As promised we’re going to be talking about foils today. Foils are awesome and make things interesting for a reader. If it’s a plot based foil, it’s like reading two stories in one. If it’s character based, it is interesting in seeing how different your character could have been.
So, let’s start off with a definition:
Foil: is a character that shows qualities that are in contrast with the qualities of another character with the objective to highlight the traits of the other character. The term foil, though generally being applied for a contrasting character, may also be used for any comparison that is drawn to portray a difference between two things.
So let’s unpack this a bit. Foils show traits of other characters – whether they’re good or bad traits. It’s there to show us how our protagonist could have turned out if they’d made different decisions. It can make your villain more evil when placed beside our hero. Foils can show us how different characters are developing and gives our readers a better idea on who our characters are. Foils also show us two characters that may be completely alike, except for one tiny difference.
With character foils we generally have two different types: the enemies to the end and the ones that come together in the end. With the first type of character foil, the hero and villain have completely opposing views that cannot be reconciled and they don’t waver from their ideals and goals. This is evidently seen in Harry Potter between Harry and Voldemort. They both have different values, ideals, and goals and they never come together – except to fight. They are always going to be in opposition to one another.
For the friends at the end foil, they are going to start on opposite sides with differing ideals and goals, but along the way the goals and ideals change or become more closely related and brings the foil and protagonist closer together. A good example of this is in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, William Turner and Captain Jack Sparrow do not start off on a good foot — they fight and Will is totally against everything Jack, and hence piracy, is. However, when Elizabeth Swan is taken by the pirates on board the Black Pearl, Will reluctantly unites with Jack. By the end of the movie, Jack and Will are working together to achieve the same goal – the downfall of Captain Barbossa. Will even helps free Jack from a pirates death and frees him.
Foils don’t have to be about characters either. Foils can show up as another plot (or subplot) to the story. This happens a lot in meta-fiction. Here are the definitions for meta-fiction and subplot:
Meta-fiction: a story within a story. Or its a story that comments on other works of fiction or itself as a work of fiction. It’s aware of itself.
Subplot: is a secondary plot, or a strand of the main plot that runs parallel to it and supports it. It show various aspects of the characters, connecting the readers with them, but also it is a story within a story – a sort of a subplot.
A really good example of this would be the shorty story ” A Continuity of Parks” by Julio Cortázar. A movie example would be The Grand Budapest Hotel. Both story and movie are aware that they are being read/watched. In the case for the short story, the reader is reading a story about a man reading a book about his own eventual murder. The Grand Budapest Hotel is aware that its a ridiculous film and actually points it out a lot of the time. It also starts off with a person reading a story about the author listening to a story. With both of these examples, there is another plot or subplot working within the original story.
So, how do you write a good foil? Well everything we’ve talked about for the last two months still applies and if you need a reminder, well those posts are always there for you to look at. However, here are some extra tips:
- Identify the things you wish to emphasize. What sets your protagonist apart from everyone else or what makes them special? if you’ve got that then you know what you want to emphasize. In Harry Potter, it’s Harry’s love of his friends and loyalty to Dumbledore that gets emphasized a lot throughout the novels. In Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s Will’s devotion to Elizabeth, and vice versa, that gets emphasized throughout the movie. Also Jack’s quirkiness and wit when compared to Will and Elizabeth’s more tame and conventional outlooks and thinking.
- Do you have any natural foils in place? So, antagonist versus protagonist is a good start, but how about your minor characters as well? Professor McGonagall and Snape contrast as mentors for Harry. For other foils for other characters, they don’t need to be enemies, they just have to contrast one another.
- Decide who still needs a foil to contrast them. Find the good attributes in your bad characters, and the bad attributes in your good characters, and create/use other characters to act as foils to bring these unexpected attributes to light. Crabbe and Goyle were created to add depth and a contrast for Draco Malfoy. To show he wasn’t as bad of an antagonist as Voldemort and that Draco had redeeming qualities to him. Draco was trying to work hard and make a place for himself, unlike Crabbe and Goyle, who were just riding on the success of their parents and Voldemort.
- Make sure that your foil character’s identity isn’t to be just a foil for someone else. If you don’t give them other things to do or let your reader get to know them, then they’re going to be boring. Don’t have boring characters. We honestly do not know much about Crabbe and Goyle, because they didn’t serve any other purpose besides just being there to foil Malfoy and back him up when necessary.
- Don’t over do it. Only foil the interesting bits. Make it believable. There isn’t any one person or character that is absolutely everything the protagonist is or isn’t. They have a mixture of both. Just pick a few things you want to highlight and stick to them. Plus only picking certain things makes the characters more dynamic. This applies to every character that you do foil.
I want to touch briefly on the importance of foils not just to character and plot. Foils can even help you with theme. It can highlight certain things you want to get across thematically. With Harry Potter, the contrasts between him and Voldemort over muggles and mud bloods helps emphasize the importance of eradicating race supremacy in our culture, so things are more egalitarian, for example.
That’s it for this week! Next week we’re going to get into static and dynamic characters.
Until next week!