Janie Mae Crawford's mother, Leafy, was raped by a white schoolteacher. Janie did not know her parents but was raised by her grandmother. Through the course of the novel, Janie experiences the joys and sorrows of love and marriage while striving toward independence and a sense of her own identity.
Happily married to Sam Watson, Pheoby is Janie's best friend in Eatonville. She is the person to whom Janie tells the story of her life. Pheoby does not judge Janie as the other porch sitters do.
Nanny Crawford was born a slave but was freed as a result of Emancipation during the Civil War. When she was a slave, she had a daughter, Leafy, with the plantation's master. After Leafy is raped at 17, has a child, and runs away, Nanny raises her daughter, Janie. Nanny arranges Janie's first marriage to protect her after realizing that Janie has become interested in boys. Nanny hopes that Janie's life will be better than her own and Leafy's.
Logan Killicks is willing to share his 60 acres of land and his house with Janie as long as she will help him on the farm. He is patient with Janie at first but often compares her unfavorably to his first wife. Janie feels resentful and bored in her loveless marriage and leaves Killicks for Joe Starks.
After opening a successful grocery store in Eatonville, Florida, Joe "Jody" Starks becomes its mayor, postmaster, and most important landlord. Controlling, jealous, and possessive, he expects Janie to act a certain way and stifles her personality. Starks and Janie are married for about 20 years until he dies of kidney failure.
Twelve years younger than Janie, Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods is her true love and becomes her third husband less than a year after Joe Starks dies. Loyal and loving, Tea Cake encourages Janie to be herself. He risks his own life to rescue her from a rabid dog but is bitten himself. After his mind is affected by rabies, Tea Cake becomes paranoid and tries to shoot Janie, forcing her to kill him in self-defense.
Since Mrs. Turner prefers black people who have physical characteristics that are more associated with white people such as light-colored skin, she befriends Janie and tries to set Janie up with her brother. Tea Cake resents the fact that Mrs. Turner is prejudiced against her own people and asks Janie to avoid her. After Tea Cake instigates a brawl in her restaurant, Mrs. Turner decides to leave.