Writing

Writing 101: What Is a Foil Character in Literature? Learn About 2 Types of Literary Foils and the Differences Between Foil and Antagonist

Written by MasterClass

May 30, 2019 • 4 min read

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What makes a character interesting? In literature, authors will sometimes highlight certain aspects of a character’s personality by using a foil: a supporting character who has a contrasting personality and set of values. Putting the foil and main character in close proximity helps draw readers’ attention to the latter’s attributes.

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What Is a Literary Foil?

A literary foil is a character whose purpose is to accentuate or draw attention to the qualities of another character, most often the protagonist. This literary term is named after an old jewelry trick of setting a gem on a foil base to enhance its shine.

What Are the Key Differences Between a Foil and an Antagonist?

Writers play characters off of one another to build drama and create conflict in a story. Foils and antagonists are two types of characters that serve very different functions.

  • An antagonist is a character who is in direct opposition to the protagonist. Their actions deliberately hinder the protagonist from achieving her goal. This relationship helps build conflict and propels a story forward.
  • A foil exists simply to shine the spotlight on certain traits of another character, without necessarily creating opposition or conflict. A foil can even be a friend of the character they are supposed to draw attention to: Dr. John Watson, for example, is a foil to Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

Why Are Foils Important in Literature?

Literary foils exist to reveal information about characters and their motivations. Foils can also:

  • Help readers get a deeper understanding of a character. The main purpose of a foil is to draw attention to and emphasize another character’s strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, this is done through contrast. For example, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein shuts himself off from others, driven by his obsession to create a living being. As a result, he creates his own foil: a creature who craves companionship and connection, exhibiting the human characteristics that Frankenstein lacks.
  • Put a character in context. Creating a counterpart for a main character sets a gauge for the reader. Without Mercutio as a foil, Romeo might just seem like a boy in love, in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Mercutio’s more casual approach to matters of the heart compared to his best friend’s helps illuminate the depth of Romeo’s obsession.
  • Take a different path. A foil might doe more than just offer insight into another character’s personality. Their different values and motivations may lead them to make different choices, illuminating an alternate “what if” plotline. In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is guided by his moral compass, and his foil, Tom Sawyer, by his sense of adventure. This causes the two characters to approach every situation in a very different way.

2 Different Types of Literary Foils

Foils are most often secondary characters, but they can also take other forms.

  1. Object as foil. A writer will sometimes highlight the importance of an inanimate object in a story by contrasting it with another. In Wuthering Heights, for example, Emily Brontë contrasts the grey, dismal, storm-battered estate of Wuthering Heights with Thrushcross Grange, a sophisticated, “splendid” neighboring estate that sits in the sunshine. The presence of the Thrushcross Grange stresses the darkness that hangs over Wuthering Heights.
  2. Subplot as foil. Writers will often weave subplots throughout a story. These secondary stories can make the main plot more complex, escalate tension, and highlight information the writer wants to emphasize. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the subplots of Laertes and Fortinbras are foils to Hamlet’s story. All three want to avenge the murders of their fathers. As the more cerebral Hamlet writes a play to get his uncle to confess, Fortinbras and Laertes take the opposite approach: they draw their weapons and go to seek vengeance.

3 Examples of Foil Characters from Literature

Writers often use foils in their stories. Some of the most famous examples of foils throughout the history of literature include:

  1. John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men. George and Lennie are best friends. They are also physical and emotional opposites: George is small and lean, Lennie is big and strong. Lennie is mentally disabled, and George is his caretaker. This contrast buoys their friendship, but is also a source of conflict between them.
  2. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter. Draco Malfoy is a classic foil. Both Draco and Harry are wizards, but Malfoy’s lust for evil reinforces Harry’s determination to use his powers for good. Malfoy sometimes doubles as the antagonist, blocking Harry’s quest to kill Lord Voldemort and avenge his parents’ murders.
  3. William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar. The devious and cunning Cassius and the nobler Brutus conspire to assassinate Julius Caesar. Cassius is plotting the murder for pure jealousy, while Brutus wants Caesar dead because he sees him as a weak leader. Compared to Cassius’ petty reason, Brutus seems more honorable in his motives. Brutus’ honesty, as well as his naiveté, makes Brutus a foil for the deceptive and conniving Antony, a confidante of Caesar’s who takes power after his murder.

Learn how to create foils and antagonists in James Patterson’s MasterClass.