The narrator and protagonist of this veiled autobiography, based in part on the author himself. David’s father, David, Sr., dies six months before he was born, and he further loses his mother when he is still a child. He is characterised in the book as having perseverance, but also emotional instability, which is an important point of the latter part of the book. After being adopted by his aunt Betsey Trotwood, he is called “Trotwood Copperfield” in deference to her wishes. Throughout the novel he goes by multiple names: the Peggotty family address him as “Davy”, James Steerforth nicknames him “Daisy”, Dora calls him “Doady”, the Micawbers mostly address him by his last name, and his aunt and her circle refer to him as “Trot”.
David’s kind mother, described as being innocently childish, who dies while David is at Salem House. She dies just after the birth of her second child (a son, Edward Murdstone junior, born to her second husband), who dies around the same time.
David’s eccentric and temperamental yet kind-hearted great-aunt; she becomes his guardian after he runs away from Grinby and Murdstone’s warehouse in Blackfriars (London). She is present on the night of David’s birth but leaves after hearing that Clara Copperfield’s child is a boy instead of a girl, and is not seen until David is older and flees to her house in Dover from London. She is portrayed as affectionate towards David, and defends him and his late mother when Mr. Murdstone arrives to take custody of David: she confronts the man and rebukes him for his abuse of David and his mother, then threatens him and drives him off the premises. Universally believed to be a widow, she conceals the existence of her ne’er-do-well husband who constantly bleeds her for money.
Clara Peggotty (Peggotty).
Clara Peggotty is usually referred to as simply ‘Peggotty’ so as not to confuse her with David’s mother, who is also called Clara. Peggotty is the housekeeper of the family home and plays a big part in David’s upbringing. Peggotty is the sister of Yarmouth fisherman Daniel Peggotty, and the aunt of Ham Peggotty and Little Em’ly.
Daniel Peggotty (Mr. Peggotty).
Yarmouth fisherman Daniel Peggotty is the brother of Clara, referred to as “Mr. Peggotty”. He takes his nephew Ham and niece Emily into his custody after each of them has been orphaned, and welcomes David as a child when he holidays to Yarmouth with Peggotty.
Edward Murdstone (Mr Murdstone).
David’s cruel stepfather who beats him for falling behind in his studies. David reacts by biting Mr Murdstone, who then sends him to Salem House, the private school owned by his friend Mr. Creakle. After David’s mother dies, Mr. Murdstone sends him to work in his factory in London, where he has to clean wine bottles.
Jane Murdstone (Miss Murdstone).
The sister of David’s cruel stepfather Edward Murdstone.
The main antagonist of the novel’s second half, Heep is a disturbing young man who serves first as secretary, and then as partner to Mr. Wickfield. The archetypal hypocrite, he appears to be extremely self-deprecating and talks constantly of being “‘umble”, but gradually reveals his wicked and twisted character. He gains great power over Wickfield and several others, but is finally discovered – by Wilkins Micawber – to be guilty of multiple acts of fraud. By forging Mr. Wickfield’s signature, he has misappropriated the personal wealth of the Wickfield family, together with portfolios entrusted to them by others, including £5000 belonging to Betsey Trotwood. He has fooled Wickfield into thinking he has himself committed this act while drunk, and then blackmailed him. Heep is eventually forced to return the forged documents and stolen capital; he is thus defeated but not prosecuted. He is later imprisoned for an (unrelated) attempted fraud on the Bank of England. He nurtures a deep hatred of David Copperfield and of many others.
Melodramatic, kind-hearted and foolish gentleman who befriends David as a young boy. He suffers from much financial difficulty and even has to spend time in a debtors’ prison before moving to Plymouth. As an adult, Copperfield meets him again in London and gets him a job with Wickfield and Heep. Thinking Micawber is criminally-minded, Heep forces him to be his accomplice in several of his schemes, but Micawber eventually turns the tables on his employer and is instrumental in his downfall. Micawber eventually emigrates to Australia, where he enjoys a successful career as a sheep farmer and becomes a magistrate.
The character of Wilkins Micawber is based on Dickens’s father, John Dickens, who faced similar financial problems when Dickens was a child.