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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Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, May 15, 2021
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