• Edana (Dana) Franklin: A courageous and compassionate 26-year-old African-American woman writer. She is the protagonist and the narrator of the story. She is married to a white writer named Kevin. She is forced to travel to a slave plantation in antebellum Maryland by her white slave-owning ancestor Rufus. On the plantation, she must learn to make hard compromises to survive as a slave and to ensure her existence in her own time. As a writer, she is largely unsuccessful until marrying Kevin.
  • Rufus Weylin: The red-haired, white son of Tom Weylin, a Maryland plantation and slave owner. Dana first meets him as a young accident-prone boy torn between an indulgent mother and a strict father and sees him grow to replace Tom Weylin as slave master. He is as needy as his mother, but possessive and controlling like his father. His arrogance and greediness leads to him to rape and impregnate his longtime friend Alice (Dana's great-great-great-grandmother), making him Dana's ancestor. He desperately seeks validation through Alice and Dana's love, but still views them as his property.
  • Kevin Franklin: Dana's husband, a white writer twelve years older than Dana. Kevin is a progressive person who is deeply in love with his wife, having rejected his racist family in order to marry her. When he time travels with Dana to the past on one of her trips, he witnesses the brutality of slavery and eventually becomes an abolitionist, helping slaves escape to freedom. Still, he often has trouble internalizing the incredible racism that he witnesses.
  • Tom Weylin: The merciless and brutal slave owner of an antebellum Maryland plantation. Tom's cold, strict, and impatient personality makes him a hard master and father. When he perceives he has been disobeyed, he retaliates swiftly and violently; instilling fear in those subservient to him. He whips Dana on multiple occasions, and authorizes the selling of his slaves' children. He is often likened to Kevin in looks.
  • Alice Greenwood (later, Alice Jackson): A proud black woman, born free and then enslaved for helping her slave husband Isaac to run away. Alice is subsequently bought by Rufus, who forces her to become his concubine and bear him four children, though only two survive, Joe and Hagar. A tragic figure, she survives her fate by feeding off the hate she has for Rufus but hangs herself after Rufus tells her he has sold her children as punishment for trying to run away.
  • Sarah: The cook of the Weylin household and its unofficial manager, she works hard and makes the house slaves work hard, but also saves food for them and tries to protect them. Dana's first impression of Sarah as a "mammy" changes when she learns Weylin has sold all of Sarah's children except Carrie. Sarah's outward compliance masks her anger, resentment, and suffering.
  • Margaret Weylin: The plantation owner's temperamental wife. She is over-indulgent and possessive of Rufus. Like her husband, she is abusive to the house slaves. She goes away for a long period of time when her infant twins die and returns much mellower due to an opium addiction. She is hated by the slaves, especially by Sarah. Sarah explains that Margaret sold her babies in order to get new furniture.
  • Hagar Weylin: Rufus and Alice's youngest daughter. Hagar is Dana's direct blood line on her mother's side. Without Hagar being born, Dana believes she would not exist.
  • Luke: A slave at the Weylin plantation and Nigel's father. Luke works as Weylin's overseer until Weylin sells him for not being sufficiently obedient.
  • Nigel: The son of Luke and a slave at the Weylin Plantation. As a small boy, he is also Rufus's playmate. Dana secretly teaches him to read and write. When older, he runs away unsuccessfully; when back on the plantation, he forms a family with Sarah's daughter, Carrie.
  • Carrie: Sarah's daughter and Nigel's wife. Although Carrie is mute, she is a source of strength for Dana by helping her come to terms with the hard compromises she must make for the sake of survival.
  • Liza: A slave woman jealous of Dana's preferential treatment by the Weylins, she snitches on Dana when she runs away, causing her to get caught and whipped.
  • Tess: A slave woman at the Weylin plantation used as a sexual slave by Tom Weylin and later by Edwards, the white overseer.
  • Jake Edwards: One of the overseers of the Weylin plantation.

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