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: [Read more…]