A foil character, or character foil, is a character whose actions and traits contrast those of another character—often the protagonist. The foil character is like a white background against a subject in a photograph: it allows the complexities of another character to shine forth, because the reader sees more vividly how one character’s actions and decisions represent their personality.
Not all stories have foil characters. However, this simple tool from high school English class can still provide powerful juxtaposition to your characters and their personalities. Fiction writers, especially writers of literary fiction, might want to consider employing character foils in their work.
So, what is a foil character in literature? Let’s examine this character development device more closely, with attention towards foil character examples and how to employ a foil in your own writing.
What is a Foil Character in Literature?
A foil character is someone who contrasts the traits and actions of another character, often the protagonist. By contrasting two different characters, the author seeks to emphasize the strengths, weaknesses, philosophies, and/or themes that each character represents.
A foil character is a character who contrasts the traits and actions of another character, often the protagonist.
Now, the emphasis here is on contrast, not necessarily on opposition. In other words, a character foil for your protagonist won’t always be the antagonist. The antagonist is the person whose actions or needs stand in the way of the protagonist. Sometimes, they represent certain opposing ideas compared to the protagonist, and they can also be a foil. But, they exist to be an opposing force for the protagonist, not necessarily as a force of comparison and contrast.
So, the emphasis here is on the juxtaposition of two richly developed characters. What does their juxtaposition reveal about each individual’s psyche?
Take, for example, the characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The two complement each other extraordinarily well, and Watson’s own set of traits springboards Sherlock’s crime solving genius. Often, Watson will draw the wrong conclusion about a certain case, or else employ the correct logic while missing certain details. Sherlock then employs his own superhuman imagination and surprising wealth of knowledge to fill in the gaps of Watson’s theories. Watson is a perfect foil character for the purpose of solving mysteries.
Where Watson approaches a mystery using logic and empathy, Sherlock uses his recondite knowledge, power of observation, and detached emotionality to crack the case. The two make a perfect pair, and while Watson helps highlight Sherlock’s genius, he also helps Sherlock arrive at the right solution.
The term “foil” comes from the practice of placing foil behind a gemstone so that the stone looks brighter and more refractive.
N.B.: the term “foil” comes from the practice of placing foil behind a gemstone so that the stone looks brighter and more refractive. It adds contrast to make the gemstone shine.
Foil Character Examples in Literature
The following foil character examples all come from published works of literature. Pay attention to how the dynamic between the two characters helps define each character’s own strengths, traits, and psyche.
1. Foil Character Examples: Hamlet & Laertes
Character’s Role: Protagonist; after his father’s murder, Hamlet feigns insanity in the hopes of catching the killer and avenging his father’s death. However, Hamlet’s indecisiveness stands in the way of his need to take action, and as the play progresses, it becomes unclear whether or not his insanity is still feigned.
Foil Character: Laertes
Foil Character’s Role: Laertes also has a dead father (and sister) that he wishes to avenge, and he (rightfully) blames Hamlet for both their deaths.
Analysis: Hamlet and Laertes are both motivated by vengeance, yet they approach this vengeance in different ways. Hamlet is methodical and careful—so careful, in fact, that he becomes indecisive, always collecting information but rarely acting on it. Laertes, by contrast, is more impulsive. When he believes King Claudius killed his father, he organizes a mob to storm the castle; when he attends his sister’s funeral, he jumps into the grave and begs to be buried with her.
Each of these character foils represents one of two extremes: indecisiveness versus impulsivity. Yet, what sets each character apart is also what unites them in the end, as each character’s need for vengeance results in a similar death. Laertes stabs Hamlet with a poison-tipped sword, only to have Hamlet use that sword against Laertes as well. This symbolic death signifies the futility of each character’s revenge, and only as they die do they forgive and absolve one another.
Thus, Laertes helps highlight Hamlet’s flawed acts of vengeance and vice versa, making each character a commentary on the theme of revenge itself.
2. Foil Character Examples: Denver & Beloved
These characters come from Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved.
Character’s Role: Denver is the daughter of Sethe, the novel’s protagonist. Denver is an intelligent and observant person just on the cusp of adulthood, but she’s also very quiet, reserved, and scared of the outside world, partially because of Sethe’s parenting.
