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Literary Foils: Does Your Captain Kirk Have a Spock?

People read books for the stories, but it’s the characters they fall in love with. Audiences particularly seem to enjoy pairs of characters: Romeo and Juliet, Kirk and Spock, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, Watson and Holmes, John Paul White and Joy Williams.

Spock and Kirk

When developing loveable characters (or hateable characters), storytellers have two primary methods of characterization: what a character does and every other character in a story.

The foil, in particular, is effective at breathing characters to life. This device has been in use since the Book of Job, when God made a bet with Satan, and it shows up in many of the most popular stories today.

What is a foil and how can you use the device in your stories?

What Is a Foil?

A foil is a character who acts as a mirror or shadow to your protagonist. Whatever values your protagonist represents, foils will often possess the exact opposite. Foils are often antagonists but they can also act as a sidekick or even a love interest to your protagonist.

As Adam Gopnik says in a recent essay in The New Yorker,

No one in 1900 would have thought it possible that a century later more people would read Conan Doyle’s Holmes and Watson stories than anything of George Meredith’s, but we do. And so Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek,” despite the silly plots and the cardboard-seeming sets, persists in its many versions because it captures a deep and abiding divide. Mr. Spock speaks for the rational, analytic self who assumes that the mind is a mechanism and that everything it does is logical, Captain Kirk for the belief that what governs our life is not only irrational but inexplicable, and the better for being so.

Literary Foils Create Contrast

Characters characterize each other. When you look at a painting, your eye will naturally be drawn to the place of highest contrast. In a shadowy Caravaggio, the light sections seem to leap out at you. Likewise, if you place two complimentary colors next to each other, orange and blue for example, it makes both colors appear brighter.

Spock’s severe attention to regulation makes Kirk’s rule-breaking ways both more apparent and more interesting. The Evil Queen makes Snow White seem more beautiful and virtuous. Sancho Panza’s simple realism makes Don Quixote’s complicated delusion more laughable.

By placing your protagonist’s opposite beside her, you bring out more of her character.

3 Steps to Creating a Foil

If you’re thinking of including a foil character within your story, here are three steps to create him or her:

1. Choose the Foil’s Role

There are three main roles for a foil:

  • Antagonist
  • Love Interest
  • Sidekick

Which role does your protagonist need the most? (By the way, you can have multiple foils in one story.)

2. Map Your Protagonist’s Qualities and Values

What does your protagonist value the most? His instinct? Her warm, generous spirit? Money? Power?

Create a catalogue of his or her qualities and values.

3. Throw Your Foil In To Create Conflict

Now, whenever your protagonist displays his or her core qualities or values, introduce your foil and watch the conflict escalate. This conflict may be implicit; the very presence of the foil may create a contrast between your protagonist’s values and the foil. Or the conflict may be out in the open, Zachary Quinto’s Spock choking Chris Pine’s Kirk to near death on the bridge.

Who Is Your Foil?

Foils resound so strongly with us because they help us resolve the inner conflicts within our own personalities.

Have you ever noticed that the personality trait you hate in others is the trait you most hate in yourself? A friend once chewed me out for being five minutes late to a meeting. I found out later she was struggling under a huge burden of responsibility, and since she thought of herself as a fairly irresponsible person, she was hypersensitive to the appearance of irresponsibility in others. My friend was trying to project a responsible, on-time person into the world, but she had a foil, a shadow self she was scared would leak out instead.

What person are you trying to project into the world? Who is the foil within your own personality? If you can resolve your conflict with your own weaknesses, you will not only be able to tap into your “darkside” to create more interesting characters, you will create a deeper, more abiding peace within yourself.

Do you have a foil in your work in progress? Does your story need one?

PRACTICE

Create a character profile for a foil character. What values does he or she have, and how do those values contrast to your protagonist’s?

Write for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, post your character profile in the comments section. And if you post, be sure to give feedback on a few practices by other writers.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

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  • Hope Clark

    Excellent post. Just excellent. I adore writing my contrasting characters to my protagonist, and they are often so much more colorful. And you are right. They ARE almost complete opposites. Exciting revelation.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Wow. Thanks Hope. High compliment, coming from you.

