Sonny, a colored man who admires William Shakespeare. He is a schoolteacher turned social activist. Fighting to end apartheid in South Africa, he is arrested, tried, and jailed for two years. While in jail, he is visited by Hannah, a representative from a human rights organization. Although he has a nearly flawless family with a wife and two children, he begins a prolonged and passionate affair with Hannah. The affair has a profound impact on his family and eventually on his credibility in the freedom movement.
Aila, Sonny’s wife, a beautiful and dignified woman. Reticent, reserved, gentle-tempered, and apparently uncontentious, she becomes a revolutionary without her husband’s and her son’s knowledge, perhaps partly because of Sonny’s affair. Implicated and arrested when a cache of weapons is found in her house, she jumps bail and goes into exile to join her daughter in Lusaka.
Baby, Sonny’s favorite child, apparently carefree and flamboyant. She attempts suicide for no significant reason other than her knowledge of Sonny’s affair. She later marries a freedom fighter and goes into exile in Lusaka. She maintains close ties with her mother, thus contributing to her becoming a revolutionary.
Will, named after Shakespeare, is the sarcastic narrator of the story. An intelligent young man, he is disillusioned by the discovery that his father is having an affair with a white woman. He is manipulated by Sonny into keeping the secret, though he resents doing so. Having witnessed the transformation of his family under apartheid, he becomes a writer in the end.
Hannah Plowman, a divorced woman, is a white South African working for an international human rights group. Admiring Sonny, she falls in love with him and becomes his mistress and comrade. When offered a senior position by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, she decides to leave South Africa and Sonny.