Earl is the main character of the story. He seems to have had quite a storied past, and though he has committed a number of crimes and even been to prison once, he is not a violent man. He seems to pride himself on that fact and even claims that his ex-wife, Helen, would testify that he is a peace-lover. Earl longs for a fresh start and believes that Florida is the place where he can get it. He has friends there, none of whom would turn him in to authorities.
Earl is very optimistic and believes that he can absolutely achieve this fresh start: despite having to steal a car for the trip, despite its breaking down and despite the symbolism of it breaking down within sight of a gold mine (a gold mine that Earl could never reach, no matter how hard he tried). He does not realize that he cannot actually achieve the American Dream, symbolized by the gold mine in the distance.
Edna is Earl's girlfriend. She does not share Earl's optimism, and he wishes that she would be more hopeful. When they first set out from Montana, Edna and Earl had a lot of fun together, and he believed that the Mercedes he'd stolen to get them to Florida contributed to Edna's high spirits. When the car began to have trouble, Edna begins to "siz[e] things up for herself." Edna's demeanor begins to change, and she gets upset when Earl doesn't react the way she wants him to when she tells him a story about her past. The car seems to get worse and worse as the relationship between Earl and Edna disintegrates. Once it breaks down for good, she ends up telling him that she's going to take a bus back home the next day.
Cheryl is Earl's daughter from his first marriage. She seems like a sweet girl, and Earl is conscious of the fact that taking care of her will be completely his responsibility from now on. He wants Cheryl to have a good life.
Earl also meets an unnamed black woman living with her grandson in one of the trailers near the gold mine. She allows him to use her telephone to call for a taxi. She is kind and helpful, and she's made a nice home, but she cannot get into the gold mine either. Neither can her grandson, who has some kind of brain damage or developmental disorder.