      • Hope Clark

        Okay, you’ve prompted me to look at my WIP and find an example of this. I’m not one to post excerpts (especially unpublished ones), but here goes:

        “What’re you doing?” Callie said, reaching for a dish towel and running it under the faucet, just in case she needed to put out a stray spark.

        Sophie giggled and wafted the smoke into the corners of the room. “Saging your home, of course, silly.”

        She glided into the living room humming, repeating her motions, light catching some of her skirt’s gold lame ribbons. The woman’s arms were toned and tanned, her figure a tiny
        hourglass. Her hair was short, kicked up in pixie-esque style, jet black with minor splashes of streaked highlights. And those aqua eyes. Had to be contact lenses.

        “And what is saging?” Callie asked, uncertain about the gypsy flamboyance parading around her house.

        “Smudging. Clearing your new home.” She dipped and dove smoothly, controlled as if music played in her head. “One more room and I’m done.”

        She returned to the kitchen. Callie fought retreating as the woman violated her space, pushing smoke up and over her head. Then she rested the spent sage sticks in the sink. “There. Cleansed of all negative energy. Both you and the house.” She spun and held out her hand. “Nice to meet you.”

        “Didn’t know I needed cleansing,” Callie said, taking her hand briefly.

        Sophie snickered, pulled out a chair and slid herself into it. “When you move in, you sage to dispel the ugly influence of cosmic junk left behind by the previous owners. And you were
        around that murder yesterday, so saging you couldn’t hurt.”

        Callie smirked. “The previous owners were my parents.” The thought of Beverly’s presence needing purging from these walls amused her. “Appreciate it, though, because I’m sure there was a serious accumulation of negative cosmic junk left behind.”

        “See?” Sophie beamed. “It’s working already. No more need to keep your doors locked.” Her gaze strayed to Callie’s waist as she seated herself, the gun hitting the chair. “Oh, my goodness. No need for that gun, either.”

        Beverly didn’t tell her what to do anymore, so a neighbor most assuredly wasn’t. “Sorry,” Callie said, “but doors stay locked around here, Sophie. And I used to be a detective.”

        “No, no, no.” Sophie shook her shaggy hair, the bangle bracelets on her wrists tinkling. “When you think about potential negative events, you channel them. Don’t think of such incidents, and they won’t occur. Therefore, no need for locks, or guns.”

        “I can’t live in an unlocked house. We’ll have to agree to disagree on that one. I’m Callie Jean Morgan, by the way.”

        • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

          How fun! The flighty spiritualist and the hard-as-nails former detective. They definitely play well against each other.

        • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

          Nice conflict between the characters, it is well-executed and it really does pull the reader into the characters.

          • Hope Clark

            Thanks, James! I love writing sidekicks and foils, for some reason.

        • Christine

          One thing that isn’t so clear: is this “gypsy” person just passing through or does she continue through the story as a foil would?

          • Hope Clark

            She continues not only through the story, but through the series. It’s a mystery series.

  • Marie

    Everyone who was supposed to protect her had let her down. Even her parents could not be trusted to protect her, and so she grew a hard and tough exterior while deep inside was that little girl calling out for her Momma who was passed out from that 4th and 5th martini. Yet, she had a keen intellect in spite of her inner wounds and she came off like a shiny new penny to those who first met her. She ran rings around the guys in her office, because she was the smartest as well as the toughest worker her company had… She was the one who got everyone to line up and do all they were supposed to do. Some would call her manipulative, I just called her the motivator. While she was the one who got all of the credit I was the one behind the scenes answering her calls at 3 am when she herself was on her 4th martini and feeling incredibly insecure. I was the one who reminded her that she was the one, she truly was the one everyone else wished they were, and she needed only to get back up the next morning and do it all over again, because damn it she was just so good, none knew computer code like she did and she truly was the best.

    • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

      You characterize the woman very well, but the narrator feels more like a helpful sidekick that a foil character. I loved the way you mixed in the back story. Excellent balance and execution!

