Thursday, May 21, 2009

Create A Foil

Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet in the 1996 film version of Hamlet

I enjoyed Scott's post on Monday about contrast. His post was in response to Lois's post about contrast. Lois, you've hit on something here, apparently! I haven't been able to stop thinking about contrasting characters - namely, foils.

What is a foil?
A foil is a character who contrasts another character, usually the protagonist. This allows the protagonist's weaknesses and strengths to shine brighter or look darker than otherwise possible. Some examples are Gaston as a foil for the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. Doctor Watson as a foil to Sherlock Holmes. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins serves as a foil to Mr. Darcy. And, the example that many say the term "foil" originated:

"I'll be your foil, Laertes: in mine ignorance / Your skill shall, like a star i' the darkest night, Stick fiery off indeed" (Hamlet, Act 5 Scene 2)

Laertes and Hamlet as foils to each other.

In each of these examples, you'll find that one character serves to contrast the other. This, of course, allows a much greater opportunity for deeper character development. I think much more can be learned about Hamlet by contrasting and comparing his actions and character to Laertes. There are, of course, more foils than just this one in Hamlet, but I'll let you have the fun of figuring those out.

More Than Just Characters
Foils can exist in other elements of a story besides the characters. For example, groups can act as foils to each other. A classic example is in Romeo and Juliet between the Capulets and the Montagues. One of my favorite examples, however, would be The Great Gatsby, with the West Egg and the East Egg serving as foils to each other.

Groups are usually pared down to individual character foils in the story, but if the groups are present enough, I believe they work on their own accord as well.

While researching foils, I also found that subplots can serve as foils to each other. Multiple plot lines can be layered against each other to bring out different elements of each. I have done this in my own writing. In my second novel I create a plotline between two secondary characters that is similiar to a previous event that occurred in the character's past. This serves to sharpen both events in the character's and the reader's minds.

Use Them!
Foils can really strengthen a character and a story. I think Hamlet's actions and character are strengthened by placing him next to Laertes. Would he have been as strong compared to just himself (as shown in the photo above)?

As Scott says in his post: contrast=depth=conflict=drama. And as Lois says in her post: Without the dark elements things are flat, like when there are no shadows in visual art. We need those elements to see our characters in three dimensions.

You probably already have foils in the stories you've written. I notice that mine happen naturally. But the trick is to realize these foils and make them work hard for you and your work. Highlight the differences more if you need to. Use symbolism, like a color or a seasonal change, to subtly draw attention to the contrast you want to create.

As Lois says in her post, contrast works well in art, too (photography and painting, for instance). Keeping this in mind, using foils is a great element you can use to paint more contrast into your written art.

Question For the Day: Have you recognized foils in your own work? Did you use them consciously or did they occur naturally?

~MDA (aka Glam)


  1. You really know how to get my attention don't ya? LOL LOVE Hamlet. Love Kenneth Branagh!

    My foils happened naturally. Interestingly enough, some of my characters switch sides. Where at one point character A is a foil for character B, at another point B becomes a foil to A. Hmmm...

    I love the Mr. Collins character...he is everything that Jane Austen resented about society, all rolled up into one LITTLE nutball! lol

  2. Traci:Foils can often work for EACH other, not just one-sided.

    I find that when a foil who acts as an antagonist actually switches "sides" so to speak (think of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story), the audience is much more likely to see the relationship and be delighted with the outcome.

    Glad I could please you with Branagh. It's a great play and he's a great actor!

  3. My foils seem to happen naturally as well.

    In one project, the subplots of the characters are the foils. In another project, the characters actually foil (sorry) each other.

    Life is never simple. Not everybody in every situation gets along perfectly. Even the best of friendships have bumps in the road.

    I try and interject those bumps into my writing, as well as the conflicting personalities of the different characters. I mean, serioulsy, who wants to read a book where everybody gets along fabulously, and always agrees with each other. The conflicts in our lives shape us. The conflicts (or foils) in our characters lives shape them and - hopefully - propel the story forward as well.

    Thanks for the post and the links.


  4. This is a nice post. I had never thought about this before, but I guess I do this naturally. I'll have to take a deeper look at this in my writing though, so thanks.

  5. Great post. I love the Hamlet reference! Do you think Horatio also serves as a foil for Hamlet?

    In my current WIP, my protag's best friend is also his foil. One's logical, while the other's intuitive, so as much as they care for each other, there's still plenty of conflict between them. It developed naturally, but I take advantage of it when I can.

