The short story “Once Upon a Time” by Nadine Gordimer has several characters. In the outer story, the main character is an unnamed writer. In the inner story, the main characters are the husband and wife, whose shared decisions eventually lead to a tragic ending. None of the characters are named, which is a feature common to fairy-tales.

Other characters mentioned in the inner story are the housemaid and the gardener. The story implies that they are black South Africans. While the apartheid system was in place, racial segregation led to black people being offered low-skilled jobs or roles as servants in the houses of white people. The people the husband and wife fear are also black South Africans, even though the story does not state this explicitly. This points to the couple’s most significant trait, their prejudice against black South Africans, which turns into paranoia. 

The husband's mother, who is described as a witch and who warns the husband and the wife not to hire anyone from outside, symbolizes the idea that prejudices are learned and passed on from the previous generation to the next.

You can read a full characterization of the writer and the husband and wife in the following sections.