clothed. She is rumored to have sold one of her legs to feed her family. She takes care of everyone, but if they turn on her or become too burdensome, she becomes spiteful and even murderous.
Hannah is Eva's daughter and Sula's mother, a woman who comes back home ostensibly to take care of Eva after Eva's husband dies. But Hannah can't stand to go a day without being touched, so she seduces other women's husbands, sleeping with a different man every day. She is so sweet and complimentary, though, that the men defend her when their wives get upset.
Jude is a man who stays within the social norms and marries Nel because she makes him feel as if someone cares about his feelings. He wants to get a higher-paying job but discovers that the white contractors won't hire him. He cheats on Nel with Sula and then leaves Nel out of shame.
Ajax is an extremely handsome man who attracts women everywhere he goes. He never settles down, and when Sula falls for him after sleeping with him for a while, he leaves her.
Helene has been raised by a strict, religious grandmother in order to make sure she didn't become a prostitute like her mother. She raises Nel in the same way—to be obedient, ladylike, and responsible.