Susie Salmon describes her own murder and then observes from heaven as her family and loved ones struggle to come to grips with the appalling tragedy. At the same time, she learns to navigate her own personal heaven, which grows in scope and detail the more time she spends there. When Susie dies, she's on the verge of falling in love with a boy named Ray Singh. In the book's final chapter, she gets to occupy the body of a living girl so that she and Ray can make love. Susie is worried about how each member of her family is coping; she feels she missed out on love; and she longs to bring her murderer to justice. But making the most of the afterlife requires that she learn to detach herself from the world. Though she does not age in heaven, Susie is able to broaden her perspective until it feels comfortable to let go of her loved ones. Susie's final choice in the book is whether to chase her murderer down or reconnect with Ray Singh. She chooses love, not vengeance, but the book ends with the suggestion she may have brought her murderer to justice as well.
Mr. George Harvey, a sociopathic serial killer, has murdered many victims before Susie Salmon and will go on to murder more after he flees town. Victim of a brutal father and a mother made psychotic by abuse, Mr. Harvey works at home making dollhouses. He knows he's a suspect in Susie's murder and also knows that Susie's sister, Lindsey, has broken into his house searching for clues. Mr. Harvey collects souvenirs from his victims and is later identified as Susie's killer because he has kept a silver charm from her bracelet. Mr. Harvey is both terrifying and sickening. As a child, he felt utterly alone and powerless. His crimes are horrific, yet it's not quite possible to hate him because he himself recognizes how evil his actions are. Clearly, his dreadful childhood has shaped him into the wounded monster that he is, but his skill at planning murders and avoiding detection make it equally clear that he possesses a chilling level of intelligence. Yet his loneliness is so extreme that just before killing Susie, he forces her to say she loves him.
Lindsey is a year younger than Susie. She's bright, beautiful, and athletic. She and Susie were close. Lindsey is a perfectionist who refuses to let the outside world witness her grief. With Susie gone and her mother becoming ever more distant, Lindsey feels increasingly responsible for her younger brother, Buckley, and for her father. Lindsey is extremely hard on herself. After she's been labeled "gifted," she pushes herself to read books she doesn't enjoy so that she can live up to the label. She cries over Susie only in private and brushes off others' expressions of sympathy. More disturbingly, she appoints herself to break into Mr. Harvey's house in search of clues. Though she plans the break-in with intelligence and foresight, the fact that it even occurs to her to make the attempt shows the magnitude of her sense of responsibility. Only with her boyfriend, Sam, is Lindsey able to relax.
Mr. Jack Salmon, Susie's father, is an accountant whose innate sense of order has been shattered by his daughter's murder. He is overwhelmed by grief and remorse. He brought Susie up to feel that her world was safe, and now he doesn't even know where her body is. He is convinced that Mr. Harvey is the murderer but is powerless to convince the police. His rage at being ignored causes him to snap and attack a classmate of Susie's whom he mistakes for Mr. Harvey. After his wife abandons the family, Mr. Salmon does his best to hold things together with the help of his mother-in-law. The snow globe on Mr. Salmon's desk, and his hobby of making ships in bottles, both hint at his fondness for environments that are calm, protected, and under control. When his world shatters, Mr. Salmon works hard to put it back together. He is the parent who tells Lindsey that one of Susie's bones has been found, and he's also the one who finally comes up with a way to explain Susie's death to four-year-old Buckley. Mr. Salmon is intensely frustrated at not being able to "fix" Susie's death.
Mrs. Salmon is Susie's mother. Grief over her murdered daughter causes her to pull away from her husband and two remaining children. She tries to lose herself in books; she allows herself to embark on an affair with Len Fenerman for no other reason than that she finds life intolerable with Susie gone. Finally, she leaves the family and moves to California, where she takes a job at a winery. After Mr. Salmon has a heart attack, Mrs. Salmon flies back home. Gradually, she finds herself falling in love with Mr. Salmon all over again and vows to regain the hearts of her two remaining children. While Mrs. Salmon loves all her children, she also feels that she was trapped into being their mother. She was not ready to get pregnant with Susie and feels that fate punished her with Susie's death. After she realized she was pregnant with Buckley, "she sealed the more mysterious mother off." That part, "the needy part" is desperate to get out, and Mrs. Salmon's neediness explodes when Susie dies. She tries to repair the sense of neediness and loss by having an affair with Len Fenerman, but has the self-knowledge to realize that her trumped-up feelings for Len won't help. Flight from the family seems like her only escape—but she rushes back without question, after years, when Mr. Salmon has a heart attack.
A poetic, semidepressed loner, Ruth Connors is in Susie's grade at school. The girls know each other only slightly before Susie's death, but immediately after Susie is murdered, her fleeing soul brushes against Ruth's body so that now, they share a special bond.
Len Fenerman is the detective assigned to investigate Susie's murder. Len is haunted by all his unsolved cases and views his wife's unexplained suicide as another case. Early in the investigation of Susie's murder, Len becomes attracted to Mrs. Salmon, Susie's mother.