In a story you have protagonists, antagonists, supporting characters, and all manner of character archetypes populating a sprawling story world. But which characters stay with you the longest after the book is closed? And why do they linger with us so effectively? You might be surprised by the answer.
Some of your favorite characters in literature are probably foil characters, and you might never have realized it. But what are foil characters exactly, and how can you use them to strengthen your own stories? Let’s have a look at what foil characters are, where you may have met them in literature, and how to create effective foil characters of your own.
What is a foil character?
A foil character is a character in a work of fiction that’s used to juxtapose and contrast against another character. Very often writers use foil characters to make another character more interesting, lovable, or believable.
The name “foil character” comes from foil backing on jewelry, which was used to reflect light and draw more attention to the gem’s shine. The two characters that are being contrasted might have different ideas, worldviews, backgrounds, or ideals, and showing them side by side draws the reader’s attention to these differences.
For example, if you want to show that your protagonist is always honest, their foil character might be a best friend who constantly lies to get themselves out of scrapes. The foil character serves to highlight the main character’s honesty, making it a stronger part of who they are than if you had simply told the reader that the character never lies.
You can also use foil characters to highlight why your protagonist makes the choices that they do, or to put those choices into context within their society. We’ll talk more about ways to use your foil characters in writing below.
What’s the difference between a foil character and an antagonist?
Many antagonists in literature are foil characters, but foil characters can represent a whole range of people across your story world. While an antagonist is someone whose needs are in conflict with the needs of your protagonist, a foil character is someone whose strengths, weaknesses, personality traits, values, or social contexts are the opposite of another character’s.
Some foil characters are villains or antagonists, but they might also be a friend or family member who helps the protagonist see things in a new way. They may be someone aiding the protagonist, like a mentor or a sidekick, with a very different but complementary set of strengths. While an antagonist is always someone with a conflicting objective to the main character, a foil character might have the same objective, but a different way of looking at it, or a different way of achieving it.
Having an antagonist as a foil character is a great way to build tension in your story, because the traits that make the antagonists do bad (or conflicting) things are often the exact opposite of the traits that make your protagonist do good things. For example, if your antagonist is a villain who wants to exterminate a race of people, it’s likely that your protagonist is someone who strongly believes that every life is valuable no matter who they are. Seeing these two contrasting worldviews side by side makes the villain seem even scarier and the protagonist seem even more heroic.
3 ways foil characters are useful in writing
Now that we have an idea of what foil characters are (and are not), let’s take a closer look at what exactly they can do to strengthen your story.
1. Foil characters highlight your protagonist’s strengths (and weaknesses)
The place where foil characters really shine (get it?) is when they draw attention to the strengths and weaknesses of another character. If you put two hardworking students in a room together, it won’t have much impact on the reader; it’ll seem like that’s the natural baseline for students in that environment. However, if you show one student as hardworking and the other as a lazy and unmotivated foil character, your reader will be able to see that the hardworking student is actually something special.
This works with physical characteristics, too. If your character has a weakness such as an illness or disability, showing them alongside strong, healthy characters will make their handicap seem even more prominent.
Foil characters are great for highlighting the “before” picture of a character right before they go through a period of change or growth. If your character begins their journey as someone who is passive and afraid, constantly hiding from people bigger and stronger than them, their foil character might be an older sibling who takes unnecessary risks and isn’t afraid of anything. Drawing this comparison makes the protagonist seem even more timid and small. By the end of the story, if your character grows into a stronger and more courageous person, your readers will be able to see this change as a pivotal, powerful character arc.
2. Foil characters support your story’s theme
Characters are a big part of theme in a story, and using foil characters can make a theme even more powerful. You can use them to draw attention to your characters’ hopes, fears, and choices, that all come together to convey a message to the reader.
For example, if one of your themes is the importance of found family, you might have one character with a strong bond with their blood family, and another who has had to create their own patchwork family around them. While neither one is necessarily better or more “real,” showing these two contrasting types of relationships side by side will give you a more powerful, dynamic canvas on which to paint your theme.
You can also use foil characters to express your characters’ motivations and the choices that put them on their path. For example, in many cases, the protagonist and antagonist are very similar people who made two radically different choices in life. If your theme is the corruption of wealth and social status, you could show a protagonist and an antagonist from similar economic backgrounds who handled their privilege very differently. By showing two possible paths that begin in the same place, you encourage your reader to think about the real message your story is sending and what sort of choices they make in their own lives.
