You’ve taken the time to write a perfectly flawed character, you’ve ticked all the literary boxes making sure they have a solid backstory, they have a clear motivation and you’ve taken the time to showcase witty or cynical dialogue. Yet somehow there’s still something missing, that missing gem that you can’t quite put your finger on.
Why isn’t your character shining?
Fear not, because I’m about to explain how to polish your power as a writer by using a foil character. Foil characters are an incredibly powerful and yet often subtle device to showcase and emphasise certain character traits in your MC, by offering another character in a contrasting light.
In this short piece, I will explain what a foil character is, how to use them effectively, and give examples of foils in literature, as well as film. I will also be showing you how to get the most of these often-forgetful characters, which when used effectively will give your characters that little extra time in the spotlight.
Before I continue, here’s a little fun fact for you!
Foil was once placed behind gems to make them shine brighter. Clever, hey? I’m going to let you in on a secret, that is exactly what a foil character does!
So let’s look a little closer at these magical tricksters.
What Are Foil Characters?
A foil character by definition is a device used by writers to contrast or reflect another character – often your protagonist (main character)- by highlighting their traits, appearance, personality or morals.
Often, a foil in literature comes in the form of an antagonist (an adversary) but they can also be a sidekick, mentor, friend or parent; they can also even be an animal, or a subplot which foils your character’s progress. By using a foil character, you will essentially be shining a spotlight on your character’s attributes and behaviour, revealing those contrasting elements.
How Foil Characters Are Used
A good foil character will draw your reader’s attention to the qualities of your protagonist, often without your reader even knowing you’re doing it. This can be done in a variety of ways. Let’s take a look at some contrasting examples and match them to famous foil characters.
- Your protagonist may be a law-abiding citizen, so the foil could be a law breaker (think how different Harry Potter’s friends, Hermione and Ron, are).
- An adventurous character may have a more cautious foil (look at the old man and the boy scout in the animation Up).
- A more reserved character may have a loud friend (the perfect example of this is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).
- One may be violent and one wanting to keep the peace (Tybalt trying to fight a loved-up Romeo).
Foil characters can be used in a variety of ways, but whichever way you wish to do this, a good foil can make all the difference to how the reader identifies with your character. This adds to the underlying strength of your writing and may not be so obvious to your reader without their inclusion.
Foil characters are there not only to highlight how different they are from another character, but also to help the reader see what it is that motivates them.
For example, by having a foil character as a close member of the family, who perhaps often puts the safety of the family in danger, the protagonist’s determination to fix the foil’s mistakes or do the polar opposite with his own choices, shows the reader his motivation is to protect his family. A perfect example of this is Alex and her mother in the Netflix series Maid.
A foil can also highlight the differences in your character’s upbringing or background. Picture a scene showing your protagonist as someone who comes from a deprived background that they have kept hidden but who has worked their way up and is now starting to finally believe they belong at the posh business lunch with their new peers. Now say they use the wrong etiquette in this social situation; perhaps they return a palette cleansing sorbet when it’s first served to them, saying they didn’t order it. On its own, we wouldn’t perhaps see the significance of the sorbet being a standard part of this kind of luncheon, but by having a foil character alongside the MC accepting the sorbet without a second thought highlights the MC’s mistake. Although the protagonist is now qualified and being accepted in their new world, this underlying fear of not quite belonging would be subtly highlighted, drawing deeper empathy and understanding from your reader.
You can also use a setting as a foil. In Harry Potter, for example, we have Harry living in the cupboard under the stairs, then in huge contrast we have Hogwarts will all its majesty, magic and splendour, highlighting the very different life he has now been thrown into.
Yes, that’s right, animals can be great foils too. Bagheera in The Jungle Book serves as a brilliant foil, being a mature and cautious character as opposed to Mowgli’s inexperienced youth and adventure.
Subplots can also serve as a foil, literally foiling the plans of your main character. All you need is the same problem and two different characters solving that problem in different ways.
In Lord of the Rings, for example, we have Boromir and Faramir, brothers who are charged with protecting Gondor and whose motivation is driven by gaining their father’s approval. Boromir tries to take the ring from Frodo to gain power over the enemy, in contrast, Faramir allows Frodo to take the ring to destroy the enemy. Not only are these both foil characters in their own right, but this subplot highlights how the ring can influence everyone around it and has the reader focussing on how different personality traits in the many subplots surrounding Frodo’s journey can determine the fate of the story.
