Creating the Perfect Foil

“Whenever I marry,” she continued after a pause which none interrupted, “I am resolved my husband shall not be a rival, but a foil to me.”

—Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Ask a friend to tell you about the last book she read that made a big impression on her, and chances are she will tell you about the characters. If I think about my own favorite books, the characters are what come to mind first. Creating interesting and memorable characters—especially main characters—can be the most thrilling part of writing.

Of course, creating characters with depth and personality is far from easy. Even when you create a fascinating character, it’s sometimes difficult to find ways to show all of the traits that make your character so special. One way to be sure that your character’s strengths and weaknesses are vivid and unmistakable is to match your character with a foil.

According to thefreedictionary.com, a foil is a character who “by contrast, underscores or enhances the distinctive characteristics of another.” The foil can be a best friend, a rival, a sidekick, or even an enemy. An effective foil is often a strong and fascinating character in his or her own right. The crucial thing with a foil is contrast. The foil reflects the qualities that make your main character unique by having completely different (and sometimes opposing) qualities.

Perhaps your main character is a very focused and deliberate student. If his best friend is equally focused, this quality might be perceived by your reader as typical and its importance might be overlooked. Create a best friend who is light-hearted and full of mischief, and you have a perfect foil for your studious hero. Now your reader will take note of the contrast, and the intensity of your main character will be highlighted and magnified.

Foils have existed in literature since the beginning of story-telling, and there are as many different types of foils as there are characters. A foil can contrast the hero in appearance or she can be her twin. More than one character can be the foil in a story; three separate foils might contrast three distinct characteristics of the hero.

Take a look at the following list of foils from popular stories and you will see that an effective foil comes in many different packages. It could be argued that many of them are more memorable and beloved than the main character they contrasted and reflected.

Examples of famous foils:

(Feel free to debate the inclusion of any or all of the characters on this list in the comments! I’m sure not everyone will agree with these!)

  • Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars
  • Will Turner and Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
  • In the Harry Potter series, Harry and Draco and also Harry and Ron (Could we also add Harry and Voldemort?)
  • In the Sherlock Holmes series, Holmes and Watson
  • In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo and Mercutio
  • In Hamlet, Hamlet and Fortinbras, Hamlet and Laertes, and Hamlet and Horatio

What other foils can you think of? Have you created a foil in your own writing? Please join the discussion in the comments!

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34 Responses to Creating the Perfect Foil

  1. Christina Kit. Feb 7 2012 at 5:50 am #

    I’m currently reading Catching Jordan by Miranda Kenneally and it is amazing!

  2. Julie
    Julie Feb 7 2012 at 5:54 am #

    Hey Christina! That book is definitely on my TBR list. What I know of the plot makes me think there might be a good foil among the characters. 🙂

  3. Sooz Feb 7 2012 at 10:31 am #

    Ahhh, GREAT post!! I thrive on foils in my own writing–I definitely ALWAYS make sure there’s a foil character for MC, be it the love interest or a BFF or what.

    And I LOVE RUBY RED!!!! 😀

    • Julie
      Julie Feb 7 2012 at 10:56 am #

      Hey Sooz! I’m so glad to hear you include foils in your cast of characters. BFF and love interest are definitely two great roles for the foil. 🙂

  4. Amber Feb 7 2012 at 10:59 am #

    I’ve never thought of foils before, but I guess I’ve always had foils in my stories which is a good thing lol Loved reading this post!

    • Julie
      Julie Feb 7 2012 at 11:09 am #

      Hey Amber! I guess you instinctively included a foil (which is AWESOME!) Glad you liked the post.

  5. Jasmine Stairs Feb 7 2012 at 11:41 am #

    I had never really considered the concept of Foils before, but it makes so much sense! I’m glad I read this post. 😀

    (P.S. Reading Abhorsen, by Garth Nix, to avoid the creeper.)

    • Julie
      Julie Feb 7 2012 at 11:46 am #

      Hey Jasmine, I’m glad you read the post too! (And I learned a lot I never knew about foils by WRITING this post. :D)

  6. Kat Zhang
    Kat Zhang Feb 7 2012 at 12:27 pm #

    Funny that I’ve learned about foils in school for so long, but never really thought to use them in my own writing! Great post, Julie 😀

    • Julie
      Julie Feb 7 2012 at 12:53 pm #

      Thanks Kat! How cool that you learned about foils in school! 🙂

  7. Erica Feb 7 2012 at 6:52 pm #

    I’ve never heard of a foil until now, thanks for introducing it! I will definitely ben incorporating that into my writing.