3. Foil characters make great subplots
One of the great things about using foil characters in your story is that they give you a range of complex, entertaining characters that are very different from your protagonist. This lets you use those foil characters to explore storylines that you couldn’t necessarily explore with your main character.
For example, if you’ve given your shy protagonist a brash, overconfident best friend as a foil character, you can take that foil character out into the world and see what sort of aspirations they have and what choices they make. You might have them audition for a part on stage, or get into a fight, or make a bold and unexpected career change—all things which your protagonist would never do, but now needs to react to, and possibly learn from, within the story.
By giving your foil characters their own stories simmering underneath your main plot, you open up new settings, conflicts, and possibilities that you wouldn’t have had before.
5 examples of foil characters in literature
Writers love foil characters; you’ll see them all over the map of classic and contemporary literature. In fact, you’ve probably used them instinctively in your own writing because you’re so used to seeing them in the story dynamics you’ve grown to love. Here are some of the most effective, best loved foil characters in literature.
1. Romeo and Mercutio
If you’ve never actually read Romeo and Juliet, or it’s been a decade or three, you’ll probably still know that Romeo is meant to be a hopeless romantic. He’s such a lovesick little sap that the word “Romeo” has made it into the English language to describe a romantic man. But what about Mercutio? Isn’t he the one who dies half way through, crying “A plague on both your houses!” before collapsing with all the subtlety of a southern screen starlet?
Well, yes, but he’s also a dynamic, well-formed person in the events leading up to his iconic death scene. Mercutio is a sarcastic cynic who believes in neither love nor dreams; for him, love is about physical pleasure, and Romeo’s romanticism is foolish and naive. He mercilessly teases his best friend about his infatuations with Rosaline and Juliet, and for bringing doom and gloom upon himself when he could be out having fun. Mercutio is, in short, a bro ahead of his time. His flippancy and cynicism works to make Romeo’s dreamy romanticism stand out even more within his world.
2. Ron and Hermione
Much like Shakespeare, J. K. Rowling loves populating her world with foil characters. Two that work quite well together are Ron and Hermione, the protagonist’s two best friends that accompany him on his adventures.
Hermione is incredibly studious and intelligent, and devoted to learning. While this is a positive character trait, it doesn’t necessarily stand out in an academic boarding school setting. Putting her next to Ron, however, who who does the minimum amount of work and treats essay writing like a particularly devious form of experimental torture, emphasizes and highlights Hermione’s studiousness and thirst for knowledge.
Their backgrounds are also vastly different. Ron is the only one of the group to have grown up solely in the magical world, raised in a big family of witches and wizards. Hermione is on the opposite end of the spectrum, having been born to perfectly ordinary people with no magic whatsoever. Their contrasting families and exposure to magic constantly inform the way they react to their world and the choices they make in it.
3. Circe and Penelope
In The Odyssey, Circe and Penelope are the two women readers most often remember as being a part of the hero Odysseus’s life. Penelope is Odysseus’s faithful wife who waits twenty years for him while he’s gallivanting across the seas. On his travels he meets Circe, the sexed-up wicked witch who turns all his men into swine (I mean… wouldn’t you?).
Circe lives an indulgent, decadent, free life while Penelope lives chastely and honestly waiting for her husband, even managing his kingdom in his absence. Comparing the two women makes Penelope look even more pristine and angelic, and Circe look even more debaucherous.
4. Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice matches several foil characters , but arguably the most effective is dreamboat duo Darcy and Wickham. On the surface, Mr. Wickham is undeniably charming. He’s handsome, personable, and makes anyone in his range of vision feel like they’re utterly fascinating. Darcy, on the other hand, is cold, standoffish, and socially awkward. He immediately makes Elizabeth feel unwanted. It’s only natural that she gravitates towards Wickham’s magnetic personality.
However, as Elizabeth gets to know the men better she realises that Wickham is actually a gold-digging scoundrel, while Darcy is the honest man with a good heart. Setting these two side by side at the opening of the novel makes Wickham’s glow shine even brighter and Darcy seem like even more of a boor, which makes their surprising character arcs all the more powerful as they develop.
