What is a Foil Character?
In movies, TV shows, and books, a foil character is someone who contrasts with another character – usually the main character – to highlight their qualities. Some stories also use a subplot as a foil to the main plot.
A foil character can be a nifty device that helps to develop your story's characters. By contrasting two characters' personalities, it helps your audience to understand what makes them tick – and also to see how important their roles are in the story. Smart, right?
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Fun fact: the literary term 'foil' comes from the old practice of backing gems with foil to make them shine more brightly. In this post, we'll check out some examples of foil characters from the real world.
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Mary Shelley's famous work of literature features two main characters – Dr. Frankenstein and his 'creature' – who act as classic literary foils for each other.
Victor Frankenstein withdraws from the world, obsessed with his need to make a living being. In the process, he creates his own foil: a creature that craves company and connection – the exact things that Frankenstein doesn't have.
The Great Gatsby
In another vintage work of literature, F. Scott Fitzgerald uses narrator Nick Carraway as a foil to the novel's protagonist, Jay Gatsby, and Jay’s antagonist, Tom Buchanan. The men share a desire for Tom's wife, Daisy – but in other ways they're completely different.
Nick paints Tom as an entitled Ivy League-educated sportsman who inherited his money. By contrast, Nick's much more comfortable around rags-to-riches Jay – the Great Gatsby himself – describing him as a man who “had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it…” How sweet.
In Hamlet, William Shakespeare creates a foil between Laertes and Prince Hamlet to show how different they are. At one point, Prince Hamlet tells Laertes that he'll fence with him and – to ram the point home – says, "I'll be your foil, Laertes."
Shakespeare continues the foil-arama by making another foil for Hamlet: the Norwegian soldier of few words, Fortinbras. Both men have lost their fathers and want revenge. However, unlike Hamlet, Fortinbras has a strong relationship with the rest of his family – something that Claudius uses to avoid war.
Harry Potter's rival Draco Malfoy makes an excellent foil example in the Harry Potter series. Uber-creepy Professor Snape allows both boys to "to experience the essential adventures of self-determination." But while Harry chooses to fight Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters, Draco Malfoy instead joins them.
As we see Malfoy teaming up Voldemort and his band of nasties, it helps to highlight the positive choices that Harry Potter makes as he struggles against the dark wizard. Like foil, Malfoy helps Potter to shine.
Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar sees our pal Will showing off his mastery of literary devices. In the play, the character Brutus has not one, but two character foils: Cassius and Mark Antony.
While both Brutus and Cassius conspire to kill Caesar, Cassius is more likely to employ tricks and lean on ambition. Brutus, however, is motivated by his allegiance to the state. With the foil character of Antony, we see how his ambition, deception, and treachery differ to the honesty and naiveté of Brutus.
Shakey-P is at it again. This time, we see Banquo serving as a foil for Macbeth. Macbeth's predicted to be king, while Banquo's predicted to spawn many kings – which means his heirs will become kings.
Macbeth, blinded by ambition, murders his way to the crown, then continues his bloodbath to stay seated on the throne. Banquo wants to have his heirs rule Scotland but – unlike Macbeth – doesn't set out on a killing spree to make it happen. In the process, he makes Macbeth look pretty nasty.
Romeo and Juliet
Retaining his title as King of the Foil, it's William Shakespeare. In his hit play Romeo and Juliet, he throws Romeo's BFF Mercutio into the mix as a spicy foil for Romeo himself.
Mercutio is a character that likes to poke fun at love. Instead, Mercutio's more of a rational mind that loves logic and generally being sensible. Which sets this total square up in opposition to the lovestruck Romeo, highlighting just how romantic he is.
In another case of positioning best friends as foils, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle uses Sherlock Holmes' loyal sidekick Dr. John Watson as a secondary character to draw even more attention to the world's finest detective.
As Sherlock Holmes explains his thinking about mind-bending cases to Watson, it helps the reader (or viewer) get a sense of what's going on – highlighting Holmes' unparalleled genius.
Most foil definitions usually talk about foil characters. But Emily Brontë tears up the rulebook in Wuthering Heights, using an object as a foil rather than a character. Wild!
Wuthering Heights is a grey, depressing, dilapidated estate. Its neighbouring estate Thrushcross Grange is, by contrast, a sophisticated, resplendent property that basks in sunshine. Using it as a foil emphasises the darkness that hangs over Wuthering Heights.
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