What Is A Character Foil: 2 Tips To Elevate Your Story Today 

Posted on Jul 26, 2023

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Written by Sarah Rexford

Home > Blog > Creative Writing, Fiction, Pre-Writing, Writing > What Is A Character Foil: 2 Tips To Elevate Your Story Today 

Did you know that while your favorite stories didn’t leave you closing the book asking what is a character foil, many of the most relatable protagonists have one? Character foils are an often-overlooked aspect of writing but play a large role in defining characters. 

In this article I define, explain, and provide examples on this writing tool. So to start, let’s give an answer to the question, what is a character foil? 

What Is A Character Foil, Defined

A character foil is a literary device where the writer uses one character to define another character, either by contrast or similarity. To further break this down, consider the following list.

What is a character foil used for?

  • To show the dichotomy between two opposing characters 
  • To reveal the similarities between two characters
  • To highlight specific mannerisms 

While you can employ this device for a myriad of reasons, the above list are typical reasons writers use character foils. 

When And How To Use This Literary Device

Once you’ve asked what is a character foil, the next question to answer is how to use one, and more specifically, when? Character foils show up in all types of literature but often the best examples take place when the writer integrates this device with purpose and precision.  

Let’s say your protagonist experienced a plethora of difficulties in life but has refused the urge to give up and instead, maintains a positive outlook. You may want to use a character foil to highlight your hero’s mindset. This answers the question when to use a character foil, but how do you exactly do so?

While there are many creative options, let’s stick with a standard example: If your character has been through difficulties and has a positive attitude, let’s highlight this character trait by creating a secondary character with the opposite mindset.

If your hero is resilient, consider creating a character with the following:

  • Your secondary character grew up with everything handed to them
  • They never learned to push through adversity 
  • The smallest setbacks demoralize them

In this way, you contrast the character traits of your hero with those of your secondary character.

2 Types Of Character Foils

There are two key types of character foils and you can use each for a variety of purposes. Knowing the answer to what is a character foil is the first step in using this type of foil to your writing advantage. Next, you must not just define what is a character foil but what the types of character foils are. 

What Is A Character Foil: A Highlight

Character foils serve two standard purposes, the first of which is to highlight the specific traits of similarity in two particular characters. Character foils are often used to highlight the protagonist. The following tropes are frequently used to do so:

  • A partner or close friend 
  • A trusted sidekick 
  • A guide or mentor 

You can use these character foils to highlight your protagonist through dialogue, action, or description. For instance, the:

  • Friend could do an act of service to aid the strengths of the hero
  • Sidekick could showcase the hero’s character through your description 
  • Mentor could spotlight the strengths of the hero through dialogue 

Character foils that highlight another character draw attention to the similarities between both the character you highlight and the foil character who reveals these aspects.

What Is A Character Foil: A Contrast

The second purpose of a character foil is to contrast the characteristics, qualities, or mannerisms of another character. If you ask a writer, “What is a character foil,” they will likely give the example of a villain or antagonist. 

Villains are common character foils in stories, whether film or books, and the better the villain, the stronger the hero must be. 

There are countless examples of character foils who demonstrate contrast (a few described below), but remember the following: When creating a foil character with the goal of contrasting another character (often your protagonist) take care to include the humanity of both characters. 

Villains who are evil simply for the purpose of filling the villain role do not come across as well-rounded and as such, do little to highlight the strength of the hero. 

Real Examples 

As we wrap up this literary device, let’s take one more look at the question, what is a character foil, but provide an answer through examples.

Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy 

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series offers an extended look at character foils that contrast the protagonist with one of the series’ villains. While Harry wants to pursue thwarting evil and bringing He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named down, Draco is a bully from page one. 

Throughout the series, the opposing characteristics of each boy highlight the differences between them: Light and dark, good and bad, hero and bully.

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved detective, Sherlock Holmes, would not be the same without his trusty companion, Dr. Watson. Watson is a particularly helpful character foil as he asks the questions Doyle’s readers are likely asking. 

Sherlock Holmes’ ingenuity is further contrasted by Watson’s more grounded logic. While each character exhibits different strengths, Watson’s following of the cases he and Sherlock take acts as a standout example of a beloved character foil. 

Mary and Matthew, Downton Abbey

If you’ve watched the hit BBC show Downton Abbey, you’ve watched the power of a character foil to slowly change the opposite character. 

In the show, Mary stars as a selfish, yet at times tenderhearted, lead. Her love interest, Matthew, puts others first and is often appalled at Mary’s abrasiveness. 

His tenderness contrasts Mary’s selfishness, but as the seasons move forward, Matthew’s character foil eventually rubs off on Mary, instilling in her some of his own, selfless characteristics. 

What Is A Foil Character: How To Use Your Hero To Answer 

As you’ve seen, foil characters can greatly heighten the strengths of your characters, provide clarity on who they are and what makes them tick, and also serve as an invaluable factor in character arc. But how do you move forward? 

I started this article answering what is a foil character, then proceeded to provide definitions and examples. But now the rubber hits the road. How will you take concrete steps with your newfound knowledge of this literary device? 

Here are a few questions to help you begin:

  • How can I use a character foil to create a stronger character arc in my protagonist? 
  • Do I have secondary characters that need a bit more page time, and would a character foil help add humanity to these characters? 
  • Are there specific tropes I could capitalize on to write stronger characters?
  • Which characters could most benefit from a foil? My protagonist, villain, or peripheral characters? 

A parting tip of advice: Focus on creating one standout character foil rather than several that are not as impactful. 

Just as it’s crucial to spend your time crafting a compelling lead and villain, the same is true when it comes to character foils. Use intention with the specific character foils you choose. You’re likely to be surprised how much one well-designed foil can elevate your story!

Character Development Cheat Sheet [also printable!]

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