Foil Definition and Examples Header Image

In most novels, the author will do everything possible to make the protagonist someone readers can relate to and empathize with. Most authors do this by showing how they react to unfolding events, which highlight the traits you want your readers to notice. 

Another way of showcasing your protagonist’s strengths is by contrasting them with other people.

Foils in Literature 

In literature, “foil” is the method of contrasting traits between characters. Foil characters are those that show the opposite traits of another character. 

Just as aluminum foil reflects light on its surface, foil characters shine light on the main character to showcase their traits.

The term itself originates from a trick that old jewelers used to use: they would set a gem on a base made of foil in order to enhance the shiny appearance of the gem.

Why Is Foil Used in Literature?

Although they may not be the star, foil characters still have an important role to play in literature. They can:

Offer a contrast to a main character’s traits.

The foil is meant to draw attention to the main character’s traits (both positive and negative) by standing in stark contrast to them.

For example, a person’s kindness may be easily ignored, but when contrasted with another person’s cruelty, it’s easier to notice. 

Show a conflicting belief system or behavior.

When a reader sees a character as a standalone, it may not be easy to see just how their beliefs or behaviors shape their actions. But when another belief system or behavior shows up, the reader can see more clearly how the main character’s thoughts lead to decisions. 

For example, if Romeo were just a standalone character, it may be easy to dismiss him as simply a boy in love. But when contrasted with his best friend Mercutio’s more logical perspective on love and heart matters, we can see that Romeo’s passions may be bordering on obsession. 

Challenge readers to identify what sets the protagonist apart.

When you use foils to show contrasts to your main character’s traits, you are letting the reader decide for themself who the protagonist actually is and why they’re the focus of the story.

And when the reader comes to this conclusion themself, they tend to be more invested in that character and want to root for their success. 

Let readers imagine a different outcome.

Another effect that foils have is that they give the reader the chance to imagine “what if”? For example, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Huck and Tom are foils in the way they make decisions: Huck makes choices using his logic and moral compass, while Tom jumps onto the next thing, driven by his spirit of adventure. This shows the reader two contrasting approaches to every situation. 

Is a Foil the Antagonist? 

Sometimes the protagonist’s goals and motivations stand in direct contrast to those of the antagonist. But other times, any other character can serve to highlight the main character’s strengths. 

An antagonist is the character in a story who directly opposes the protagonist by hindering their goals. This creates conflict and moves the story forward.

A foil, on the other hand, does not necessarily oppose or create conflict. Sometimes the foil character may even be a friend or supporter of the protagonist. His role is simply to shine the spotlight on specific traits of a specific character. 

In fact, sometimes, writers can use flat characters to serve as foils. Instead of creating a round character with complex backstories, a flat character can more effectively contrast against the protagonist by not having too many baggage to distract from its purpose. 

Examples of Foils in Literature 

The following examples can help you see how foils work in literature: 

Example #1. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare 

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare uses several foils to highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of some of the characters. 

First, we have the character foil pair of Benvolio and Tybalt. Tybalt is portrayed as being passionate and quick to fight, while Benvolio serves as the voice of reason, trying to appease the situation and diffuse violence. 

Next, Romeo himself has a foil in the character of Paris. Both of them are in love with Juliet, but their personalities are almost exact opposites: Paris goes the traditional way, honoring what their culture allows. In contrast, Romeo is headstrong and reckless, going behind his and Juliet’s parents back just to see Juliet. 

Juliet also has her own foil in the person of Rosaline. Whereas Juliet is heedless and governed by her passions, Rosaline, set to become a nun, is self-controlled and logical. 

Example #2. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling 

In Harry Potter, it’s easy to see that Harry’s direct contrast is Draco Malfoy. Both of them are the de facto heads of their respective houses, but Harry’s heart is shown as good, kind, and helpful, while Draco is malicious, jealous, and troublemaking. 

However, another pair that gets contrasted often throughout Harry Potter is Draco Malfoy and Ron Weasley, beginning with Draco’s being rich and Ron’s being poor. Their rivalry is clear from the start when Draco offers to be Harry’s friend but Harry chooses Ron. 

Example #3. Clover by Susan Coolidge 

In this story, Susan Coolidge, bestselling author of the What Katy Did series, follows Katy’s sister Clover, who takes their younger brother Phil to Colorado to recuperate from an illness. While there, Clover meets two men who clamor for her attention. 

Clover initially develops a close friendship with her cousin Clarence Page, but his partner Geoff Templestowe soon emerges as the more gentlemanly of the two.

Their characteristics are pegged against each other, especially as they respond to specific events: Clarence is shown to act like a spoiled boy, while Geoff is seen as an easygoing, mature person. 

Using Foils in Your Writing

When you write your own stories, especially lengthy novels, consider introducing foil characters to show your main characters’ traits more clearly. Start observing the novels you read and see which characters serve as foils to each other, and try to identify other common archetypes and see how they serve the story.

Then, experiment with different kinds of foils, such as using round or flat characters, and see which works best for you. 

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