    • Christine

      I just read a book with a character like this. I think it’s a fairly common prototype these days. And I’d agree that here the narrator sounds like a helpful sidekick; we’d need more of the story to see the ‘foil’ role played out.

    • Jackie FP

      Sometimes I read a text and I seem to see only one word flashing out of it. And in yours it was ”manipulative”, and I just loved how the narrator admires that woman so much that he sees it as a desire to share motivation. I loved it.

    • Hope Clark

      Like this. Would love to feel more depth from the narrator/foil/sidekick, though. He’s narrator only here. But I can see this going somewhere and I want to know where.

  • Christine

    These characters are opposites, but I’m not sure if you’d call Chandler a love interest ‘foil’ or not?

    “What will your Mom say if she finds out you’re not at the Library, that you’re here meeting me again?”
    Dayna flicked some crumbs off their table and took another sip of pop. “I don’t care what Mom’s going to say.”
    “Then how come you had to sneak away? Why didn’t you just tell her the truth? ‘I’m going to see Chandler, Mom. Because I love him. Good-bye.’ ”
    “Maybe I should have, but…”
    “But it’s easier this way, right. Avoid confrontations. Dayna, if you don’t get some grit you’re going to be playing the role of docile daughter all your life. Why don’t you step into your own shoes, tell her she’s not running your life anymore.”
    “I should, but…you don’t know how mom can be. ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ looks wimpy compared to the screaming Mom does when she’s crossed.”
    “Then walk away. Grab your stuff, go find an apartment, get a job. Get a life.”
    “I want to…when the time is right. But apartments are sometimes hard to find and decent paying jobs can be hard to come by, too.”
    “Then move in with me.”
    “You know I’d love to, Chan. But you’re barely surviving yourself. I don’t want to be a burden to you.”
    “We’d make it work.” He ran his hand through his hair. “I love you, Dayna. Together we could grab life by the tail and make it give us what we want. The longer we keep putting life on hold like this, the harder it’ll be to head into our dreams.”
    “But I do have to think of my family. They’d feel disgraced. Besides, I’m a traditionalist. I want the white gown church wedding packed with relatives and friends, dad walking me down the aisle, big fluffy wedding cake, confetti and blessings kind of day.”
    “I won’t wait forever.”
    Dayna covered her face with her hands. “Don’t do this to me, Chan!”
    He stood up, then leaned over her. Taking her hands in his, he leaned down and gave her a kiss. “Call me when you make up your mind. I might still be home.”
    He turned and left the café. Dayna sat at the table for another ten minutes contemplating her choices and stirring the bubbles out of her drink until it was flat.

    • Jackie FP

      I’d call Chandler a love interest foil (if I understood the post correctly!)
      They sure have different values and the conflict was quickly introduced, which I especially liked in your post.
      (I’m a conflict lover.)

  • Jackie FP

    Sam was comfortably in bed, just about to slide in one happy dream, when he heard Bradley sing doubtful lyrics on his porch. He thought about ignoring him, because it was a Friday night; he knew Bradley would be wasted and maybe sleeping outside would teach him that it is inappropriate to disturb people after midnight. But some inner voice cried at him that Bradley might wake up the neighbours with such a racket, and poor Mrs. Harling had an important appointement at the hospital early in the morning.
    When Sam opened the door and saw the unsettled silhouette of his (what exactly was he to him?) he felt pity.
    “Sam!” Bradley exclaimed, stumbling in the steps of the porch, a glass of vodka in his soggy hand. “I brought you a souvenir!”
    He stretched his arm and half the liquid fell flat on the grey porch.
    “Brad. Keep it low, please.”
    “Why?” Bradley faked one of those very vexed expressions he handled so well. “Don’t you want the world to know we’re friends?”
    Sam tightened the belt of his nightgown. “I’m afraid I wouldn’t use such a overestimated term.”
    “But I got your back, bro! Whenever those punks try to bribe you, I’ll be there!”
    “Come in, will you…”
    Sam dragged difficultly Bradley inside, who was heavy and limp and claimed he wanted to stay on the porch to stare at the stars. Finally, Bradley sagged on the large couch, almost dropping the glass on the floor, and Sam sighed.
    “You can’t come in every time you’re drunk, Brad. I can’t stop my life for you.”
    “What life? You call that a life?” He chortled, slapping his own cheek with a weak hand. “Life is out there!”
    “I don’t judge your ambitions, if by some miracle you have any, then please don’t judge mine. Or I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
    Sam cleared his throat curtly and lifted his pointy chin in a proud manner.
    “Oh…” Bradley had an unbalanced laughter, looking at Sam through his stretched fingers. “Oh, no, no. You can’t kick me out.”
    “I can do as I please, this is my house.”
    “Yeah? I wonder what my mom would think about that. You know her right? She’s your boss.”
    Sam pinched his lips together, focusing on an invisible point behind Bradley. The words squeezed themselves out of his throat.
    “You can sleep on the couch,” he said as he awkwardly turned his heels and his fluffy slippers puffed on the waxed floor. “Just make sure you use a coaster for that drink.”