    • Julie
      Julie Feb 7 2012 at 9:10 pm #

      Hey Erica! I’m so glad you got something out of this post! Thanks for the comment 🙂

  8. Hayley Gillis Feb 7 2012 at 9:45 pm #

    Hi! I’m currently reading This Is So Not Happening by Kieran Scott, and I LOVE it!

    • Julie
      Julie Feb 7 2012 at 9:52 pm #

      Hey Hayley! Thanks for the book rec! 🙂

  9. Jenelle R. Feb 8 2012 at 4:29 am #

    Whoa, I’ve never heard of a foil before! Thanks for writing about it! 😀 And as for your question, I’m currently reading The Storyteller’s Daughter by Cameron Dokey. Hopefully it can ward him off! 😛

    • Julie
      Julie Feb 8 2012 at 6:04 am #

      Hey Jenelle! So glad you liked the post! 🙂

  10. Michelle Feb 8 2012 at 5:08 am #

    Interesting post! I’ve never thought about foils before, but now that I do it does make a lot of sense. I created some foils in my stories, mostly with them being close friends, but that was all done by accident. I guess I’ve always thought that best friends should bring out the best in each other. 😀
    I agree with most of the pairings on your list, but I think Benvolio and Mercutio would be a better example. One’s the peacemaker and the other’s the joker after all.
    (To avoid the creeper I am reading the gigantic 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami)

    • Julie
      Julie Feb 8 2012 at 6:07 am #

      Hey Michelle, Benvolio and Mercutio are another great example of foils. I may have overlooked them since neither is the main character, but they certainly do set each other off by contrast. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  11. Kelly Mills Feb 8 2012 at 1:51 pm #

    I’m reading The Hunted by Kristy Berridge!

    • Julie
      Julie Feb 8 2012 at 3:25 pm #

      Thanks Kelly! 🙂

  12. Erin Bowman
    Erin Bowman Feb 8 2012 at 3:13 pm #

    Such a great post, Julie! (Sorry I’m slow and only just getting around to reading.) I can’t help but think of Katniss and Peeta too!

    • Julie
      Julie Feb 8 2012 at 3:27 pm #

      Hey Erin, Katniss and Peeta are great foils! (How is it I didn’t think of them?) Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  13. Hannah F-S Feb 9 2012 at 10:53 am #

    I feel better reading the comments knowing I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what a foil was. I learned something!

    And in my experience reading any book encourages people to leave you alone.

    • Julie
      Julie Feb 9 2012 at 11:10 am #

      Thanks Hannah! And I think you’re onto something with your reading theory… 🙂

  14. Candice Feb 10 2012 at 12:04 am #

    I would probably pull out a dictionary. It tends to scare people when they see me read it. (and I actually do sit there and read it like a novel.) 😉

    • Julie
      Julie Feb 10 2012 at 8:52 am #

      Oooh… that’s an awesome idea! Thanks for the comment 🙂

  15. Jessica Capelle Feb 10 2012 at 1:10 am #

    I love foils- my MG boy protag has a female foil who is so strong in my roughdraft that my crit partners want a book from her POV! 🙂 To keep weirdos away, I read e-books on my phone usually- I look busy and important!

    Can’t wait to read Ruby Red!

    • Julie
      Julie Feb 10 2012 at 8:54 am #

      That’s so cool about your super strong foil! And you will love Ruby Red! 🙂

  16. Tiffany M. Feb 10 2012 at 11:15 am #

    I am so glad I stopped to read this post! I did not realize what a foil was and how importent it was! Thank you for putting that out there to people like me that didn’t know!! I am reading The Iron Thorn by Catlin Kittredge. I’m not sure it would scare the creeper away but if needed it is a thick hard cover 🙂

    • Julie
      Julie Feb 10 2012 at 11:53 am #

      Hey Tiffany! I’m so glad you got something out of this post! And I love your “hard cover book as weapon” strategy. 😉

  17. Madison Feb 11 2012 at 6:09 pm #

    Wow, Ruby Red looks like an amazing novel! The cover is gorgeous, and it sounds just like the kind of story I love! It’s SO generous that you are giving a hardcover copy away, it would be SUCH an honor to win. That being said, fingers are definitely crossed, and also best of luck to all who enter! Can’t wait to see who the winner it! 🙂

    • Julie
      Julie Feb 12 2012 at 1:53 pm #

      Hi Madison! Yes, that cover truly is gorgeous! Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  18. Anonymus Mar 28 2014 at 8:13 pm #

    I would say that Ron and Hermione in the Harry Potter series are foils. Ron never studies and does mediocre in school. Hermione, on the other hand, is always studying, reading, etc. and is the perfect student.
    I believe that Lord Voldemort and Professeru Dumbledore could be viewed as foils.

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