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.
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:
- Love Interest
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?
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.