Foil Character: Beloved
Foil Character’s Role: Beloved is the ghost of Sethe’s daughter, whom Sethe killed so that she wouldn’t endure the torture of American slavery. Beloved helps Sethe and her family confront the traumas of slavery, but she also drains Sethe and isolates her from the community.
Each daughter represents different manifestations of the generational trauma of slavery. Sethe sequesters Denver from the world to protect her, but this isolates Denver from the Black community, while also limiting Denver’s ability to develop a sense of self. Meanwhile, Sethe forms an extreme attachment to Beloved, as Sethe feels guilty for killing her. This encourages Beloved to demand all of Sethe’s attention. As a result, Beloved’s sense of self is attached entirely to Sethe’s attention, and Sethe drains herself to atone for her past mistakes.
(Note: When it comes to parenting, Sethe also has a character foil. Her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, tries to be distant from her children, preserving them only in memory to escape from her own trauma.)
As a result, Denver and Beloved represent different approaches to one’s coming of age and to the healing of generational trauma. Denver faces her fear of the world and embraces the love of the Black community; this is what helps Sethe overcome her deleterious attachment to Beloved. Meanwhile, Beloved has no interest in leaving the home or growing up. Eventually, the community exorcizes Beloved from Sethe’s home, and Beloved is forgotten about.
These character foils point towards a central theme of the novel: the enduring psychological torment of slavery. As Kristin Boudreau argues, each character must overcome the past that they are too afraid to acknowledge, because they are so worried about going back to the trauma of slavery that even memory feels dangerous. Sethe is burdened with guilt; Denver, with isolation; Beloved, with vengeance. This trauma makes each character fragmented, and fragmented in different ways. Only through the Black community can the characters of Beloved heal those fragments.
3. Foil Character Examples: Lennie and George
Character: George Milton
Character’s Role: George is a migrant field worker in California who is looking for work during the Great Depression. He is small, intelligent, and quick-witted, and dreams of one day settling down.
Foil Character: Lennie Small
Foil Character’s Role: Lennie is George’s friend and companion through the novella. He is a gentle giant, but also mentally handicapped, and these traits hold him and George back from achieving continuous employment. Lennie has a soft spot for small, soft animals, especially rabbits, though he often kills them due to his strength.
In many ways, George and Lennie are described as opposites. George has well defined features, a quick wit, a small frame, and a dark complexion. Lennie is shapeless, slow witted, big boned, and pale.
The stark differences in these character foils help drive the plot forward. George acts as Lennie’s protector, as Lennie would not be able to survive the Depression on his own. (The beginning of the novella sees George and Lennie looking for work because they had just left a field in Weed, California, after a woman believed Lennie was trying to assault her. Lennie doesn’t know his own strength, which frequently causes him to hurt others inadvertently.)
Unfortunately, Lennie cannot protect George from his own strength. After leaving Weed, the two are hired at another farm in California. When Lennie accidentally snaps the neck of the farm owner’s wife, a mob forms to avenge her death. George, knowing that the mob will kill Lennie, decides to kill Lennie himself, as it will be far more merciful.
This foil helps highlight the impossible decisions that people had to make during the Great Depression. Not only does George kill Lennie to spare him from any pain, but George also has his own survival to look out for, and the future he dreams of is as soft and comfortable as the bunnies Lennie kills.
Does Your Story Need a Foil Character?
Character foils add depth and richness to the people that populate a story. But, are they necessary to writing fiction?
You’ll notice that the foil character examples we included all come from novels. That’s because it’s rare that you’ll find character foils in short stories. Adding a foil to a story involves a certain level of complexity, because now two different characters need to be developed enough that each character contrasts the other. This level of depth and complexity can only be achieved with a higher word count, and enough scenes for the reader to observe each character’s interactions and psyches. In other words, short story writers don’t need to worry too much about this level of character contrast.
Additionally, many great novels do not have foil characters, because foiling is just one of many tools in the character developer’s toolbox. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, for example, does not attempt to give its characters any foils. The novel doesn’t need any foils, either—since the novel is narrated by its unseemly protagonist Humbert Humbert, we learn everything we need to know through his unreliable lens.
In short, a foil character is not necessary, but for longer works of fiction, it may help you discover new and surprising details about your characters. Let’s look at how to develop a foil character yourself.
