The “foil character” is a literary device that is usually used to define the protagonist’s more positive character traits. They draw attention to the main character’s strengths as well as their weaknesses.
For example, if the protagonist spends their time caring for small children while the foil character, in this case, the antagonist, spends their time trying to take money away from daycare centers. This makes the protagonist’s caring attitude all the more obvious. To push this example further, the protagonist’s kind heart might also be revealed as a weakness if they’re too pacifistic to fight back against the antagonist’s attempts to defund their life’s work.
Foil Literary Definition
Using foil characters is an extremely effective technique that’s been used for centuries. Without these characters, readers would not get the detail they need about a character’s nature, nor would they have a broader context to consider them in.
If the main character is operating in a void in which there is nothing to contrast them against, it’s hard to know who they really are in the world. Plus, a foil can also demonstrate how strong a protagonist has to be in order to maintain their values. The foil has chosen a different path, perhaps one of less resistance.
Some well-known foils include:
- Sherlock Holmes and Watson from Sherlock Holmes
- Han Solo and Luke Skywalker from Star Wars
- Victor Frankenstein and the Creature from Frankenstein
- Lord Voldemort and Harry Potter from Harry Potter
- Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby (as well as Nick Carraway) from The Great Gatsby
- Satan and God in Paradise Lost
Types of Foils
- Character: the character foil is the most common. This type of foil takes the form of a character who demonstrates contrasting character traits to the protagonist. Their character traits emphasize the main character’s traits.
- Object: a less commonly used type of foil that uses objects as foils. One object is contrasted with another. This could be anything from two types of houses, two cars, or two wardrobes. Each shows readers how a character or group of people lives. Imagine a clean and beautiful home owned by one character and a small, dilapidated house owned by another and what that might reveal to the reader.
- Subplot: a writer might use a subplot in a story to make the main plot more complex and interesting. These stories can make the central plotline feel more or less important depending on what happens. For example, the main plot might be concerned with a life or death situation, while the subplot reveals another character’s more mundane concerns.
Examples of Foil Characters
Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Within the Harry Potter series, Rowling created a perfect foil for her protagonist, Harry Potter. When Harry first arrives at Hogwarts, he meets Draco Malfoy, a boy his age but with a very different upbringing and personality. The two are on opposite sides of the spectrum in Hogwarts and take very different paths through the school. Draco’s characteristics, like his cruelty and disregard for others only work to highlight Harry’s kindness and bravery. Often, despite his talk, Draco shows fear in the face of conflict while Harry always faces his fears, ensuring that he’s done everything he can to help his friends. Below are some of the first lines that Malfoy speaks in the Harry Potter series.
You’ll soon find out that some wizarding families are better than others, Potter. You don’t wanna go making friends with the wrong sort. I can help you there.
It’s with these lines that Draco’s personality is clearly revealed to the reader. He has a sense of entitlement and elitism that is quite different from Harry’s view of others. What Draco and Harry think of as “better” is quite the opposite.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
In Hemingway’s famous novel, The Sun Also Rises, readers can find a great example of a foil character in Pedro Romero. He is contrasted against the novel’s protagonist, Jake Barnes. The former is a fighter, confident, and lives a life that’s filled with danger and purpose. In contrast, Jake has a much harder time showing his emotions in any clear, pure way. His life is directionless in a way that Romero’s is not. This is a good example of how a foil character doesn’t always emphasize the protagonist’s best qualities. In the following lines, Hemingway describes Romero’s character through a depiction of his bullfighting.
Romero’s bullfighting gave real emotion because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him close each time. He did not have to emphasize their closeness.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
There is a wonderful example of foil characters in Brontë’s masterpiece, Wuthering Heights. IN this novel, Heathcliff and Edgar Linton are also exact opposites. The former was a wild young man with a dark complexion, complicated emotions, and a need to rebel against rules. He grew up into a disgruntled and often cruel landowner. While on the other hand, Edgar has light features and a simple personality that is hard to find fault with. He’s kind and eventually marries Catherine, a woman both he and Heathcliff love. He grew up in a wealthy home and has always had the advantages of that position. Here are a few lines that Catherine speaks in regard to her love for the two men:
My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Healthcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.
When the novel ends, the two characters are buried on either side of Catherine, united by the one thing they had in common.
Discover Emily Brontë’s poetry.
Why Do Writers Use Foils?
Writers create foil characters in order to emphasize their protagonist’s character traits. They are used to make a character’s strengths and weaknesses show through more clearly. Such is the case with Harry and Draco in the Harry Potter series. While normally foils are associated with the main character, it’s also possible to find secondary foil characters used to contrast with other secondary characters. In general, finding contrasting character traits in a novel, short story, narrative poem, or play is quite common.
William Shakespeare is also well-known for creating characters that are clear and effective foils. For example, the characters Romeo and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth and Banquo in Macbeth. Others can be found in the play Julius Caesar, and others like Hamlet.
An example of a foil is Harry Potter and Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. They present very opposite character traits.
A literary foil is a character who is added into a story to contrast another character. Their evil makes another character’s good stand out, etc.
If the main character has a few strong character traits and the protagonist presents opposite character traits just as strongly, it’s likely you have a foil.
Related Literary Terms
- Imagery: refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
- Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
- Dichotomy: create conflict between characters, groups, states of being, ideas, and more.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Dilemma: a problem or conflict that has more than one possible solution. There are always important consequences one has to contend with.
- Read: Tracing the Development of the Doppelgänger
- Watch: What is a Foil Pair?
- Listen: Foil Characters