So, if you’ve been following my articles for a while, you may have noticed that I talk a lot about the purpose of literature being to teach and to delight. However, the instructional part of literature can be easily misunderstood. After all, what does it practically mean to teach with literature? Does it mean to include random sermons midway through the novel? To end your book with a detailed explanation of what the book was supposed to do? Hopefully not, but then what does it mean?
Many things go into a successful theme in order to make a novel instructive as well as entertaining. However, one of the most important ways that a theme is brought across is by using the various characters in your book as positive and negative character examples. Today, I’d like to talk about one specific way that characters can be used as character examples: and that’s through the use of foil characters.
Foil characters are one of my favorite writing tropes to utilize for several reasons. One reason I enjoy utilizing foil characters is that you can use them to develop your theme very well while still being subtle, thus avoiding the preaching that too often happens in Christian fiction. Another reason is that they add a good bit of beauty to the literary text through the use of parallel.
Of course, talking about how much I like foil characters doesn’t help much if you don’t know what they are. So, without further ado, let’s dive in.
What is a foil character?
Essentially, a foil character is someone who an author sets in contrast to another character (normally the main character) in order to highlight certain virtues or flaws of one or both of the characters. Normally, when foil characters are talked about in high school literature classes and such, they’re seen as a way of highlighting the main character; however, they do also have an important impact on a story’s theme, which I will be going into below. Foil characters are essentially a paradox of similarity and dissimilarity. They are made to be direct comparisons to the other character in order to make their differences clear to the reader.
Let’s look at some practical examples of this in order to clarify this concept. One of the more famous examples of foil characters occurs in A Tale of Two Cities when Sidney Carton is set up as a foil to Charles Darnay. Both characters look almost exactly alike: a fact that features prominently in the beginning of the book and sets the two of them up as foil characters. They also both love the same woman: Lucie Manette. But at that point, the similarities end: Carton is a drunkard and allows himself to be used by others, and Darnay is successful and strong-willed. By creating parallels and contrasts like this, Dickens brings both of these characters to the forefront of the book and uses their opposites as a way of deepening both characters. Their role as foil characters is critically important to the way the book ends, but I won’t spoil the ending here.
Foil characters are also often seen in superhero films, as the antagonist is often a foil of the main character. To look at some examples briefly, in Captain America: The First Avenger, both Captain America and Red Skull have immense physical prowess due to the serum, but one uses his power to preserve life while the other uses it to take life. In Man of Steel, both Superman and Zod have the same Kryptonian powers, but Superman uses it to preserve humanity while Zod tries to use it to preserve Krypton. This is less obvious, but also present in Spiderman II, where both Spiderman and Doctor Octopus share a similar love for science, but, more importantly to the plot, also have to choose in the movie between doing what’s right and chasing after their dreams. The different routes they take then define their characters.
Hopefully, all these examples have begun to make it somewhat-clear what foil characters are and how they tend to be used in fiction. However, there is a distinction that needs to be drawn between minor characters when they act as foils and villains when they act the part.
Some writers argue that only minor characters can really be foils, and that villains are a separate category. I personally think the designation can be used for both: however, both do need to be considered somewhat-separately. When the hero and the villain are both acting as foils, the purpose of making the villain a foil is often to drive the story conflict. However, when the hero and a minor character are both acting as foils, then the foil often serves as a way of shedding light on what type of person the main character is. Because villains and minor characters serve different purposes in this role, it’s important to keep this in mind when writing one of them into the role of a foil character.
So, it’s hopefully clear by now what foil characters are. However, you may still have a question, namely:
How can they be practically used?
One method is to set two foil characters against each other. All of my examples that I’ve given so far have been built off of this principle, so it should be pretty clear by now. My current work-in-progress, Empyrean Vengeance draws rather heavily on this principle as I set up my two protagonists as twin brothers in order to then showcase their differences—differences which end up driving most of the story. Essentially, to follow this method of foil characters, you take two semi-important characters, and then set them up as parallels and contrasts to each other in order to bring about your intended effect.
Another method is to create a web of foil characters. This web can accomplish many different things, but often is used to represent different paths the main character could end up taking, or different solutions to the protagonist’s problem. For an example of this, let’s look at one of the Christian writer’s favorite classics: The Lord of the Rings. In the book, we can see many characters acting as foils to Frodo’s struggle with the Ring. As a negative example, Gollum represents the worst possibility of what the Ring ends up turning everyone into if they give in to its power. Bilbo also acts like a foil by reminding Frodo (and the reader) that this change can happen to anyone. Boromir is slightly-less-corrupt than these, as he represents the temptation to use the Ring pragmatically to try and achieve peace.
On the positive side, however, Gandalf and Galadriel both represent the healthy fear that Frodo ought to have concerning the Ring. Tom Bombadil also possibly shows the freedom that the righteous ought to have, even with instruments of great destruction. However, his character is kind of complicated, so this interpretation is more speculative than my other examples. I’m sure you could draw similar elements from other characters as well.
Basically, what you have in the end is a whole web of characters acting as foils around each other based on the common interest of the Ring. And it’s this interplay that makes the theme in The Lord of the Rings so well-done. Frodo is presented with many different possibilities for what he will become, and is tempted by each one of them in turn. But he is still able to make the right choice of which possibility to follow. And this isn’t just seen in The Lord of the Rings. Other stories like Crime and Punishment or even a story as simple as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory feature similar webs for a similar effect. As you can probably see, this method of utilizing foil characters puts more of the focus on the main character and who he is in the story. It’s also a more complicated way of integrating it into your book, which can lead to a more complex theme.
There are a lot of different ways that foil characters can be used. But hopefully, this article has done its job of describing what they are, providing some examples, and sparking your imaginations. Foil characters have a lot of potential, both in terms of writing a good story and in terms of executing a powerful theme. By showing different possibilities of how the main character can turn out, they provide the reader with a lot of case studies to look at. And by providing these sorts of positive and negative character examples, a writer can effectively develop and advance a theme without preaching.
Examples are important to developing moral character. Scripture warns us many times about who we associate with and also encourages us to imitate those who are worthy of imitation. By using these kinds of examples in your book, as an author, you can subtly encourage your readers to imitate the righteous and shun the wicked, and foil characters are a great way of doing this. So write subtle yet effective foil characters into your story. And then use those foils to bring about your point.