  • Map

    Wow. Thanks Hope. High compliment, coming from you.Nonetheless thank you for sharing this article.

  • Michael Marsh

    In my novel, I have a protagonist who previously had lived a
    life in which he took many risks and had a lot of passion for experience. He
    meets a woman from Venezuela who is beautiful and mysterious and falls in love.
    He settles down with her and the passion for his life goes into keeping his
    relationship with her alive. She leaves after ten years and he realizes he had
    been holding on to her and not really living. His best friend is his foil
    because he has never settled and is a man who lives at the loose ends of life.
    He and Random reconnect and go through a series of adventures that lead him
    back to his love and his life. Random plans everything and nothing goes
    according to plan, but Steve is there to help Random find his life again
    instead of just living his life in fear of losing his love.

  • Yvette Carol

    Joe…
    I really appreciate the way you’ve broken down the relationship between the protag. and their other half – this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about in recent times, coincidentally ever since seeing Into Darkness on the big screen – and now you’ve given me even more to think about! In my stories, my protag is a weakling, a coward, and his nemesis is amazingly arrogant and full-of-himself. That’s fine. However, his best friend, and sidekick is also shy and unconfident – I never thought of making those traits in his friend really irritating to him. This adds another dimension I hadn’t considered, our shadows, so thank you!

  • Catherine

    “Elizabeth!” I yelled into the dark night, “Where are you?!”
    The silence was piercing, until it was shattered by the sound of boots sloshing in the concoction of mud and leaves that plastered the forest floor.
    I span around quickly to face the source of the noise.
    “Eliza-”. I stopped myself short, for there, hidden from the moonlight, in the shadow casted by an elm stood him. “Expecting someone else?” he crooned, causing goose flesh to creep up my arms. “You.” I spat. I couldn’t bring myself to utter his name.
    “What have you done with her?! If you’ve so much as touched her-”
    “Calm yourself, oh prince.” He patronized.
    “Never call me that.” I growled through gritted teeth.
    A smile resembling that of a Cheshire Cat spread across his tawny face.
    “But why? That’s your title, your role, if you will, in all of this. Or would you prefer hunter?”
    I clenched my fist tightly around my bow.
    If I could get a shot. Just one shot at him…..
    “Yes I suppose that would fit better wouldn’t it? ‘Hunter: one who stalks and slays the weak for personal gain.’ Tell me, what do you gain from all this? Adventure? Freedom? Thrill? Because you certainly don’t love the girl, or at least she couldn’t care less about you.”
    “Shut up!” I fumed. ” If you don’t tell me what you’ve done with Elizabeth I’ll-”
    “You’ll what? Shoot me with a couple of twigs? Attempt to slay me? My, you are fitting into your role rather nicely.”
    “My role in what?!” I bursted “What’s this all about?”
    He smirked.
    “You mean she hasn’t told you? I can’t believe it.” He mocked,” After everything you two have been through, she sheltered you from it all…and for this long?”
    I had just about enough of this. I cocked back an arrow and aimed threateningly in his direction.
    “Tell me where she is, or I’ll shoot.”
    “Fine.”
    “What?”
    “Go ahead.” he replied in an eerily calm manner, “Prove I’m right. Show me what a heartless killer you really are!”

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