As with any occupation, fiction writing comes with its own set of unique and sometimes bizarre terminology complete with acronyms and words stolen from other trades. Most of these terms refer to specific literary devices.
Today we are going to explore the literary device of the character foil.
Simply put, a character foil is another person in the story that contrasts with the main character. The qualities of this person are used to draw attention to specific qualities in the main character. If the main character is supposed to be arrogant and dimwitted then his foil would be notably humble and smart. Drawing attention to the traits of the foil character and using them to compare with the main character builds greater character depth.
Generally this technique is used best in one of two ways. The first way is that the characters are completely opposite from each other and thus emphasizes the distinction between characters. We see this often between the protagonist and the villain. The second way is that the characters are very similar but with one key difference. This draws intense focus to that key difference.
The term “foil” originated from the jeweler’s trade when gemstones would have foil applied to their undersides to make them appear to shine brighter. By using a literary foil, a character’s qualities are made to stand out and shine.
In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll is a respectable Victorian gentleman who exhibits restraint and dignity. Hyde is the evil half of Dr. Jekyll that has been repressed. Through a series of experiments Dr. Jekyll frees Mr. Hyde and in effect creates his own foil. Hyde’s wild and base behavior serves as a foil for Dr. Jekyll because it emphasizes the difference between the two. This foil is unique as Jekyll and Hyde are the same person and therefore serves as a metaphor for the duality of human nature.
Another classic example is Sherlock and Watson. Sherlock is a brilliant detective with unmatched powers of deduction. He is also socially awkward and a bit eccentric. His foil is found in Watson who while still intelligent isn’t brilliant and can’t compare with Sherlock. However, Watson knows how to handle himself in social settings and is a gentleman. Moriarty can serve as a foil as well, his apathy for the well-being of others emphasizes both Sherlock and Watson’s humanity.
In the Harry Potter books, Harry and Hermione serve as foils for each other. They are opposites in nearly every way. Harry is a pure blood; Hermione has muggle parents. Harry hates studying and isn’t all that smart; Hermione is a brain who spends her free time with her nose tucked in school books. Harry is impulsive; Hermione likes to have a plan. The list goes on. Having them together makes all of those differences stand out. We can find similar foils in each of Harry’s friends. Had the friends all had the same attributes Harry’s character wouldn’t have resonated as strongly with readers.
The first three examples showed characters who were opposites, now we shall consider characters who are very similar. Consider Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. They are both strong in the force, are intense, and have terrible pasts – to name a few. Considering their relationship as father and son it makes sense for them to share many traits. The key difference between them is that Luke has chosen to fight for good and Darth has chosen evil. In this they serve as foils for each other that draws attention to the epic battle between good and evil.
When it comes to character development a writer must perform a balancing act. The reader needs to understand the characters in a way that they come alive in the story and feel realistic. These characters will have certain traits that make them unique. While it would be easy to dash out a brief paragraph explaining why these traits are important to the story (please don’t do that), a much more elegant way to do the same thing is using character foils. Foils will create tension and conflict between characters which in turn makes for more compelling reading. Using this technique will create complexity and poignant statements that create connections with readers.