What's the Point of a Foil Character?

When it comes to fictional characters, it’s easy to get lost in all the different roles they’re supposed to fulfill in your novel. 

Protagonists, antagonists, main and secondary characters, villains, heroes, love interests… I could truly go on for a while.

Included in that list is one very specific type of character: foils.

Honestly, the first time I heard about foil characters, I didn’t know what the heck people were talking about. Then I sort of learned about them but figured they were for pretentious authors who only wrote literary fiction, not the genre fiction I absolutely love writing.

Well, I soon found out that foils aren’t that complicated and almost every story should have them. 

And that’s why you’re here, right?

In this article, we’re going to discuss:

  • What a foil character is (and isn’t)
  • Why you should include foils in your story
  • Examples of well-known foils
  • Tips for writing your own foil characters

Are you ready to wrap your brain around these characters? Get it? Like aluminum foil… wrapping things in aluminum foil.

Let’s go.

What the heck is a foil character?

First things first, let’s define this specific type of character.

A foil character, or “literary foil,” is meant to draw attention to or highlight the qualities or traits of another character. More often than not, the other character is your protagonist, but it could also be your antagonist or a prominent secondary character.

To this end, your protagonist isn’t a foil. Though their traits will be contrasted with another character’s, the whole point is to point out the flaws, accentuate growth, or shine a spotlight on the virtues of someone like your main character.

Fun fact: these imaginary people are called foils as a reference to an old jeweler’s technique known as foiling. Back in the day (I’m talking like 2000 B.C.), jewelers would put foil underneath a gem in their jewelry. The foil would reflect light back through the gem, accentuating the shine of the stone. Better refinement and cutting practices made this technique fade away in the early 1900s, though it is making a comeback these days.

Foils vs. Antagonists

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking foils are just a type of antagonist. These two types of characters are similar (and an antagonist can be a foil), but they aren’t one and the same. 

Let’s compare the definitions.

Foil: A character who highlights qualities or traits of another character.

Antagonists: A character who impedes or opposes the protagonist’s journey to their goal.

When it’s laid out like that, it’s easy to see how these types of characters are different. But good antagonists usually have traits related to your protagonist.

For example, your hero might have a strict set of moral codes, while your villain doesn’t have any morals at all. Or both protagonist and antagonist lost their parents to an alien invasion, and now the protagonist seeks to help human refugees, while the antagonist is thirsty for revenge.

In both cases, you can see how the antagonist’s character highlights elements of the protagonist. That said, we’ll talk later about how other types of characters can still be literary foils.

Do You Need a Foil Character?

So foil characters sound useful, but do you actually need one? The short answer is no. Not every story requires a foil character, and in some cases, adding one might feel forced or unnecessary.

The decision to include a foil should be driven by the needs of your story and characters. Think about the themes and conflicts in your story. Are there certain aspects of your protagonist’s personality or journey that could be enhanced by a foil character? Are there ways in which a foil character could challenge your protagonist and help them grow?

Another factor to consider is the size and scope of your story. If you’re writing a shorter piece, such as a short story or novella, you may not have the space to fully develop a foil character. In these cases, it might be more effective to focus on developing your protagonist and supporting characters without introducing a foil.

Remember, a foil character is still a character; they deserve to be fully fleshed out with quirks, flaws, unique traits, and even a backstory. If you’re just throwing in a cheap character to tick a box, your readers will know (and might revolt).

Ultimately, the decision to include a foil character should be guided by your intuition as a writer. If you feel that a foil character would bring a valuable perspective to your story, then go for it. But if you’re not sure, take some time to consider whether they’re truly necessary or if there are other ways to achieve the same effects.

It’s worth noting that even if you decide not to include a foil character, you can still incorporate some of the benefits of foils through other means. For example, you might use a secondary character to highlight certain aspects of your protagonist’s personality or create conflicts that challenge your protagonist’s beliefs and values.

In the end, whether or not you include a foil character is up to you. But now you're able to make an informed decision that serves your story and characters in the best possible way.

Benefits of Incorporating a Foil Character

Now that we’ve established what a foil character is and why you should include one in your story, let’s dive into the specific benefits of having a literary foil.

Foils are an effective tool to add depth and complexity to your characters and story. They let you easily create tension, develop your protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately enhance the overall narrative.

But it’s not just about making your protagonist more interesting. Foils can also be used to create an emotional impact on readers. They can evoke empathy or disdain for a character or create a sense of anticipation and suspense for what’s to come. When it's all said and done, foils can elevate your story and make it more engaging for your readers.

Let’s see how they do that, exactly.

Builds Tension

One of the main benefits of incorporating a foil character into your story is the ability to build tension. When you highlight the differences between characters, your foil character can create conflict and tension, which can help drive the plot forward and keep your readers engaged.

