The community in which the story is set is called Wessex. Wessex is a fictional English county used by the author Hardy in many of his works, and bears similarities to the factual Dorset county, where Hardy lived for most of his life.
The main characters in the story are a vain young woman, Bathsheba Everdene, and the three men in her life. Born in poverty, Bathsheba sees herself as a "strong-headed woman", takes over the management of her Uncle's farm when he dies, and is formidable and conscientious in business but imprudent in love.
William Boldwood lives on the property next door to Bathsheba. Because of Bathsheba's flirtatiousness, Boldwood is misled into believing she will marry him. His obsessive illusions over the years signal a blurred distinction between fantasy and reality, leading to tragedy
Sergeant Troy, a swindler and a spendthrift, is the man Bathsheba first marries. He gambles away Bathsheba's money, then audaciously declares his love for another woman. His life comes to a violent end at the hands of the delusional Boldwood.
Gabriel Oak is a former farmer who has fallen on hard times and works as a shepherd on Bathsheba's farm. While she struggles through her relationships with other men, Gabriel's love for her is constant and self-sacrificing. Fortunately, in the end, Bathsheba realizes the value of such unconditional love.