  6. An interesting post which leads me to your even more interesting question--mainly because I've never really thought about it, my foils just happen. I do like the idea of switching sides, I can see where it would bring more depth and life into the story.

  7. Very nice post! It's fun to look over my novel now and see the foils I'd put in even though I didn't know they had a name! You learn something new everyday.

  8. Hmm, I'll need to read more about these "foil" fellows before I can partake in intelligent conversation concerning them.

  9. Speaking of foils, have you noticed that your pic, Glam, is mostly white, Scott's is mostly black, and Davin's is mostly gray?

    So, are you and Scott foils for each other... or are you two the angel and devil on Davin's shoulder? ;)

  10. This was a very well written and thought out post - I love it :) It really made me think. I had never looked at the antagonist this way -- as a direct and opposite reflection of the protagonist. I can see how it would help with dimension and drama. I'll be more mindful of it in my writing now. Thanks!

  11. I always get foiled by those meddling kids.

    Foils do not have to be a one to one relationship, there can be many foils for a single character. My novel follows a character from youth to adulthood, and time/age is used as a foil. The storyline also involves reincarnation, and past lives act as foils for present lives, so in essence some of my characters foil themselves.

    And props to Kenneth Branaugh. Not only a gifted actor, but also a very talented director. He's at the helm of the upcoming film version of the THOR comics, it will be interesting to see what he comes up with.

  12. Rick: That's an excellent point. There can be more than one foil character. I'm reading Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, which spans a period of some 35 years, and there are multiple foils for the protagonist over the years. Even in Hamlet, there are multiple foils: both Laertes and Fortinbras are sons who have lost fathers, and their actions throw the actions of Hamlet into relief. Hamlet himself is good enough to point this out for the audience! Nearly every character in the play is shown in contrast/opposition to Hamlet.

  13. I believe a foil can also be a thing or a circumstance. Am I wrong? For example, if someone endures and often struggles with something - let's say something like an addiction - then that becomes a foil as well.

  14. Or am I understanding this all wrong?

  15. Shorty: A foil is a character who acts/reacts to circumstances in a different way to (usually) your main character, to draw more attention to the way your main character acts. Think of the term "foil" in its literal sense, as a shiny piece of metal under a gemstone in a setting to let light reflect back through the gem. (In Michelle's "Hamlet" reference, Hamlet is also making a pun on fencing foils.) Foil characters usually have traits in common with each other. "Sidekick" characters are often foils, like Sancho Panza to Don Quixote or Han Solo to Luke Skywalker.

  16. I'd never thought about the antag and the protag being a reflection of each other. Is that what you're saying, Glam? Or did I miss the point? I can see that my antagonist in an earlier, never to be seen, story, seemed to be an echo of the protag. Is that what you mean? UGH My head hurts from all of this reflective thought.:) I really enjoyed these posts. Made me think about some things that have been swirling around in my head.:)

  17. Scott,

    Thank you for explaining. I guess I'd never been taught much about foils. It's good to know!

    All the same, I agree with Robyn: "My head hurts from all of this reflective thought." LoL!

  18. Binky "foiled" Astanax in my first novel by being a more intelligent, more passive character; whenever possible, he used his mind to come up with solutions.

  19. In my first (awful) novel, my protagonist had a sort of twin, and their responses to a shared crisis were vastly different. The opposing actions of these characters formed the thematic heart of the book. It sounds good here, but it was a lousy novel anyway.

  20. Ha ha. I enjoy listening to self-deprecation, even when it comes from me.

  21. Mine tend to happen naturally. I've never given this much thought before, but I can (now) see where this happens in my own stories. Interesting thoughts, thanks for sharing!

  22. I love foils!!! I think identifying them should be my new hobby.

    I definitely use them in my writing. Who doesn't love contrast?

  23. Excellent post Michelle. I’m not sure if my central character has a foil. My protagonist’s main conflict is a situation rather than a person. She eventually makes a huge sacrifice for the sake of another character. There are minor antagonists throughout the story but really, they’re just a by-product of the situation she finds herself in. When her circumstances change, the conflicts from her antagonists are rendered moot.

  24. Scott:You seem to understand this concept pretty well. I do find that foils naturally happen in my own life, too. I have friends who really seem like natural foils to my own character. We get along and have heated discussions at the same time. Complex. :)

    Eric:I hope you find some great stuff when you start digging!

    Sandra:Yes, Hamlet has MANY foils. Like Scott says below, a specific character is not tied down to one foil. That sounds like a great example from your book!

    Suz:Oh, yes, it's always fun to play with character's loyalties. Mwhaha!

