Literary Foils: Definition and Examples

Since my last post, I’ve almost finished Tomcat In Love, and it has been somewhat of an exercise in frustration. This isn’t due to the book itself; it’s more due to the fact that the narrator is one of the most profoundly annoying protagonists I’ve ever encountered in fiction. He is a narcissist with a complete lack of self-awareness (at least until the last forty pages), and an unrepentant womanizer. Early on in the novel, we’re introduced to a woman who immediately provides a voice of reason, and helps serve as a reader surrogate. Everything that Thomas believes himself to be, Donna firmly states this is not the case, and her protests to his behavior make his ridiculous narcissism stand out even more boldly. She is a perfect foil to Thomas’s insanity.

Han Solo vs Luke Skywalker

Great foils: Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. Photo by JD Hancock (Creative Commons)

What Is a Foil?

Most of us have heard the word “foil” used in a literary context, and when used to describe a character, it means that that character serves to highlight one or more attributes of another character, often the protagonist, by providing a contrast.

In the Harry Potter series, Draco Malfoy is a foil to Harry Potter. In Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers and the memory of Rebecca both serve as foils to the young wife of Maxim de Winter.  Captain Hastings in Agatha Christie’ Poirot novels serves as a foil to the Belgian detective; although they are both on the side of good, Hastings is slower to pick up on clues and dangers, which better highlights Poirot’s sharp deductive skills.

A Foil is not an Antagonist

Sometimes a foil may be confused with an antagonist, which is a character whose personality not only may differ from the hero’s, but whose goals are in direct conflict with the protagonist’s. An antagonist is often a foil, and a foil can be an antagonist, but the two are not necessarily indicative of each other.

What is your favorite protagonist relationship?

PRACTICE

Spend fifteen minutes writing a scene between a protagonist and a foil as they try to make a mutual decision. They could be determining the best route to your story’s MacGuffin, or maybe they’re just really hungry and trying to make dinner plans. Post your practice in the comments and check out the work of your fellow writers.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

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  • Chloee

    slammed my fist on the old wooden table. The rain splashed
    on the window of the old abandoned building in the Southside of the city the
    dark clouds formed a tight knit cloak over the sky blocking out all hopes of
    sun light.

    “Zack!” The boy picked up his head and opened his hazel eyes. “What?” “We need to focus!” “I was just taking a quick nap.” He combed back his curly chocolate brown hair back. “Seriously I mean come on!” He yawned as he stretched his arms and legs. “Calm down miss uptight.” “Our lives are at stake and all you want to do is nap!” I brushed back my curly red hair to get out of my green eyes.

    I grabbed my red backpack and put it on the table digging around in it till I found it.
    “Fine I’ll stay awake but this better be quick.” I threw a look his
    way as he stood up and lazily walked over to the table in one of the old chairs
    that looked like they were about to fall apart. I spread the maps on the table
    showing all of London’s underground ways and secret tunnels. Zach started whistling the same three notes over and over
    again “Row Row Row” I tapped my fingers trying to drown out the annoying
    sound finally I snapped. “Zack shut up!” He looked at me giving me a
    cocky grin. “Don’t be like that.” “I want to live unlike
    you!” Zack gave a sigh as he leaned in closer to look at the maps. “We
    should go here here and here but avoid there.” He pointed to the spots as
    I circled them. I would get rid of him if I didn’t need his experience in survival.

    Finally I put back the maps and closed the back pack.
    “Wait what’s this?” He grabbed the letter in my backpack and started
    to open it. ”

    Give it back!” I screamed. “Why?” “Never mind why just give it back!” He
    held it above me smiling that cocky grin. “Must be pretty important to
    you.” “No it’s not!” I lied. “I don’t buy it CJ.”

    I pushed him against the wall punching him in the face giving him a bloody nose He punched me in the cheek leaving a bruise. We wrestled on the floor leaving blood everywhere. Our enraged screams echoed though the empty room.

    “Be quiet.” Zack said. “Never!” “Seriously
    be quiet.” he laped his hand on my mouth as I made muffled sounds in order
    to talk. The sound of footsteps walking up the rickety old steps reached our
    ears sending fear into my heart.