5. Watson and Holmes
Was there ever a more iconic foil duo? Sherlock Holmes and John Watson compliment each other perfectly, each buttressing the strengths of the other. Sherlock is an unmatched genius, able to solve crimes not even Scotland Yard can manage using only his wits. He appears to have a superhuman sense of perception and is able to tease facts out of the most minute details. John is more like the majority of readers, a man with a good heart who can’t quite keep up with his best friend’s rapidly shifting gears. This “everyman” quality of John Watson makes Sherlock Holmes look even more extraordinary by comparison.
Sherlock has one major weakness, however, which is that he has a certain emotional distance from other people. This fundamental lack of humanity is something that has been explored more in recent adaptations, such as in the BBC series Sherlock. While Watson doesn’t have Sherlock’s deductive powers, he’s often able to fill in the blanks by understanding basic human feelings in a way that Sherlock can’t. Using Watson as a foil character makes both Sherlock’s major strength and his major weakness seem more extreme.
3 ways to write a foil character in your story
As you can see, foil characters can be a game-changing literary device when crafting your story. Here are a few tips and tricks for writing foil characters of your own.
1. Consider cultural and societal backgrounds
All of us are shaped by our upbringing, and your characters are no different. How your characters were raised will have a real impact on the choices they make and how they respond to the world around them.
When writing your foil characters, try looking at who they might have grown up to be if they had contrasting upbringings. For instance, your characters might be similar in that they both have a passion for art and want to become celebrated painters, but one comes from a very wealthy family and one comes from a poor one. How would this affect their journey as they learned to understand their craft? What sort of opportunities would one have that the other didn’t? What strategies would they use to achieve their goals? Even when the ultimate goal is the same, the road they take to get there may be very different.
You can consider other cultural factors too, such as religion or setting. Those same characters may have come from the same modest middle-class economic background, but they might come from different family dynamics or ingrained morals and values. See how you can draw contrast between your characters using the things that shaped them as people.
2. Consider your characters’ motivations
Why do your characters want the things they do? The answer might not be as simple as you think, and taking a hard look at what motivates your characters is the key to creating an effective foil.
For example, maybe your characters work at the same company and are competing for a coveted promotion. They probably have pretty similar economic and educational backgrounds to have ended up at the same job. But what drives them to fight for the promotion may be very different. One character might be experiencing increased expenses in their family, such as treatment for an unexpected medical condition, and needs the increase in salary to support them. The other one, by contrast, might want the extra money so they can finally be independent enough to leave their abusive husband. Is any one of these motivations inherently better than the other? Exploring these contrasting family dynamics and how they drive the characters towards their goals makes for complex and interesting foil characters.
3. Consider their individual strengths and weaknesses
The most classic use for a foil character is to highlight what’s best—and worst—about each of your contrasting characters. Showing these strengths and weaknesses is essential in making your readers fall in love with your characters, and using foil characters to highlight these makes them even more powerful.
For example, you might want to show that your protagonist is very generous—constantly donating to charities and people living on the street. While we as readers are culturally aware enough to recognize that these are generous acts, it’s difficult to see why this is special in your character’s world without a foil to compare it to. Maybe your foil character is a stingy, Ebenezer Scrooge-like person who hoards all his money and turns his back on those who need help. By showing this contrast, your central character seems even more generous and kind-hearted in comparison. Now we have context for what makes them special.
Once you have an idea of your character’s strengths, why not consider their weaknesses? Your protagonist is generous and wants to help others, which is wonderful, but what are the drawbacks of that? Maybe they’re gullible and have a bad habit of falling for Nigerian prince scams, or they have a hard time saying no to anyone, even when it becomes a drain on their resources and energy. By contrast, your greedy villain might have a particular talent for seeing through lies, and never allowing themselves to be taken advantage of. Their clear-headed view of what dishonest people are capable of may have been what made them so careful and distrusting with their money to begin with.
Now you have two characters that complete each other, with each one’s strength and weakness reflected and inverted in the other. These strengths and weaknesses become even more clear and powerful when we get to see them side by side.
Foil characters make your story shine
Foil characters have been used in literature throughout the ages, long before there was even a word for them. They’re something that writers use somewhat instinctively when we want to highlight a particular part of our character—but with careful thought and intention, we can make these dynamic contrasts even more powerful for our readers.