Becky Sharp is one of Victorian literature's most memorable characters. The daughter of a starving artist and a French opera dancer, she is determined to leave poverty behind. To secure her future, she plays whatever role people need—caretaker, confidante, temptress, admirer—to gain their affection. Becky realizes the power of her beauty and uses it ruthlessly, regardless of lasting damage to her friends and acquaintances—even to her husband and child. Raised in straightened circumstances, she seems unable to overcome her fear of poverty. She is forever grasping and discontented with her situation, even as she becomes financially secure and marries an adoring husband.
Amelia has been raised to be an ornament to the man she marries—pretty, obedient, and graceful. But her descent into poverty requires effort, budgeting, and sharp judgment—abilities she utterly lacks. Even into motherhood, Amelia is incompetent because she remains shallow and childlike. Yet her loyalty to those she loves is deep.
Jos is the Sedley family's established bachelor. His job as collector for the East India Company has made him comfortably wealthy, and he spends money on food and drink until he becomes obese. Despite his financial success, Jos finds his father intimidating, and women in general unnerving. Becky fails to ensnare Jos at first, but finally worms her way into his affections through flattery, his weakness.
George, a handsome army captain who can rarely resist a mirror, is the son of a banker, but feels inferior to young noblemen. John Sedley is his godfather, and his betrothal to Amelia has been understood since their childhood. George's loyalty to Amelia is challenged when her family becomes poor, and when Becky's charms attract him. Worse, George looks down on William Dobbin, who has been his friend and protector since childhood, simply because Dobbin is not wealthy.
William Dobbin's last name brings to mind the strength and reliability of a farm horse. A capable, even-tempered man, he thinks before he acts, puts others' happiness ahead of his own, waits patiently for Amelia's love, and helps his friends through one painful situation after another. Over the years he becomes more confident about his place in the world, but he remains too deeply moral and pragmatic to be tempted by the shallow pleasures of Vanity Fair. Although a supporting character, Dobbin comes closer than any other character to being a traditional hero.
Rawdon Crawley has been his aunt Matilda's favorite for years, and for good reason. Although not a particularly intelligent man, Rawdon is charming and easy-going. Strong and athletic, he has many friends among soldiers—his aunt purchased his commission, and he takes quickly to life in the guard. But the traits that make Rawdon such a likeable fellow also leave him vulnerable to Becky's schemes. After he marries her, he loses his aunt's favor, and begins a long slide that ends in virtual exile from England and from his little boy. Yet even Becky recognizes his bravery and selfless loyalty.