Tips for Developing Character Foils
Authors don’t necessarily develop characters with the intent of making them foils. Often, what happens is that two characters naturally contrast each other throughout the story, as contrast is essential to developing conflict and tension.
Nonetheless, whether you’re writing a story or revising one, here are some considerations for crafting complex character foils.
1. Compare and Contrast
Two foil characters should have a healthy mix of similarities and differences. If they are too similar, or if they are polar opposites, then each character won’t give the other the proper amount of contrast.
For example, let’s say you have two characters, John and Jane. Each character is trying to get a promotion. John is a talkative, charming, manipulative brown-noser; he knows how to schmooze his way into anything without doing much work. Jane is the opposite: quiet and unassuming, but loyal and a hard worker. When comparing each character’s work, Jane certainly deserves the promotion.
Don’t you already know this story? John gets the promotion, Jane feels sidelined and unrecognized, and while we hope Jane will get what she deserves, she has a long journey ahead of her. This dynamic is built on character clichés, and the foiling only leads us to hate John and pity Jane.
What would make for a far more interesting story? Perhaps both John and Jane are talkative and charming, and perhaps they’re both loyal to the team. Now, their differences come down to John being a schmoozer, and Jane being honest and dependable with her boss. We have just enough contrast to tell the two characters apart, and we also know each character will approach their shared goal in different ways. If John ends up getting the promotion, we could better interpret this as a story of sexism in the workplace. Plus, we know this talkative version of Jane won’t be afraid to fight back, yielding a more interesting story.
Giving each character similarities helps spotlight their differences, focusing the narrative lens to what’s most important.
2. Consider Intent
A foil character is usually employed with three different intents:
- To heighten contrast between two characters.
- To clarify what a certain character is not.
- To map the repercussions of a certain character’s traits and actions.
From the foil character examples we mentioned, take Hamlet and Laertes. Because Laertes foils Hamlet, we notice:
- That Hamlet is indecisive and methodical.
- That Hamlet is not capable of acting impulsively—and when he does, it leads to other people’s wrongful deaths.
- That Hamlet’s death is the result of his inaction, because he routinely hurts other people in the haphazard quest for his father’s vengeance. (Of course, Laertes’ death is the result of his action, so there’s a lot of irony to unpack in this foil.)
3. Create Conflict
Conflict is the lifeblood of stories. Without it, a plot cannot develop organically, because we have no reason to follow a certain character if they don’t have to fight for something they want or need. As such, good foil characters help accentuate and accelerate a conflict.
Consider Denver and Beloved, in Beloved. The two vie for Sethe’s attention, which reveals each character’s strengths and weaknesses. Beloved is incapable of being alone and unattended to, and she siphons all of Sethe’s love and attention. Denver, by contrast, is familiar with her own loneliness and isolation, but Sethe is one of Denver’s only companions in life.
Beloved’s presence creates conflict for Denver, who can’t seem to demand Sethe’s attention the way Beloved does. Instead, Denver decides to take charge of her life and family, seeking the help of the Black community to exorcize Beloved from their house. The foil here showcases Denver and Beloved’s differences, creates conflict, and encourages Denver to seek her own identity and independence.
4. Use Contrast to Explore Interiority
Have you ever met someone who seemed completely different from you, and you thought to yourself, “What if I was a bit more like them?” If a character encounters someone with opposing traits, it will likely make them reflect on their own traits and actions.
For example, in Elif Batuman’s novel Either/Or, the protagonist, Selin, differentiates the way she lives her life from her friend Svetlana. Svetlana lives her life according to structure and society: get a job, find a husband, settle down, etc. In the Kierkegaardian sense, she lives an “ethical life”, defined by a dedication to universal morals and structures.
Selin, by contrast, lives an “aesthetic life”—a life defined by dedication to one’s own interests and desires, where life itself takes an organic shape around a person’s unique decision making. Selin wants to live her life as though it were a novel, and wants to make decisions based on her own wants and feelings, not the expectations of society or others’ morals.
When the two discuss these differences, it leads Selin to consider what it might be like to live an ethical life, and the merits of living an aesthetic one. Such questions reverberate through the novel, ending with the suggestion that the ethical and the aesthetic are not a binary, but rather a spectrum. Through this debate, we gain a deeper insight into Selin’s decision making, the way she views the world, and her desire for life itself.
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