What Is A Foil?
A foil is a character who contrasts another character, usually the protagonist. This allows the protagonist’s weaknesses and strengths to shine brighter or look darker than otherwise possible. Some examples are Gaston as a foil for the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. Doctor Watson as a foil to Sherlock Holmes. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins serves as a foil to Mr. Darcy. And, the example that many say the term “foil” originated:
“I’ll be your foil, Laertes: in mine ignorance / Your skill shall, like a star i’ the darkest night, Stick fiery off indeed” (Hamlet, Act 5 Scene 2)
Laertes and Hamlet as foils to each other.
In each of these examples, you’ll find that one character serves to contrast the other. This, of course, allows a much greater opportunity for deeper character development. I think much more can be learned about Hamlet by contrasting and comparing his actions and character to Laertes. There are, of course, more foils than just this one in Hamlet, but I’ll let you have the fun of figuring those out.
More Than Just Characters
Foils can exist in other elements of a story besides the characters. For example, groups can act as foils to each other. A classic example is in Romeo and Juliet between the Capulets and the Montagues. One of my favorite examples, however, would be The Great Gatsby, with the West Egg and the East Egg serving as foils to each other.
Groups are usually pared down to individual character foils in the story, but if the groups are present enough, I believe they work on their own accord as well.
While researching foils, I also found that subplots can serve as foils to each other. Multiple plot lines can be layered against each other to bring out different elements of each. I have done this in my own writing. In my second novel I create a plotline between two secondary characters that is similiar to a previous event that occurred in the character’s past. This serves to sharpen both events in the character’s and the reader’s minds.
Foils can really strengthen a character and a story. I think Hamlet’s actions and character are strengthened by placing him next to Laertes. Would he have been as strong compared to just himself (as shown in the photo above)?
You probably already have foils in the stories you’ve written. I notice that mine happen naturally. But the trick is to realize these foils and make them work hard for you and your work. Highlight the differences more if you need to. Use symbolism, like a color or a seasonal change, to subtly draw attention to the contrast you want to create.
Contrast works well in art, too (photography and painting, for instance). Keeping this in mind, using foils is a great element you can use to paint more contrast into your written art.