    I grabbed Zacks hand
    and pulled him towards the window. “Stop!” An unknown voice yelled at
    us. I opened the window that lead to a 0 foot drop to solid ground. I looked at
    Zack as he stared at the ground his face as pale as a ghost. “Hold
    on!” I grabbed Zack and jumped out the window as the world swept past me

    • gianna serex

      This was a really good, tense piece of writing. The narrator’s no-nonsense attitude and Zack’s laziness really visibly contrasted each other, and it was easy to see each different personality come through. One thing I would suggest you work more on is punctuation, namely commas. But other than that, this was excellent work. Nice job.

  • gianna serex

    “All I want to do is fit in.”

    I’ve said it. It’s all out there, now. I have made excuses for two months—just one time, I just want to try it, I’m curious, I’ve heard so much and just want to experience it for myself… But between all those thoughtless words, the ones I’ve offered in the black of night to girls even more naïve than me, lies the simple truth. I just want acceptance. I can deal with the consequences. I just need to know that my own team sees me the way they see each other. Strong. Cool. Fearless.

    “I just—” I tug at the ends of my sleeves, which have rolled. “I see you, and Linds, and—and Ari. And you all are just so nice and such perfect people and at the same time you’ve got these cool little things you do behind the scenes. You go on adventures and get high and have secrets to keep. And I have absolutely nothing to hide. I need an adventure, an experience, you know? Like, I feel like I need to DO something. I just come to school and do my work and go home and practice volleyball but I’m not DOING anything. And all of you are so terribly exciting and do such crazy things and it’s just—I want that. I want to be like that. Do you see?”

    “But you can go on adventures and do awesome things without the drinking, G. Look at yourself. You’re one of the smartest f***ing girls in this entire school. And the best player we’ve had come in since Jordan. You are doing things with your life that the rest of us can only dream of doing. Don’t let a stupid drink mess it up. I’ve been in your place, you know. And it’s my biggest regret.”

    “That you were smart?”

    “That I was stupid. That I let a few stupid girls get in my ear and get me to try it. Because you let yourself try a sip, then more, then drink after drink until you lose track of who you are and where you’re going. You don’t need it, Gia. Honestly.”

    “What about Jess?” I ask. “She parties more than anyone. But look at her grades. Her sets, dude, are insane. She’s so good at this sport and her other sports and her work and she’s a good girl, also. And she does all this other stuff but still keeps that up.”

    “That’s what she shows you. And the rest of the school. But I’ve known her for longer than you’ve been playing volleyball. She’s screwed up, man. Maybe you don’t see it, but I do. She’s not happy where she is.”

    “Well, neither am I. And me and Jess, we aren’t the same person. We need different things in our lives. Okay? And you and me aren’t the same either. I love you more than probably the whole rest of this team, but we have different things going on. You need to see that, now. I’ve gotta give it a chance. I’m going to Sienna’s on Friday. And I’m sorry, but nothing you say will stop me.”

    “Maybe it won’t. But, G, if you’re going to do it, I need you to promise me two things.”

    “Okay. Shoot.”

    “Don’t go too wild. It’s your first party. Don’t make it your last.”

    “Jesus Christ, I’m not an idiot. I don’t plan to end up in the hospital anytime soon.”

    “Just remember that. And when you need to go home, give me a call. I’ll bring you back to my place so you can sleep it off. Do not—do NOT get in anyone else’s car. Trust me.”

    “I hear you. Thanks. Really.” And I give her a hug. But she is still tense as ever. What does she have to worry about? I’m going to be fine.

  • Parsinegar

    - ‘Hey, Hasti’.

    – ‘You do not exist’.

    – ‘So how can I talk if I don’t?’

    – ‘You do not exist in my world’.

    – ‘But I’m talking to you’.

    – ‘No, you just think so. I’m not hearing anything.’

    – ‘You want yourself to accept that your ears are not listening to me’.

    – ‘I just want me not to respond to you anymore. We got done, you forgot?’

    – ‘Done? That’s interesting to me that you don’t know yourself as an emotional person’.

    – ‘Because I’m not’.

