Character Foils

Character Foils

What They Are and Why They Matter

A foil is a character who plays off another in order to highlight certain strengths or weaknesses. Think of a comedy team: One person is the Straight Man (think of him as your protagonist), while the other is the Wise Guy. The Straight Man sets up jokes and the Wise Guy rolls off a punchline. They are two people with opposite characteristics who share a similar bond (they have to work together to deliver a joke), playing off each others strengths and weaknesses.

Foils pop up EVERYWHERE in fiction. And they can serve a multitude of purposes. A foil might be present to highlight a particular aspect of another character’s personality that is important. Perhaps they’re there for comic relief. Often times a character foil serves to bring in another perspective on a situation or cause conflict. You can’t have a good story without good conflict. Sometimes authors include a character foil simply because opposites attract. I’ve never met a pair of best friends or a romantic couple who thought and behaved exactly the same as each other. It’s really dependent on the particular character why they have a foil and what the foil does to their story.

Common uses/Popular examples

Foils are always used in Romance. You can’t write a romance plot without a foil. Think Elizabeth and Darcy- they’re an easy pair to figure out because the title of their book describes their foil nature. Darcy is Elizabeth’s foil, his calm reserved, proud nature highlighting her lively, quick-witted prejudice. Also, Frodo and Sam- Sam’s “Go Get ‘em” attitude and Frodo’s heavy footedness (is that a word?) play off each other all through the Lord of the Ring. Their difference in character is most strongly shown when Sam gives the ring back to Frodo willingly and Frodo, just a few (long) pages later can’t get rid of it himself.

How Does this Knowledge Help Us?

Recognizing a foil can help us learn more about our protagonist, since they’re usually the ones who get them. Looking at their relationship can help us understand the motivations behind certain decisions the protagonist makes or point out to us some major flaw in our protagonist which will be important later.

Finding foils is important to understanding the diversity of character in a work of fiction. It’s just another thing to analyze and help us understand what the author is trying to tell us.

Keep an eye out in your next read and try to pinpoint your main character’s foil. Then think of how this person is different and what aspects of the protagonist’s character they highlight. You might just learn something more about your main character that makes you love or hate them.

Fun Fact: The term “foil” used in this way comes from the practice of backing a gem with foil in order to make it shine brighter. I learned that from Wikipedia. ;)

7 Responses to Character Foils

  1. Parker says:

    This was a great read!

    The first time I was ever really introduced to the concept of Character Foils was with Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

    Also I had no idea the term “foil” was supposed to imply them bringing out the ‘brightness’ in the protagonist.

    I would hear character foil and think that it would do the opposite, and bring out their negative traits. such as “CURSES! FOILED AGAIN!”

    So it didn’t make much sense to me.

    And I’ll be honest… I laughed quite hard at Frodo’s “heavy footedness”…

    …’cause his feet are big…

    ;P

  2. Bryan Kelly says:

    Great rundown on foils; the Fun Fact was new to me. I always thought the term “foil” referred to… um… hm. Come to think of it, it made no kind of sense.

    So can you think of an example where the lack of a foil or strong differences between key characters has hurt a story? For me, none are springing to mind (apart from my own ;), but I always find it interesting to look at how the absence of something can affect a story as well as the presence of something.

    Oh, also: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/heavy-footed
    Look under “related forms”.

    • Jazz says:

      Hazel Grace and Augustus!!

      • Abigail Endsley says:

        I totally meant to mention them as an example! Especially because this week is “The Fault in Our Stars” week and the whole Character Foil post was inspired by them! :P Maybe I’ll do a quick edit.

    • Abigail Endsley says:

      Oh I never thought of that! Give me some time and I’m sure I can find a story where the foils hurt… Maybe just poorly written stories which draw too much attention to the foils, or make the characters TOO different are hurt. Stories are often destroyed by authors who try to hard.

      In reply to the link: AHA! I’m a genius and I didn’t even know it!

      • Bryan Kelly says:

        I had some trouble with that as well. It’s hard to distinguish a bad use of concepts from bad writing in general. So can you think of a story that was hurt by a lack of foils, where some strong foils would’ve helped things? This is also something I had trouble thinking of myself. ;)

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