Owen Warland is the artist of the beautiful. The story traces this character through the periods of his inspiration, despondency, and creative genius. Owen suffers because he cannot gain the love of Annie Hovenden. He suffers more because he cannot recreate the beauty that he sees in Nature. By the end of the story he achieves his aim. He creates an ingenious thing of beauty only to have it destroyed by the infant son of the woman he had loved.
Peter Hovenden was the watchmaker master of Owen Warland. Owen had been his apprentice. Peter Hovenden has a scornful attitude toward artistic pursuits that he believes to be impractical and unprofitable. He does not evolve during the course of the story but only torments Owen with his scorn and criticism.
Annie Hovenden is the object of Owen Warland's love. Owen believes that she can understand his creativity and appreciate it. However, she does not. She inadvertently destroys one of his delicate creations and marries the practical and coarse blacksmith Robert Danforth. When Owen brings her an ingenious, delicate, and beautiful gift, her infant son destroys it.