Writing Tips #8: Character Foils
Greetings, fellow writers, and welcome back! Today we’ll be covering one of my favorite aspects of writing: character foils.
Dictionary.com defines a “foil” as “a person or thing that gives contrast to another.” (Dictionary.com also defines foil as a very thin sheet of metal, a verb meaning to “prevent the success of” something, and a “flexible four-sided rapier having a blunt point.” But let’s focus on character foils).
Contrast is a critical element of writing, allowing a reader to draw mental lines around characters/settings/situations, as well as creating opportunities for those same readers to draw parallels within a given work. Character foils can be used to create these areas of contrast in their personality, choices, and moral alignment. Some common types of foils include hero/sidekick, mentor/student, leader/enforcer, and so on. There are several broad categories for character foils, including:
1. Diametrically opposed foils: Often the most dramatic type of foil, this variety relies on a pair of characters who are (if you’ll forgive the cliche) as different as night and day. If one character is pure and virtuous, the other has a checkered past and an unreliable moral compass. If one is quiet and studious, the other is brash and impulsive. If one is rich and airheaded, the other is lower-class and clever.
These foils work best with characters who are going to be spending a lot of page-time together, as the contrasts between them will naturally lead to conflict, which is inherently interesting.
Take Locke and Jean from The Lies of Locke Lamora. Locke is a clever street-thief with a flair for the dramatic, and while he can prove a wily opponent in a fight, he’s not a major physical threat. Jean, his closest ally and friend, is book-smart and practical, with a more reliable moral compass and the strength to beat the hell out of pretty much anyone. Their relationship works for two reasons. First, there is always some sort of interpersonal conflict going on between them, often arising from their contrasting personalities. Second, they both have something the other person needs. (Incidentally, those two qualifications are also how you make any fictional romantic relationship work. But that’s another lesson).
Another example of this kind of foil is Kurogane and Fai from Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle. Kurogane is grumpy, straightforward, and has an ascending moral arc. Fai is cheerful, deceptive, and has a descending moral arc (I mean, they both turn out all right in the end, but for the first two-thirds of the story, their character arcs are trending in reverse). They’re also very visually distinct from each other, with opposing color schemes and builds (not so important in prose, but very important in visual mediums like manga). There’s a reason most of the TRC fandom ships these two, and it has a lot to do with their status as foils to each other.
2. Single-trait contrast foils: This type of foil is a little different, in that the characters involved tend to be quite similar, but differ in one story-critical way. These foils are typically used in a much more limited way than diametrically opposed foils, and can be quite helpful when you want to highlight a particular aspect of a character, rather than their whole personality. Often, this foil consists of one main character and one supporting character.
To use Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle as an example again, we have the characters Syaoran and Ryuuo. They have several traits in common (determination, sincerity, idealism), but they differ in their mannerisms. Syaoran is reserved and formal, while Ryuuo is energetic and casual. Their friendship works because their similarities bring them together, and their differences complement one another. This allows Syaoran, our protagonist, to grow as a character.
For how to use this foil with rivals/antagonists, let’s look at Zuko and Zhao from season one of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Both are antagonists to the main ensemble. Both are arrogant. Both want to capture the Avatar. Where they diverge is in their motivation. Zuko wants to restore his honor so he can return home and gain his father’s acceptance. Zhao wants glory. We, the audience, only begin to see Zuko in a sympathetic light in episode three, when we first see Zuko and Zhao interact with each other. He’s still unquestionably a villain, but in contrasting him with a cruel, glory-seeking adversary, the creators of the show make Zuko appear as the lesser of two evils.
3. Shadow Archetypes: This type of foil is typically used to examine the things a given character dislikes/fears about themselves. Most of the time, when you see a Shadow Archetype, the foil is between the protagonist and one of the antagonists (though rarely the Big Bad). Often, the Shadow Archetype foil involves two characters who have similar histories (birthplace, experiences, abilities), but who ended up in a very different place due to their choices. With this foil, your protagonist is forced to confront an aspect of themselves that they might otherwise ignore or refuse to acknowledge. Let’s look at some examples.
In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Hama acts a Shadow for Katara. Both are from the Southern Water Tribe. Both are powerful waterbenders. Both hold deep grudges against the Fire Nation for taking away their loved ones. When Katara confronts Hama at the end of “The Puppetmaster,” she is essentially confronting a dark mirror of the person she could have become had she allowed bitterness and hatred to consume her. By overcoming Hama, Katara is implicitly making a promise to never let herself fall that far.
Here’s another example, this time from Teen Titans: Slade acts as a Shadow to Robin. Both are ambitious, goal-oriented, and rely heavily on technology and strategy to make up for a lack of superpowers. But Slade is ruthless, willing to cause great harm to others to achieve his goals, while Robin has moral standards which keep him from sinking so low. In confronting him, Robin is forced to acknowledge that they have many similarities. In overcoming him, Robin is able to find peace in himself (Note: with this type of foil, the defeat of the Shadow almost always represents character growth for the good-aligned character).
And those are the three main categories of character foils. Keep in mind that a character can have (or be) a foil to more than one other character at a time, and that the best character foils bring to the surface aspects of each character that might otherwise remain hidden beneath more noticeable traits. As always, thanks for reading, and if you have any questions, feel free to submit a question through my tumblr.