    – ‘This also is a part of it’.

    – ‘I have always tried to be sensible, reasonable and sound’.

    – ‘You don’t seem pretty successful at it’.

    – ‘Why? because I don’t know anyone called ‘You’ in my world?’

    – ‘No, because your sensibility, reason and logic are all twisted with emotion’.

    – ‘I’m not an emotional person’.

    • http://inlawsc.blogspot.com/ Young_Cougar

      Nice dialog. I totally got the character’s reluctance to acknowledge the other character/emotions. Cool.

  • gianna serex

    This totally has nothing to do with my practice but I just wanted to mention that I really love the idea and usage of foils in lit. I’ve only just learned about them in English this year and this was a nice reminder how cool I think they are. The minor complexities of characters :) good stuff. Thanks for the post!

  • http://inlawsc.blogspot.com/ Young_Cougar

    Jem pulled her hair back tightly and binded them with a thin fiber string. She gave it a tug before letting it go. It would have to do for today, she thought. She’d need to shave the whole thing off sooner or later.

    “Come, come.” Shiti-Mama pointed at the steaming bowls near her seat. “We don’t have all day.”

    Silently Jem made her way to Shiti-Mama and promptly sat down besides her. No one said anything as they stumbled out of their tents and slurped their soup. “Nolm, Worm and I will go to see the Payer after breakfast. In the meanwhile the rest of you will clean the camp site and move further up hill.”

    Everyone nodded. What’s a Payer? Jem wondered.

    “Oma,” Milven spoke up. “And what about me?”

    “There’s a little town by the stream. Go hunting.” Shiti-Mama turned her attention to her own rapidly cooling soup. From the corner of her eyes she saw Jem fidgeting. “Oh, and take Jemorah with you. Teach her the ropes and all.”

    “Why are we going into town?” Jem asked as the two girls made their way through the thick forest.

    “Hunting,” came the curt reply.

    “In town?”

    “Hump.”

    “Can you at least tell me what?”

    “Rations.”

    Jem frowned. “Do we have money?”

    “Sure, check your pocket. Maybe a million Glk. have miraculously appeared in them.”

    “Why-” Jem cut off. “You don’t have any money! Then how are you going to pay for the rations!”

    Milvan halted, making Jem nearly collide into her.

    “Hey…”

    “Who do you think you are?” Milvan asked turning to glare at Jem. “What? Do you still bear some illusions of novelty and grandeur? You got to play loyal puppy and it’s over.”

    Milvan smirked at Jem’s red face. “Princess can’t take the truth? News flash girl, you’re a renegade. They’ve got your face plastered on paper all over and there’s probably not one kid in this realm who couldn’t recognize you. Plus every other hot shot with fancies is after your red head. You know what that means?” She paused, waiting expectantly.

    “That means,” she continued. “You shut your mouth and don’t bother me.” Her face lit up with amusement as she leaned in, as if to share a secret.

    “Or before you know it…. you’ll be hanging by the rope.”

    Anger…no, this was something else. More bland and ugly. This feeling coursed through Jem faster and faster until her eyes blurred. This was resentment. And blame. She wanted to blame the world for throwing this curve ball; she hated not being sure about what was going around her. She had been rendered useless. She wanted to-

    “Dung’s heap!” She cursed as her hair started to curve around her. “Stop it!” Hissing, she spat at one tendril as it tried to twine itself around her neck. “Stop, stop it!”

    “We shouldn’t be doing this!” Jem persisted. Melvin ignored her, and concentrated on what they need most and what they could survive without.

    “Shut your yap.” She picked up one apple and after deeming it clean enough; bit it.

    Jem made a face, “You have no idea where that’s been.”

    “Here,” Melvin threw her a bag. “Fill this up, and then we leave.”

    Jem didn’t have the time to count the money, incase Melvin came back. She quickly fisted a couple of coins and dropped them onto the front desk of the store. Hopefully someone would see it…

    – Jem is a character I’ve been babying for a long while. It’s about time she said hi to the world. I know this scene could have been done better, and it didn’t fully portray Jem’s characteristics but it was good practice. Enjoyed the article as always.