What is a Foil Character? Our Definition & Examples

Getting your characters to pop off the page is no easy task, but it's an essential part of crafting a compelling and memorable story. Obviously, the protagonist(s) of a given story usually get the most attention. And this is where foil characters come in. Knowing how to craft a foil character can help your protagonist seem authentic, making readers think of them as a living, breathing person. 

But that's not the only thing a foil character can do. We'll cover it all as we answer the question: what is a foil character?

In this article, you will learn:
  1. Aspects of a foil character.
  2. Examples of foil characters in pop culture.
  3. Tips for writing an effective foil character. 

What is a Literary Foil Character?

A foil character is a literary device used to accentuate or expose, by contrast, certain of the protagonist's character traits. The foil character and the hero will have opposing traits, which can serve to deepen character development, create conflict, and provide a subtle way to make the protagonist more apparent and three-dimensional to readers. 

A foil character is an excellent example of the golden rule of fiction writing: show, don't tell. Instead of spelling out your protagonist's character traits (telling), you can use a well-crafted foil character to show readers who the protagonist really is by contrast. 

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Character foils are used to contrast both strengths and weaknesses. After all, a main character who is all strengths and no weaknesses is boring and hard to identify with. But when both become clear during the story, it gives the character more depth and helps the audience root for them. 

Is a Foil Character the Antagonist?

Although the contrasting traits of a protagonist and a foil character can create tension and conflict, the foil is not always the antagonist. In fact, you'll often see foil characters as allies or friends of the hero. They may butt heads at times, thanks to their opposing traits, but they ultimately want similar things

Of course, there are many types of foil characters in literature, movies, and television shows. Much of the time, the protagonist's foil is a minor character, but there are exceptions. 

To explore this concept more, let's dive into some examples. 

Foil Character Examples

It will probably come as no surprise that William Shakespeare is widely credited with popularizing the concept of a foil character. We can see examples of this in the characters Romeo and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, and Mark Antony and Brutus in Julius Caesar. But let's focus on some more recent examples. 

  • In the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling, Draco Malfoy acts as a foil character to Harry Potter. They are clearly opposites in many ways, which helps create a contrast for the audience. But Malfoy isn't just a foil. He sometimes steps in as an antagonist, putting up roadblocks and working for Lord Voldemort. 
  • In Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the main character's two personas act as foils to each other. Dr. Jekyll is a kind and polite gentleman, whereas Mr. Hyde is a violent and rude brute. This is one excellent example of a pair of foil characters being one and the same person (although the Narrator and Tyler Durden from Fight Club would be another great example).
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle certainly knew what he was doing when he wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories. Dr. John Watson and Holmes are two brilliantly contrasted characters. Holmes is arrogant and excitable, whereas Watson is modest and level-headed.
  • In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan is a foil character to the protagonist, Jay Gatsby. Nick Carraway, the narrator, clearly describes these two men as opposing. Whereas Tom is an imposing and brash man, Jay is quick with a smile and helps Nick feel comfortable. This is one example of a story in which the foil and the antagonist are the same character.  
  • Finally, in the movie Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear and Woody act as each other's foil characters. Buzz's sudden appearance and contrasting personality not only generate conflict and propel the story forward, but they also help to cement Woody's character. While at first their strengths and weaknesses cause conflict, they soon learn to work together. Once they realize that these traits complement each other, it helps them to evolve and travel through their respective character arcs

How to Write Foil Characters

There are many ways to use foil characters in fiction. You may instinctively do this already, given how prevalent they are in stories. It also helps that we as humans are constantly comparing ourselves to others. While that may not be great for our egos, it can help us write foil characters. But just in case, here are some tips to help you along the way.

Create a List of Traits

If you've read our piece on character quirks, you know of a few ways to make your characters stand out. Much of the time, we have a pretty good idea of who our main character will be before we get too deep into the writing. If this is the case, think about your protagonist's defining characteristics. What makes them flawed? What makes them unique? Also, consider how these tie into the themes of the story you want to tell. 

Then, once you have a good idea of the traits you want to expose, create a list of opposing traits to give your foil character. Here are some examples to get you started:

Protagonist Traits

  • Cautious
  • Quiet
  • Judgemental
  • Loyal

  Foil Character Traits

  • Reckless
  • Raucous
  • Easy-going
  • Fickle

Consider a Subplot

There's more than one way to use a foil character in your story. Your main character and foil character don't even have to interact with each other to be effective. In fact, you can have a foil character in a subplot, where the actions they take are in contrast to what your protagonist is trying to accomplish. As an added bonus, this can be a great way to generate tension. A subplot itself can even be a foil, contrasting the main storyline and the protagonist’s struggle to achieve their goals. 

Avoid Cliches

When crafting foil characters, it can be easy to fall into cliches. An example would be one character from a wealthy family who is arrogant and cruel, while the other character from a poor background is modest and kind. It's okay to stick with certain genre tropes, but using cliched characters will often make for boring reading. 

If you're going to have a rich character and a poor one, give them each a unique opposing trait or two so that the reader doesn't feel like they already know exactly who they are and where the story will go. 

What is a Foil Character: Conclusion

As you can see, foil characters are used all the time in fiction. Whether you're crafting a screenplay, a novel, or a short story, you can use one (or more) of these characters to draw out your main character's personality, explore the story's themes, and create conflict. Whether a supporting character, an antagonist, or even another protagonist, foil characters come in all shapes and sizes. 

If you're already writing something, see if you've instinctively put a foil character in the story. If you're not, visit our writing prompt hub to get the creative juices flowing so you can use a character foil to great effect!

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