“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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