    Nisa:Glad this could help! I think assigning something a name and undestanding its purpose can really help in the editing phase.

    Justus:But you're always intelligent! Let us know when you've got some deep thoughts about all this.

    Beth:Your comment as me rolling on the floor! Poor Davin. Yes, I think maybe we are like the angel and the devil. Although that COULD be switched, hehehe.

    Tess:Foils do not always have to be a direct or exact opposite. I think that the more direct it is the more danger you might run into cliches and stereotypes. But foils DO mirror some traits of each other. The more cleverly you can pull that off the better. I can see several excellent foils in your novel.

    Rick:Yes, you are right. I didn't make that clear in my post, as I was trying to get across the main idea of what a foil is. But yes, oftentimes the more foils a character has (within reason), the more you can play with different characteristics and really show the depth of their traits.

    Scott:Excellent points made. I like to pick apart literature and find all the different foils for one main protagonist. It's a great way to see how the author used them to really bring the character to life.

    Shorty:I think you have an interesting idea there. I would classify that under "subplot", as the experience for the character is probably an event or series of events that happened. But yes, I can see how circumstances could stand in as foils.

    However, it's good to think of it more simply as a "reflecting agent", as Scott explains in the comment below yours.

    If you know anything about fencing (which I do because my husband is a fight choreographer) you'd pick up on the fencing foil reference Hamlet makes. Quite clever.

    Robyn:A "reflection" is a good way to look at it. But more than that, it's a contrast. If you place foil beneath a gemstone, for instance, the specific cuts and angles of the stone stand out more sharply than before.

    I'm sorry if this made your head hurt! Do you think another post with more clarification and examples might help?

    Dani:Most do happen naturally, I've found. It's not something I plan out when writing, that's for sure. But it is something I pay close attention to while editing and rewriting. A forced foil wouldn't work as well, in my opinion.

    Mariah:Wow, a whole hobby dedicated to foils! That sounds fun. :)

    Charlie:PLEASE don't think I mean a foil is the main antagonist! That's not it at all. Oftentimes a foil can be a very minor secondary character. Look closely at your manuscript to see if you character is contrasted with any of those secondary characters. And if not, don't stress about. Not ever good story or character needs foils in it. Contrast can come about by many different means.

  25. I grope rather blindly in my early drafts, so all my foils develop naturally. But, once I recognize that a certain character can serve as a foil for another, then I try to bring that out in later drafts. As it worked out, the three main characters in my book all have a foil, and that has played a very big role in the plot of my story. I really love multi-character stories when foils suddenly come face to face with one another. That's very exciting for me, and I tried to set that up in my book.

  26. Great post! I think the "foils" I've used have just occurred naturally. I certainly didn't think that hard about them. For example in my novel, I have two groups of people. Good and Bad. I'm not kidding. :)

  27. Sorry, I had to bring this up. Today, the New York times just called the last two contestants of American Idol foils of each other!

  28. Glam, Great post. I had not really thought of foils in this light. Wow. I feel so brilliant having you quote me and all. It's like I know what I'm talking about or something.

    I gotta say beth's comment had my rolling too. En garde!

  29. I'll have to think about this. Off the top of my head, I think foils happen naturally, but I'm not sure whether or not I have any well-developed foils in my writing or not.

    I shall ponder this.

  30. As I've come to expect from the folk at the Lab, another great informative post!

  31. Yes, there are many foils in my novel. I read a book called The Art of Dramatic Writing. It's awesome and one of the premises is that authors need to "orchestrate characters." This amounts to creating characters that are naturally in conflict because their motives clash. That's the key to the foil element, characters clash.

    I like that you point out that we can recognize a "foil" element in things besides one character versus another. Cultures can clash too. That's a major element of my novel. This clash is best symbolized by an antagonist from the desert side, and the heroine (who is from a Port City on the other side of the mountains).

  32. Davin:That's exactly how I work through it, as well. They happen naturally, and then once I recognize them I strengthen them.

    That's awesome about American Idol!

    Elana:Good and Bad huh? You mean they're labeled Good and Bad or they're just good and bad? :)

    Lois:You DO know what you're talking about. Whether you believe it or not, you have insights that blow me away sometimes!

    Liana:Keep me informed, for sure. Because I'll bet they're in there and that you could great things with them. You strike me as the type that would really have fun with this.


    Dave:Oh, I do love that term of orchestrating the characters. That seems to be it, exactly, and why I think that they happen naturally as we're writing. Thanks for a great comment!


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