A foil character can act as an opposing force to the protagonist, challenging their beliefs, actions, and decisions. This can create a sense of opposition and urgency in the story, as the protagonist must navigate the challenges presented by the foil character. The foil character can also reveal flaws in the protagonist’s character or actions, leading to a sense of tension and uncertainty about the protagonist’s ability to overcome obstacles.

Additionally, the presence of a foil character can create a sense of dramatic irony, where the reader knows something that the protagonist does not. This can lead to tension as the reader watches the protagonist make decisions or take actions that they know will lead to consequences.

Overall, the tension created by a foil character can help keep readers engaged and invested in the story. It adds depth and complexity to the characters and plot, making for a more interesting and satisfying read.

Enhances Characterization

I've mentioned it a few times now, but one of the main benefits of having a foil character in your story is the opportunity to add depth and complexity to your main characters. By contrasting your protagonist’s traits and behaviors with those of a foil character, you can highlight different aspects of their personalities and motivations. This not only makes your characters more interesting and dynamic but can also create opportunities for character development and growth.

For example, let’s say your protagonist is a stubborn and headstrong detective who always works alone. By introducing a foil character who is more collaborative and willing to seek help from others, you can emphasize your protagonist’s flaws and limitations. In turn, this relationship can create tension and conflict within the story as the protagonist struggles to overcome their weaknesses and work with others to achieve their goals.

Additionally, a well-written foil character can serve as a mirror for your main character, reflecting back their strengths and weaknesses in a way that can deepen the reader’s understanding of their character. This can lead to more complex and nuanced characterizations that feel more true to life.

At the end of the day, including a foil character in your story can help to build richer, more complex characters that readers will be invested in and care about. By highlighting different aspects of your main characters’ personalities and motivations, foils can create opportunities for character growth, conflict, and development, making for a more engaging and satisfying story overall.

Adds Dimension

A well-crafted foil character can add more layers to your plot than an onion (or ogre). I mean, who doesn’t love a good story with twists and turns, unexpected revelations, and a rich tapestry of character development? A foil character can be the secret ingredient that takes your plot from bland to deliciously complex.

Think about it this way: your protagonist may have a specific set of traits and motivations that drive the story forward. But without a contrasting character to highlight those traits, your protagonist might come off as one-dimensional. That’s where the foil character comes in. By embodying traits that are opposite or complementary to your protagonist’s, the foil character can help to reveal new facets of your protagonist’s personality, create conflict, and keep your readers engaged and invested in the story.

Plus, a foil character can also help to deepen your themes and messages. For example, if your story is about the corrupting influence of power, a foil character who starts off as an idealistic do-gooder but gradually becomes corrupted by power can help to illustrate that theme in a powerful and relatable way. And let’s face it, readers love a story with a strong message that they can take away and apply to their own lives.

Examples of Foil Characters

Before we dive into some proven tricks to writing foil characters, let’s take a brief detour to examine some well-known foils (and who they’re foiling for!).

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson

Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. Watson, are one of the most famous examples of a foil character relationship in literature. Sherlock Holmes is a detective known for his brilliant mind and deductive reasoning, while Dr. Watson is a former army doctor who acts as Holmes’s assistant and chronicler of his cases.

Watson’s role as a foil character is to provide a more relatable perspective for the reader. While Holmes is often portrayed as cold and detached, Watson serves as the emotional center of the stories. He is often amazed by Holmes’s deductions and provides a sense of wonder and excitement that would be missing if the stories were told from Holmes’s perspective alone.

In addition to enhancing the reader’s experience, Watson’s presence also enhances Holmes’s character. Through his interactions with Watson, Holmes is able to show a more human side. Watson’s admiration for Holmes’s intellect highlights Holmes’s genius, and his loyalty to Watson shows that there is more to Holmes than just a detached detective.

Their relationship is also defined by the contrast between their personalities. Holmes is analytical and logical, while Watson is more emotional and empathetic. This contrast is used to great effect in the stories, with Watson often acting as a sounding board for Holmes’s ideas and as a foil to his detached nature.

It’s the dynamic between Holmes and Watson that creates a perfect example of how a foil character can enhance both the protagonist’s development and the reader’s experience. Their contrasting personalities and roles complement each other, creating a well-rounded and captivating narrative.

Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan serve as excellent examples of foil characters. Gatsby is a self-made man who has become incredibly wealthy through illegal means in order to impress his former love, Daisy Buchanan, who is now married to Tom. Tom, on the other hand, is a wealthy man born into privilege who has inherited his fortune and enjoys the status it affords him.

Despite their shared interest in Daisy, Gatsby and Tom are fundamentally different in their values, backgrounds, and personalities. Gatsby is optimistic, hopeful, and desperate for a better life, while Tom is cynical, jaded, and deeply unhappy despite his wealth and status. As a result, their interactions are fraught with tension and conflict, as each man represents a different worldview.

