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The Foil

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, May 15, 2021

You're watching the main character do their thing, and it's all smooth sailing, when another character comes in the room and sparks fly. You expect them to, and if written well, you look forward to each scene that has them both.

That other character is the foil.

The foil is usually a vital supporting character or a main character themselves. Their key characteristic is that they are the complete opposite of the main character in terms of personality, or at least in terms of traits.

If the main character is calm and collected, the foil will be a hothead that flies off the handle at the drop of a hat.

If the main character is naive, the foil will be knowledgeable. If the MC is brave, the foil will be cowardly (or foolhardy vs strategic, if you like).

The foil is there to highlight the main character's personality traits by virtue of comparison and contrast. This helps the personality to resonate more with the audience, and even to drive home why it is good or bad for the story's plot.

If written well, a foil can be invaluable: not only are they good for contrast, but they also can have some of the best pieces of dialogue when they are talking with the MC. Anything from witty comebacks and zingers to high-tension cryptic shots taken at each other will hold the audience's attention and show them aspects of both characters' backgrounds, intentions, and characters without having to tell them about it.

There are many excellent examples of foils across all genres of stories and narrative media, from novels to tv to comics.

Mr. Wickham is the foil to Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice: he is sociable, charming, and corrupted while Darcy is unsociable, charmless, and upstanding.

Zuko is the foil to Aang in The Last Airbender: he is volatile, angry, and grim while Aang is calm, cheerful, and optimistic.

Mugen is the foil to Jin in Samurai Champloo: Mugen is lewd and vulgar with an undisciplined fighting style while Jin is reserved, polite, and distinguished with a very discipplined fighting style.

The list can go on and on, but that is the main idea.

This dynamic can exist between secondary characters too, or main characters vs. secondary characters for specific narratives.

A foil might be necessary to show off a character's aspects that they will need to overcome in the hero's journey. For example, when in Rurouni Kenshin, Kenshin needs to ‘upgrade’ himself to be able to successfully fight his nemesis (and different foil) Sishio, he seeks out his master, Hiko. Hiko is opposite in nearly everything when it comes to perfecting the swordmanship style he and Kenshin share, but also in their approach to swordfighting. This becomes immediately apparent, highlighting what Kenshin will need to overcome physically and mentally in order to succeed.

As it is already evident, a character can have different foils! Each showcasing different aspects of their personality, mental state, or emotional state.

Have you got foils in your cast? What do they serve in the story?

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Xade at 6:39PM, May 16, 2021

great article! I truly enjoyed it Marty is Zeep's file in my comic, he just hasn't met her in comic yet :P

Andreas_Helixfinger at 11:45AM, May 15, 2021

The only foil character I can think of having down the line, for now, is this police inspector that pops up in the Molly Lusc series. While Molly is a slick, cool-headed, flexible, wisecracking deviant, Inspector Viggs is an unyielding, boorish, humourless stickler with a short fuse. He hates Molly's guts and would love nothing better then to have her behind bars, but he will never actually put her there unless he has good, lawful reasons to do so. Molly on the other hand takes delight in triggering him and be a little bit of a thorn in his side, while also having a respect for the fact that he is one of few cops in Port Hommerond who will never sell or abuse his power. One day they may both come to realize that Port Hommerond is a kind of town that needs both of their types around, the flexible roguewoman and the unyielding lawman. The cheater and the champion. The Yin and the Yang.

bravo1102 at 5:20AM, May 15, 2021

It's always interested me how people play off one another and even compliment each other. One fills in a bit of what isn't in the other, or one is seemingly just there as a contrast to someone else. And this was in real life! Many people don't want to associate with people too much like themselves or if they are there's always some great difference that sets them apart or be foils to one another. To use an example from biology it's like proteins and each had a specific place where only a complimentary protein can join with them.

usedbooks at 3:48AM, May 15, 2021

Developing a foil is a great way to hone in on and highlight your characters' notable traits. It helps you (and your audience, I guess) understand your characters better.

usedbooks at 3:45AM, May 15, 2021

I created some characters with the concept of foils in mind. My favorite is an antagonist named Jack who was designed entirely as a foil to another antagonist. They are both awful but somehow each come off as strangely likeable due to the ways they are unlike the other. Tbh, I mostly designed them that way to assist me with one of my glaring weaknesses. I'm really bad at writing villains. In order to help myself focus on the characters and deliberately avoid creating shallow and samey bad guys all the time, I challenged myself to make deplorable antagonists who are as different from each other as possible.

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