Foil Characters: What They Are and How to Use Them

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? foilcharacters

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.

 

Profile photo of Josiah DeGraaf
Josiah DeGraaf is a high school English teacher and literature nerd who fell in love with stories when he was young and hasn’t fallen out of love ever since.
He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations. What causes otherwise-good people to make really terrible decisions in their lives? Why do some people have the strength to withstand temptation when others don’t? How do people respond to periods of intense suffering? What does it mean to be a hero?
These questions drive him as a reader, and they drive him as a writer as well as he takes normal people, puts them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then forces them to make difficult choices with their lives.
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as entertaining as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. In the meantime, you can find him writing articles here or short stories at his website (link below) as he works toward achieving these goals.
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Comments

  1. YES. I love working with these kinds of characters— I should do it more often. 🙂
    Actually, I don’t think I’ve done it nearly so much as I should have… maybe not at all… oh dear… 😛
    I’m trying to think of an example in my own work… drawing a blank… eh… hm… oh yes! *whew* Subtle, but definitely there— the MC of my WIP and his brother. The MC is a loner— doesn’t like mixing himself up in affairs other than his own, prefers to go his own way and live his life by himself. His brother, I think, would like to do that, but he’s willing to give it up and lead with responsibility.
    Wow, that’s cool… I did it without even realizing what I was doing. 😛 😉
    Anyway.
    I think that was a fantastic article, Josiah. Thank you so much! *resolves to use foil characters more often*

    Can’t this be done with plot twists? Or would that more correctly be called just ‘parallels’?

    • Josiah DeGraaf says:

      Haha, yeah; going back through some of my older stories, I’ve also found that I’ve included story elements when I wasn’t even intending to!

      Not sure what you mean by doing this with plot twists… Could you provide an example of what you’re talking about?

      • Sure, no problem! Actually, the more I think about it, the less sure I am what I meant… 😛 I think I had some vague idea of using parallel or similar events in the same way. For instance, something happens in the beginning of the story and the character reacts one way, then something very similar happens later on and the character either has grown enough to react differently or is faced with a fork in the road— to act the same way again, or grow up and act maturely.
        This is almost an entire discussion in itself. 😀

        • Josiah DeGraaf says:

          Ooooh, yessss… I love it when that happens in a book. It creates such a feeling of resonance! It’s probably its own separate issue, but I do see the parallels between it and foil characters. And I think there is an actual term for when this happens, but I forget it. =P Maybe foreshadowing? Yet it can also apply in non-foreshadowing situations… Hm.

  2. Thanks for this Josiah. I’ve never read an article on the topic before. I see now that I’ve used foil characters before. In fact, I have one story that is pretty much entirely about a foil character and his counterpart. You sparked my imagination though. I find that when I bring writing concepts out of my sub conscience and into my full conscience, I tend to utilize it better. I’ll have to keep a look out for more foil character opportunities.

    • Josiah DeGraaf says:

      Yeah; that’s something I’ve definitely found for myself as well. Some of the best writing advice I’ve gotten is about stuff that I kind-of already knew, but which I hadn’t quite thought of in that way before. Consciously using different tropes instead of just sub-consciously including them often does strengthen our use of those tropes. Glad to hear that my article was helpful for this!

  3. Interesting. My literature class never brought up foil characters, so this is the first time I’ve ever heard the term before, however now I can see them all over the place. Even in one of my own short stories in which the villain was the foil character for my MC. Cool how that works out. Thanks for the article, Josiah! I’m definitely going to refer back to this in my writing.

    • Josiah DeGraaf says:

      Haha, yeah, my lit class in high school didn’t actually cover it either, but when I first began to research them, everyone online was saying it was a staple in high school lit classes, so I decided to mention that. =P Glad to hear that the article helped!

  4. Hm… something I just thought of. There are different kinds of foil characters. For instance, Carton and Darnay. They are both already firmly set in their chosen path, and are used simply to highlight the differences between their respective personalities. They’re passive foils— nothing they do in regards to their differences really has the potential to change the plot.
    Whereas Gollum and Boromir are actually aggressive foils— there is a very real possibility that Frodo could BECOME either one of them.
    I guess passive foils are better used for making a simple statement of truth and leaving the reader to interpret, while aggressive foils are better used to scare the reader into thinking the MC is going to take the wrong path, and forcing them to think about why one path is right and one is wrong. Does that make sense?

    • Interesting thought… Maybe I’m misunderstanding your meaning but I’m not sure Gollum and Boromir could be considered aggressive. It’s not actually the characters themselves that are endangering Frodo is a corruption sense, but the ring of power. So it’s not really the characters who are aggressive.
      Perhaps if a foil were to be the direct cause of a MC’s corruption… But you’d have to be careful with that because if the MC were to actual change that would then defeat the purpose of a foil because the purpose of a foil is to show contrast.

      • Right— I just meant the ‘foil-ness’ of the character was… deeper. Perhaps aggressive isn’t the proper word… 😛 I meant the technique itself takes a more active role, if not with the plot at least with the theme. I’m sorry— I should have clarified. 😀

        • Josiah DeGraaf says:

          These are some great thoughts. I’m not sure if Carton-Darnay are completely passive since part of Carton’s resolve towards the end seems to be a desire to be more like Darnay, but I definitely think you’re onto something there, Kate, with the two different types of foils. I think with Gollum and Boromir, their “aggressiveness” is due less that they’re directly tempting Frodo, and more that the Ring is tempting him to become like one of them. You make a good point, Adry, about the difficulties with a foil tempting a character toward corruption; I think it can work in fiction, but it does risk their identity as a foil to do so.

  5. Great article! Like everyone else has said, I’ve never really thought through foil characters before, but now that I have, I can think of tons of examples of them.
    This has also just given me an idea, as I tend to be a character person and not a plot person (meaning I could come up with a dozen interesting characters in ten minutes but no interesting plots 😉 ). Perhaps when I’m stuck with a cool character idea and nothing to do with them, I’ll try to think of what a possible foil character for them would be, which could easily lead to a plot idea… hm! I’ll have to give it a try!
    Thanks again for a great article!
    ~Abby

    • Josiah DeGraaf says:

      That sounds like a great idea! The plot of my current WIP definitely revolves around the foil characters present in it, so you can definitely use them to drive a plot. Hope that brainstorming works out for you!

  6. Well done and very helpful! Thanks so much, Josiah…you’re articles always seem to pop up right when I need some help with my WIP! 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • Josiah DeGraaf says:

      You’re welcome! Glad this article providentially came up at the right time for you. 😉

  7. Foil characters id one of the things I think I do well. No one else has read any of my stuff though, so I’m not sure.
    I do more of the web of characters. Different people highlight different aspects of the theme.
    It was interesting the way you talked about the antagonist being a foil. I was doing that to some degree without realizing. I actually give opposing characters similar goals and motivations. The protagonist must realize that if they are not careful, they could sink to the level of the villain.

    • Josiah DeGraaf says:

      That’s a great way of doing it with the villains! I really like stories like that since it makes the conflict between the villain and the protagonist that much more interesting. Thanks for sharing!

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