The protagonist of The Odyssey, Odysseus is a classic epic hero. He is by turns cunning, deceitful, clever, prudent, wise, courageous, and impulsive. A distinguishing characteristic about him is that his mental skills are just as strong as his physical strengths, and this ability helps him escape some dangerous situations. Odysseus has weaknesses—a tendency to give in to temptation, for example—as well as strengths. Odysseus is on the long journey home from taking part in the Achaeans' victory in the Trojan War, depicted in The Iliad. Glory and honor have been the most important things in his life up to this point, but now he yearns for his family and home.
Telemachus is Odysseus's son, and the two have not seen each other in 20 years, since Telemachus was a baby. In many ways Telemachus's journey as a character is as important as his father's. Still growing up when the story begins, he must learn to take charge and find the courage to dispel the hoards of suitors who have besieged his home and his mother. Under the guidance of Athena (who also guides his father), he matures and gains confidence. His assertiveness upsets the suitors, who have only seen him as a little boy up until the time covered by the narrative. By the end of the epic, he is confident and cunning, like his parents, practicing prudence and restraint in order to defeat the suitors.
Penelope is the wife of Odysseus and the mother of Telemachus. When The Odyssey opens, she has been waiting for Odysseus to return for 20 years. In that time her home has become besieged by suitors who take advantage of her hospitality and wait for her to choose one of them as a husband. Yet a part of her still hopes that Odysseus will return, and she uses ploys as deceptive as her husband's to fool the suitors into waiting longer and longer. She does this by claiming she will choose a husband as soon as she finishes weaving a shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes. What the suitors don't know is that by night she undoes the day's work, which means that the shroud will never be finished. Penelope proves herself to be just as shrewd and smart as her husband throughout the epic.
Athena, a favorite of her father, Zeus, is the goddess who appears most often in the epic. She has been watching over Odysseus since his days fighting in Troy. She seems to have a great fondness for Odysseus, in part because they are so similar—prone to cunning and deception. She comes to Odysseus's aid time and time again throughout The Odyssey, though not always directly. She is often in disguise and will usually direct Odysseus to people who can help him rather than help him herself. She also helps Telemachus, because he is Odysseus's son. Athena asks assistance from Zeus when she needs it, and one reason she may not intervene more obviously on Odysseus's behalf is because she is afraid to incur the wrath of the god Poseidon, who is angry at Odysseus.
Zeus is the ruler of the gods and is also the god of hospitality and those who are lost. Athena is his daughter, and he will usually come to her aid when she asks for help for Odysseus. However, Poseidon is his brother—and Poseidon is determined to punish Odysseus. This makes Zeus's decisions complicated at times and unpredictable for Odysseus. However, Zeus ultimately sends Odysseus omens that he is on the right track and gives him support.
Poseidon is the god of the sea, which is unfortunately where Odysseus spends much of his time on his journey home. Poseidon bears a grudge against Odysseus for blinding his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus. At every turn of Odysseus's journey, Poseidon tries to thwart him, even gaining the blessing of Zeus at one point to continue to do so. The final scene of The Odyssey finds Odysseus making a sacrifice to Poseidon in the hopes that the god will finally leave his family in peace.