The central character is Joss Moody, a famous black jazz musician. The novel begins in the wake of his death. Born a female by the name of Josephine Moore, Joss discovers he is transgender, and lives his life as a man. He becomes a famous trumpet player and devotes his life to his passion of music. Joss is portrayed as a passionate lover, strict father, energetic friend, and dedicated artist.
Joss is married to Millie Moody, a white woman. As a young adult, Millie is captivated by the idea of finding true love. She finds this with Joss and her passion is strong enough to overcome the truth about his original sex. After his death, Millie is devastated. Although she outwardly handles herself with grace and composure, Millie's heart is broken. Millie is a loving, sympathetic character living out the cycles of grief under an unwanted spotlight. The reader feels sympathy and compassion for her.
Colman Moody is the adopted son of Millie and Joss. He is of mixed race. As a child, Colman was often difficult and misbehaved. Upon his father's death, Colman uncovers the secret that his father was born biologically female. At the time of this discovery, Colman is already a grown man of thirty. He is sent into a tumult of emotions including confusion, anger, embarrassment, and grief. However, as Colman comes to terms with the realities of his life, readers might grow to harbor some level of sympathy for a character who has come on such a long journey to self-acceptance.
Colman's bitterness drives him to cooperate with a journalist, Sophie Stones, in her attempt to write Joss Moody's story. Sophie is convinced that this book will finally bring her great success. Although at face value she seems sleazy and self-serving, Sophie's inner insecurities and perceived competition with her sister often surface in her train of thought, giving her more depth as a character.
Edith Moore is Joss Moody's mother. She enters the novel only at the end. We see her as she is growing old in a retirement home. Edith Moore is lonely but dealing well with her old age, continually doing things for herself and maintaining her propriety and poise.
Minor characters, including the registrar, the doctor, the funeral director, Moody's drummer Big Red McCall, and the Moody's maid Maggie, also make appearances in the unfolding events after Joss’s death. Their character development is brief, confined to the chapter dedicated to them, and serves only to accentuate the theme of acceptance as they reflect on Moody's life.