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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.

FILMS OF 2013

Rather than hierarchize a list of films that released this year, which would inevitably take me excruciating hours on end trying to organize, instead I’ll select what I thought were the year’s best films, and a short description of why they stood out. Here goes:

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Best Stylized Thriller / Stoker (dir. Park Chan-Wook)

Stoker is the epitome of ‘no such thing as being over-stylized’, as Chan-Wook takes control over a mildly suspenseful, incestuous, and murderous drama, and puts it in the middle of a beautiful arrangement of cuts, editing, music, camera work, and overall captivating, moody aesthetic.

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Best Intense Drama / The Hunt (dir. Thomas Vinterberg)

This film from Denmark about a man accused of molesting a young girl is fraught with ambiguity and tense performances. The story is less about justice and determining the verdict of his guilt, and more about the moral complexities and profound implications of such accusations, on a man’s conscience and the lives of the community he lives in. 

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Best Real Life Romance / Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)

The passion and charisma between the two leads has not dissipated in the least, and Before Midnight proves that the most intellectual and stimulating conversations are enough to captivate an audience (and consequently, lead to one of the most interesting, nuanced, and genuine characters ever written for film–in a span of 18 years). 

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Best Teenage Romance The Spectacular Now (dir. James Ponsoldt)

Maybe there isn’t any way to view this movie objectively, without being affected by your own high school/romantic experiences, but even if this is a matter of perfect timing with my own life, I still believe The Spectacular Now works because of its natural leads and because of a script and director that is able to see through the perspectives of teens, see right through them, and then also observe empathetically on the outside, all at once. It’s magic.

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Best Familial Drama with Twists and Turns / The Past (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

What Farhadi also does with painstaking precision, is he enters a story haphazardly in a seemingly random point in time, much like we do in people’s lives whom we’ve just been acquainted with. And along the 2 hour journey, revelations are revealed and the woefully enigmatic story takes genuinely surprising paths, so that the audience comes to appreciate his method of narration. It’s a mastery of nuance in the narrative, in the characters, in the actors and actresses, and in the director’s vision. 

It’s a terrible, terrible shame–let me repeat: TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE, SHAME–and sincerely a huge failure on the Academy’s part, in its exclusion for the Foreign film short list this year. With Blue is the Warmest Color unable to contend this year, The Past should’ve been a clear winner.

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Best Technical Achievement and Emotional Storyline / Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)

No matter what anybody tells you, this film is not about Sandra Bullock floating in space, and it’s certainly not only notable for its triumphant cinematography and scoring. While it excels in those two directions, its understated narrative is ultimately what consummates its success as a film, and as a story about faith, hope, fear, adversity, solitude, and life. It’s not only one of the best films of the year–it’s one of the grandest movies in cinema.

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Best Intimate Portrait of Love / Blue is the Warmest Color (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)

Provocative, sensual, and captivating, Blue is the Warmest Color is an achievement in honest and fearless filmmaking. This is a film that addresses overt sex and sexuality as integral to life, and as an expression of a human truth. In retrospect, Kechiche, Seydoux, and Exarchopoulos’s commitment to this film and its explicit and intimate portrayal of love, is admirable and I respect so much the way in which Adele’s life is the most true, and the most accurate narrative of sexual fluidity, questioning, and passionate desire for love. This is a film that transcends its medium; transcends its actors; and transcends its director. This is a story, whose characters asks us not to be afraid or terrified by sex and sexuality, but rather to embrace the beauty when it’s regarded by love.

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Best Blockbuster with a Political Intent (and the better Lawrence performance) / The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (dir. Francis Lawrence)

Lawrence’s new direction of the Hunger Games trilogy is more steadfast and more incredible than its predecessor. The brisk pace and captivating action is in no small part due to its masterfully adapted source material. Jennifer Lawrence’s (and Jena Maloney’s, as well) lead performance is powerful, and this role highlights the vulnerability and evocativeness of her ability as an Oscar winning actress.

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Best Romantic Comedy about the Future (and of the human spirit) / Her (dir. Spike Jonze)

While simple in its premise, Jonze delves perceptively into the complex dynamics of love, humanness, emotion, sex, and the grandness of life, through one man’s relationship with his ‘computer’. It elicits a lot of laughter, which complements the melancholic philosophy that underlies the film. In 2 hours, Jonze lays bare the joys and turbulence of being in love—of living life. But surely, without a doubt, it is worth it. In its depiction about man’s relationship to technology, and the ever changing boundaries of friendship, love, and loneliness, Her opens up a profound conversation about how we relate to one another, whether human or not. For that, it’s the most affecting film I’ve seen in a long time. 

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Best Melancholic Musical / Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Ethan and Joel Coen)

Another definite and assured character account by the Coen brothers. Though it’s set in an older time, it’s a story about a type of person that is universal and transhistorical; the qualms of living for what you love. It features a talented breakout performance by Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis, who through the music we get inside, if only ever so sliightly.

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Best Hypnotic Animated Documentary / Is The Man Who is Tall Happy? (dir. Michel Gondry)

This animated conversation between political radical and linguist, Noam Chomsky, and director Michel Gondry is fascinating and intellectually engaging. Although the art isn’t essential and proves tedious to follow at times, the documentary could be listened to as a podcast and still remain just as enlightening.

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Best Insane and Sensational Performance and Great Direction / The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)

Corrupt, perverse, and charismatically virulent, the destructive biography of Jordan Belfort is a despicable one; one that doesn’t elicit much ambivalence: you’re either enamoured by the outrageousness of his wealth, or you’re disgusted by his depraved nature. And make no mistake, Wall Street isn’t a character study about how a poor man becomes immoral when he assumes the status of a millionaire with unimaginable money—it’s more of a study of how the nature of such immorality in men come to light when circumstances, of money that is, allow those men to believe they’re invincible. Belfort was clearly a man of high octane thrill and materialistic fascination right from the start—or so Scorsese and DiCaprio depict him to be. If you can forgive the film for its 3 hour duration, you’ll recognize the enormity of DiCaprio’s all out, sex crazed, heavily drugged performance that anchors nearly every second of the film. Scorsese also directs Wall Street with a comedic flair and a truly cinematic, sensationalized intensity, that somehow makes seeing 4 different kinds of orgies on screen worth your while. 

P.S.: As I catch up on the rest of the year’s documentaries, dramas, comedies and what have you, I may or may not edit this list to include major ones. For now, these are the films, stories, performances that I’ll remember from this memorable year (that consisted of more than a few great nearly 3 hour films!).

3:48 AM manicure. Just got this colour at Walmart today and although I am aware that this nail polish doesn’t really live up to its “14-day wear” claim, I am just amazed with how quickly it dries. I can probably do retouches while I’m away cause it completely dries in 10 minutes or less. Plus this shade is so puuurty…

Sally Hansen Miracle Gel in Street Flair~