What is a Foil?
This video defines a foil and identifies foil characters in Harry Potter, Romeo and Juliet, and Return of the King. How do you identify a foil in a story? What purpose do they serve? How do they relate to the protagonist? Can a character be their own foil?
the time. One of the most ambiguous literary roles is
the foil. How do you identity the foil in a novel?
If the summer Olympics are coming up, a foil is the little bendy device people poke their
combatants with while wearing colanders on their faces.
Or it’s something you wrap your baked potato in.
Or it’s a math method for multiplication, meaning first-outside-inside-last…
You know, we have a guide on that last one… But we’re focused on literature, where a
foil is a character whose main purpose is to offer a contrast to another character,
usually the protagonist. Foils set off and accentuate the main character
and are convenient ways to complicate and deepen the characterization of the protagonist.
They’re more like complementary colors than total opposites.
Foils are the white spaces to the protagonist’s pen-and-ink drawing, the blush to their cheekbones,
the frosting to their cupcake… Basically, everything the foil is, the protagonist
is not. The foil's differences highlight the key qualities of the main character.
Sure, it can be as simple as protagonist vs. antagonist.
Voldemort’s villainy and selfishness reminds us how good Harry Potter is, and how much
he values his friends. Although the antagonist is often the foil,
he doesn’t have to be. A foil is any character that makes the traits of another stand out
in sharp contrast. For instance, a character’s best friend
can be a foil if she’s always volunteering time at a charity and giving sandwiches and
blankets to homeless people… …reminding us that, despite saving that
turtle from a burning house, our protagonist is actually… pretty darn selfish.
There can be multiple foils in a novel as well.
In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo’s first love Rosaline is a foil to Juliet, and Juliet’s
other suitor, Paris, is a foil to Romeo. You might say Romeo has been… foiled again…
Finally, a character can even foil himself. And not because he’s giving himself highlights.
In Return of the King, Frodo can be his own worst enemy, and his bad side makes his good
side even, um, gooder, by comparison. So a foil isn’t just a handy sun-tanning
aid. It’s a way for an author to make their characters even deeper.
So when you’re hunting for the foil, remember the following:
The foil is often the person that enhances the protagonist’s attributes.
But the foil isn’t necessarily the antagonist. It could be a friend or a rival.
And supporting characters might have foils, too…
Score one for the little guys.