Foils (FOY-ulls) are characters with contrasting personalities. Secondary characters and antagonists are frequently set up as foils to the protagonist, but minor characters, groups, and subplots can also be foils of each other. Writers use these contrasts to emphasize characterization, reinforce a character’s role in the story, and enrich narrative themes.
Foil in the literary sense stems from foil-backed gems, which were lined with metallic material to increase light reflection, deepen color, and enhance brilliance. Character foils serve similar purposes—they highlight, emphasize, and enrich characters, plots, symbols, and other narrative elements.
How Foils Are Used
Characters who are foils highlight each other’s differences, but that doesn’t mean foils are always total opposites. It just means that, at the very least, they have opposite traits or characteristics. In fact, you may encounter two characters who are incredibly alike except for one crucial, dramatic difference.
Antagonists are often positioned as foils to protagonists, with the former’s darker characterization emphasizing the latter’s goodness. However, a key distinction between foils and antagonists is that the antagonist exists to challenge or thwart the protagonist, while any character can be a foil and doesn’t need to affect the protagonist’s journey.
In fact, foils build upon a variety of archetypes, such as heroes and sidekicks. In a story, the main hero may be discerning and calculated, while their sidekick is impatient and instinctive. The former’s prudence might conflict with the latter’s spontaneity, creating friction—or their opposite personalities might complement each other, leading to a strong partnership.
A novice and a wise sage may be juxtaposed to highlight the difference between inexperience and knowledge, or a flat secondary character might appear to emphasize a primary round character’s personality or motivations.
Other narrative elements can be foils too. For example, a subplot can be a foil to the main plot to better emphasize the primary narrative and its themes.
Why Writers Use Foils
Foils are an important tool for character development, as they help distinguish between two characters’ traits and narrative roles. When the selfless heroism of Character A is confronted with the selfish egotism of Character B, the traits of both are thrown into sharper relief. It’s then easier for readers to perceive the former as the protagonist and the latter as the antagonist.
This emphasizes characterization and helps readers understand the story. When combined with symbolism and figures of speech, foils can enrich a story with more striking imagery. These contrasts can also become great foundations for narrative conflict. In sum, foils help create a more vivid, engaging, and rewarding reading experience.
Examples of Foils in Literature
1. Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are classic character foils. Dr. Jekyll is kind, dignified, and respected—a perfect Victorian gentlemen. But he’s also restrained to the point of repression; he struggles with dark impulses that would jeopardize his station and standing. Those urges manifest as an alter ego named Mr. Hyde, who is brutish, violent, and ruthless. Jekyll and Hyde represent the opposing desires and traits that exist within a single man.
2. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The Harry Potter series is full of character foils. Take Harry Potter and his rival Draco Malfoy: Harry is brave while Draco is cowardly; Harry was neglected while Draco was spoiled; Harry has a natural talent for Quidditch while Draco buys his way onto his team. Later in the series, when both are confronted with whether to join or oppose the antagonist Voldemort, they make opposite choices. This is also an example of subplot as foil, as Draco’s minor character arc serves to contrast with Harry’s main story.
3. Arthur Conan Doyle, A Scandal in Bohemia
Another classic example of a character foil is Dr. Watson. Sherlock Holmes is exceptionally keen and a brilliant detective; his genius is highlighted by the fact that Watson is ordinary and comparatively obtuse.
This contrast is exemplified by a conversation in A Scandal in Bohemia. Watson ponders why watching Holmes work leaves him totally mystified when Holmes’s explanations of his reasoning process make it seem so simple that Watson could do it himself. Holmes replies, “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” This exchange neatly sums up their different ways of thinking and perceiving the world, a key point of contrast in their characterizations.
4. James S. A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes
Leviathan Wakes is set in a future where humanity has colonized the solar system. The main narrative, instigated by first contact with alien technology, is set against a complex political backdrop in which three major powers—Earth, Mars, and the Belt—vie for dominance. Earth has essential natural resources, but it’s straining under the weight of its outsized population. Mars, dependent on Earth for resources, strives for self-sufficiency through terraforming and its premier military. Despite the vast resources in the asteroid belt and beyond, which are increasingly rare among the inner planets, the Belt struggles for representation, respect, and equality.
All three societies share a common humanity, and they all want the same things—resources, authority, and security. But they constantly work at cross purposes rather than for the collective good. They are clearly foils of each other, and when the pettiness of their rivalry is exposed by the emergence of alien technology, it becomes clear that this subplot is a foil meant to highlight the main storyline.
Further Resources on Foils
This video lesson helps students visualize what character foils are and why they’re important. It also explores the foils found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
This Kingdom Pen article provides a thorough explanation of character foils and shares several ways writers can incorporate foils into their work.