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Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s novella Like a Mule Bringing Ice-Cream to the Sun is character driven.

When the group of 25 participants at the 2016 Ake Fiction Workshop sat around Sarah on Tuesday afternoon for a lesson in using performance to explore a character’s voice, they did not expect the exercise she had in store for them.

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“Switch Shoes! To build believable characters you have to literally walk in their shoes.”

Sarah set the stage for a lesson in writing with empathy and we were all intrigued. No shoes were swapped, but we partnered up and wrote about each other’s shoes.

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Characters were invented, detailed descriptions were given, and inferences were made about the wearers.

“This is how you get maximum information about a character with the smallest of details”.

We listened to Sarah reveal how a friend invited her to teach a workshop to a group of seasoned actors about building characters through performance acting.

She was working on a short story about a Nigerian immigrant woman who cleaned in an airport. At first glance, this woman was ordinary. Still she had succeeded in putting her kids through college and her son was a soldier in Iraq.

Sarah was to act out this  without using words. She imagined her character as polite, acknowledging those passing by with a friendly greeting. Out of nowhere, the character burst out of her annoyed. “You people are just her coming and going. You cannot even respond to a common greeting. My son is fighting for this country in Iraq and my daughter graduated top of her class from college this year.”

The outburst was completely unexpected, but the point was made. Listen to your characters speak, walk in their shoes, and be them. Then, you can write their stories.

It was hard to believe that Sarah is a shy person as she acted out character after character from Like a Mule Bringing Ice-Cream to the Sun. Middle Eastern accent activated, African-American slang present, and the sophisticated older Nigerian woman came through with each of her performances.

“My characters even have something to say post the election.” Sarah shared. “I am at this point in my writing where I am really enjoying telling the stories of underrepresented people. Give full rein to your characters as you tell their stories. Be brave.”