At its core, a foil character helps the reader understand the traits and motivations of other characters, helping them identify good from evil, strength from weakness, dark versus light.
Examples Of Foil Characters
Some of the most famous foil characters in movies include Captain America and Iron Man, Woody and Buzz Lightyear, and not to mention Superman who has the perfect foil character in his alter ego, Clark Kent.
As for foil characters in literature, there are far too many to count. Let’s look at the classic example of Wuthering Heights, and the more contemporary novel, Me Before You.
In Wuthering Heights we have Heathcliff and Edgar Linton. These foil characters are set up not only in personality but in physical appearances too. Edgar is fair, with blonde hair and blue eyes, whereas Heathcliff has dark hair and dark eyes. Both men have contrasting upbringings too – Heathcliff an adopted orphan, Linton brought up in a wealthy family. Not to mention their differences in demeanour towards Catherine; Heathcliff is passionate and moody around her, yet Linton treats Catherine with kindness. We even have a setting foil in the dark and menacing Wuthering Heights, which reflects and strengthens Heathcliff’s doomed passion and strength whilst sitting in direct contradiction to Thrushcross Grange, a setting filled with wealth but essentially etched in kindness. It is with the use of these opposing sides of the story, each side underscoring the differences in the other, that makes it such a powerful and evocative narrative.
Let’s now examine a completely different type of love story, Me Before You. This novel serves as a brilliant example of contrasting characters, using foils in a slightly less dramatic way that is equally effective. And it does so with the two foils barely having any direct contact with each other.
To begin with, let’s look at the setting and subplot. At the beginning of the story Lou is living in a small and crowded house filled with family and noise, we discover that money is tight and this is one of the reasons she’s wasted her potential to become a fashion designer and finds herself applying for a job looking after Will, a quadriplegic, at Granta House. In contrast to her own home, Will’s is empty, tidy, quiet and his family distant and non-communicative.
Louisa has a boyfriend in the form of personal trainer and wannabe-athlete, Patrick, who is obsessed with training for triathlons; again, the complete opposite to Will. Patrick often puts his own wants and needs above Louisa’s, displayed clearly when he books ‘them’ a holiday but is actually an excuse so he can take part in the Extreme Viking challenge.
Once Louisa gets the job at Granta House, she is given the task of companionship to wealthy and, at first, hostile Will. Although Will is rude and closed with Louisa at the beginning of the story, the two form a bond with Lou’s primary goal to fill Will’s life with fun and adventure despite his injuries. With Patrick, she is desperate to avoid Patrick’s fun activities and would much prefer a less exhausting relationship.
What the author, Jojo Moyes, does so brilliantly in this example, is she uses the foil characters to reflect the opposing traits of both Will and Patrick onto Lou so that she begins to see all the things that both foil characters bring out in herself.
In the one scene where Will and Patrick do meet, Patrick gives Lou a birthday gift of a gold necklace with a star pendant which is nothing like the type of jewellery she has ever worn and doesn’t suit her at all. In contrast, Will gets her a pair of black and yellow tights, a replica of a pair she had loved when she was a child, revealing how Will understands and knows her better than her boyfriend of several years. And although Will is wealthy, and Patrick is not, it wasn’t the expensive gift that impressed her.
By highlighting the differences between Patrick and Will to the reader, Moyes uses this device to also reveal these oppositional aspects to her character, Lou. It is then through this contrasting lens, that Lou understands how different she is with both men. With Patrick, she accommodates his needs, is unhappy and bound to a life she doesn’t want while wasting her potential. With Will, she realises that he’s putting her needs before his own, that she is happy when she is with him and ultimately discovers she is capable of achieving her full potential in the life she wants.
In short, foil characters are often the unsung heroes of the literary world. Although sometimes minor characters (often even forgettable) what they do is shine a light on your main character, making them three-dimensional and stand out on your page.
When defining foil characters, think of them as a pinch of salt in your caramel sauce. It may play a small role, the main ingredients are big hitters (syrup, butter, cream) but it’s that little hit of contrast, that your guests may not even know is there, that cuts through and makes the rest of the ingredients that much sweeter!
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