It’s almost impossible to overstate the utility of foils in fiction.
Technically speaking, a foil is either a character that contrasts with another character or (less commonly) a subplot that contrasts with the primary plot.
When crafting a story, careful use of foils allows a writer to highlight certain qualities in a protagonist (or secondary characters) through action rather than explanation. The differences between the primary character and his or her foil can be physical, but far more often they relate to characteristics like behavior and worldview.
An effective foil can accomplish several important tasks within a narrative, like highlighting positive characteristics of a protagonist or mirroring the reaction the author wants the audience to feel. Since foils usually fill another (often primary) structural role as well, it’s helpful to identify and craft them from the beginning of the story-building process, to ensure they fit seamlessly into the narrative. A well-crafted foil rarely calls attention to himself or herself as such—although they’re also fairly easy to identify if you take a step back and analyze a story.
Foils make the story stronger by allowing the author to draw out important characteristics through action, rather than narrative exposition. For example:
- a selfish foil can give the protagonist opportunities to behave in a caring manner;
- a rude foil may help even a crusty protagonist look more polite;
- an aggressive foil gives the protagonist opportunities to act as a peacemaker;
- a racist or intolerant foil gives the protagonist opportunities to stand up for others.
Foils don’t have to highlight only positive characteristics, either:
- a gregarious or popular foil may make it clear the protagonist is a loner;
- a foil who listens carefully when others speak can make the protagonist seem like a boor.
When foils have too many negative characteristics (or even too many positive ones) they begin to look like caricatures. Fortunately, it’s possible—and often advisable—to create multiple foils within the same narrative, each of whom fills a slightly different role.
All well and good, but how do these ideas translate to a realistic foil on the page? Here are some tips I use when creating mine:
Identify the characteristic(s) you want to highlight in the protagonist*
(*Or other character, if you’re using the foil to highlight someone else.)
Foils do their best work when bringing out half-buried attributes—the ones the protagonist might not otherwise have the chance to show.
For example, when creating my Hiro Hattori mystery series, I wanted to demonstrate that my ninja detective, Hiro, has deep respect for other people. (Not something an unrepentant assassin often has the chance to demonstrate.)
Determine what kind of character will draw out the desired characteristic.
It’s easy to show respect to someone who respects you also, but harder to respect a person who shows you none. Therefore, it would be easiest to demonstrate my ninja’s desired trait by pairing him with a character that did not like or respect him much.
When making these decisions, it’s important to remember that while opposites make excellent foils (e.g., a combative character vs. a peaceful one) it’s often more interesting to create a foil whose conflict with the protagonist comes from a lateral direction; for example, Crush (the sea turtle) in Finding Nemo, who highlights Marlin’s overanxious nature by taking his laid-back time in offering needed advice to help Marlin find the missing Nemo.
Find a necessary character in the narrative who can fulfill the foil’s role.
Good foils are more than just foils—they fill a plot-related role as well. Antagonists (primary and otherwise) make good foils, but it’s also helpful to have a foil that shares more pages with the protagonist.
In Hiro’s case, I opted to create an elderly, cranky housekeeper named Ana. In her traditional worldview, masterless samurai like Hiro are little better than gadabouts and barflies. She disapproves of just about everything he says and does—not only testing his patience but giving him the chance to demonstrate that his respect for others does not depend on the way they treat him in return.
Don’t descend into caricature.
Like all fictional characters, foils should be as three-dimensional as possible. Pushing any characteristic too far forward, or making it too extreme, can push a character over into caricature. While the characteristic you want to emphasize can play a primary role in the foil’s character, it can also be secondary—and should be only one of a range of emotions and behaviors the foil has the chance to exhibit on the page.
People are more than one-note wonders, and fictional foils should be too.
A well-crafted foil fills a role in the narrative, highlights something important about the protagonist, and—most importantly—fits realistically and naturally into the narrative landscape.
Speaking of which: a foil does not have to be a person. Animals, settings, weather, and almost any other story element can be used to highlight the differences between two characters or two things. For example: authors often use the weather to parallel or foreshadow story events, but the weather can act as a foil, too. Bright sunshine overhead may be the last thing a character wants to see after her beloved grandmother dies, and that juxtaposition may be even more effective at drawing out her sadness than the (often more expected) rain.
Foils add depth and interest, as well as opportunities to introduce action, conflict, and tension to a story. They’re fun and challenging to create, and although it’s important not to let them stray into mustache-twirling caricature, a well-drawn foil adds exciting spark to every scene in which (s)he–or it–appears.
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