Gatsby’s foil character, Tom, serves to highlight the flaws and contradictions in Gatsby’s character. Tom is a constant reminder of the world that Gatsby is trying to escape, with all its corruption and moral decay. At the same time, Tom’s wealth and social standing make him a powerful adversary for Gatsby, and their rivalry over Daisy drives the plot of the novel.

The relationship between Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan is a classic example of how a foil character can be used to enhance the protagonist. By contrasting Gatsby’s optimism and idealism with Tom’s cynicism and privilege, Fitzgerald creates a dynamic and compelling narrative that explores the complexities of the American Dream and the corrupting influence of wealth and power.

Tips for Creating a Foil Character

I hope you’re inspired to add a foil character to your writing if the glove fits. There’s so much potential for a stronger narrative, better characters, and an overall more enjoyable read for your audience.

But how do you go about creating a foil? I’m glad you asked. Here are some tips for creating your very own foil character.

Set up contrasts between characters

When it comes to creating a foil character, one of the most important things to keep in mind is to set up contrasts between characters. A foil character should serve as a counterpart to your protagonist or other important character, and highlighting the differences between them is key to making this relationship work.

Think about your protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses, and then create a foil character that contrasts with those traits. If your protagonist is calm and level-headed, for example, consider making their foil impulsive and reckless. If your protagonist is a natural leader, their foil could be someone who struggles to make decisions and lacks confidence.

Another way to set up contrasts is to think about the characters’ backgrounds and experiences. Perhaps your protagonist comes from a wealthy family and has never had to struggle for anything, while their foil grew up in poverty and has had to work hard for everything they have. This creates a natural tension between the characters and can lead to interesting conflicts and character development.

It’s also important to remember that contrasts can come in many forms, not just personality or background. Physical differences, such as height, build, or even fashion sense can also be used to set up contrasts between characters.

Setting up contrasts is essential for a foil; it’s literally the whole point! So make sure you focus on this differentiator when creating your character.

Make sure foils are different enough to be recognizable

When creating a foil character, it’s important to make sure that they are different enough from the protagonist to be recognizable as a foil. This means there needs to be a clear contrast between the two characters in terms of their personality, beliefs, actions, and overall demeanor.

One way to ensure that your foil character is different enough is to start by creating a detailed character profile for both your protagonist and foil character. This includes outlining their physical appearance, personality traits, values, and motivations. Once you have a clear idea of who these characters are, you can start to look for areas of contrast that will make the foil stand out from the protagonist.

It’s also important to consider how your foil character will react to the situations and conflicts presented in the story. Your foil should respond differently to the same events than your protagonist would, highlighting the differences between the two characters. This will help to reinforce the contrast and make the foil character more recognizable.

Another way to make sure your foil character is different enough is to consider their role in the story. Are they a sidekick to the protagonist, a romantic interest, or a rival? The type of relationship your foil character has with your protagonist can also help to create contrast and emphasize their differences.

Use foils to illustrate a character’s strengths and weaknesses

When creating a foil character, it’s essential to think about how they can highlight the protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses. A foil character can act as a measuring stick for the reader to better understand the protagonist’s actions and personality.

To use foils to illustrate a character’s strengths and weaknesses, you need to first identify what traits you want to emphasize. For example, if your protagonist is a stubborn and headstrong leader, you might want to create a foil character who is more collaborative and open to feedback. This contrast can help readers see the flaws in the protagonist’s approach and potentially root for the foil character.

On the flip side, a foil character can also highlight the protagonist’s strengths. Let’s say your protagonist is a skilled detective but they struggle with personal relationships. You could create a foil character who has the opposite problem: they have excellent social skills but lack the attention to detail required for investigative work. The contrast between the two characters can emphasize the protagonist’s expertise while showing the foil character’s limitations.

When using foils to illustrate a character’s strengths and weaknesses, it’s important to make sure that the differences are clear but not too extreme. If the foil character is too different, the contrast can come across as contrived, and the reader might not connect with either character. However, if the differences are too subtle, the impact of the foil character may be lost.

Create Your Foil Character With Dabble

That’s a lot of info to digest about a character you probably didn’t think was so dang cool when you started this article, right?

The only thing to do next is actually bring your foil character to life. The best way to do that? Use a writing tool designed for fiction authors like you.

In Dabble, you have a dedicated space for your characters and all the notes you want to include. Feel free to grab any of our free resources from these articles:

You can keep all of those just one click away from your manuscript, which makes crafting an incredible, well-developed character a breeze.

On top of that, you can get access to all of Dabble’s premium features, including the Plot Grid, automatic syncing, writing on any device, goal tracking, and so much more by clicking here. You get 14 days to see if Dabble’s the right fit, and you don’t even have to put in your credit card info (which means no surprise charge if you forget about it).

Happy writing!

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.