Definition of Foil

Foil is a literary device designed to illustrate or reveal information, traits, values, or motivations of one character through the comparison and contrast of another character. A literary foil character serves the purpose of drawing attention to the qualities of another character, frequently the protagonist. This is effective as a means of developing a deeper understanding of a character by emphasizing their strengths and weaknesses. In addition, a literary foil allows writers to create a counterpart for the protagonist that puts their actions and choices in context.

For example, in FrankensteinMary Shelley utilizes the creature as a foil for his creator, Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein isolates himself from others to pursue his obsession with creating a living being and then he abandons his creation and all responsibility. The creature Frankenstein creates searches for companionship and connection with others as a result of his creator’s rejection and abandonment, leading to violence and destruction. This contrast between Frankenstein and his foil, the creature, emphasizes the humanity that Frankenstein lacks as a character and calls attention to the reader’s own capacity for connection, understanding, and mercy.

Common Examples of Foil Traits

Literary foils often reveal traits that motivate certain characters through comparison and contrast. Here are some common examples of foil traits that, when compared and contrasted, reflect the inner motivations of characters:

  • wisdom and foolishness
  • calculating and impulsive
  • stingy and generous
  • thoughtful and inconsiderate
  • adventurous and cautious
  • aggressive and nonconfrontational
  • ambitious and content
  • shy and outgoing
  • arrogant and humble
  • law abider and law breaker

Examples of Foil Characters in Popular Movies

The use of foil characters in the film is effective as a means of entertaining the audience through humor, drama, and empathy. In addition, foils create a greater understanding of who the characters are and the reasons for the actions they take. Here are some examples of foil characters in popular movies:

  • Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy (Harry Potter series)
  • Lightning McQueen and Mater (Disney’s Cars)
  • Luke Skywalker and Han Solo (Star Wars series)
  • Maggie and Mae (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)
  • Woody and Buzz Lightyear (Disney’s Toy Story series)
  • Edward Cullen and Jacob Black (Twilight series)
  • Forrest Gump and Lieutenant Dan (Forrest Gump)
  • Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Wilkes (Gone with the Wind)
  • Gaston and LeFou (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast)
  • Celie and Shug Avery (The Color Purple)

Famous Examples of Foil in Literary Character Pairs

As a literary device, foil can create character pairs that would perhaps be less memorable for readers without each other. Here are some famous examples of foil in literary character pairs:

  • Don Quixote and Sancho Panza
  • Brutus and Cassius
  • Anne Shirley and Diana Barry
  • Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer
  • Ramona Quimby and Beezus Quimby
  • Macbeth and Banquo
  • Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson
  • Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby
  • The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse
  • Hamlet and Laertes

Difference Between Foil and Antagonist Characters

Writers often develop characters in literary works to create conflict or showcase differences between them. Foil and antagonist are often considered interchangeable as labels for literary characters. Many readers believe a foil character to be one that is opposite or even an enemy of the main character in a story. However, as literary devices, foil and antagonist characters serve different functions in a literary work.

The purpose of a foil character is to illuminate or reveal certain traits of another character, without the necessity of generating opposition or conflict. A foil is a literary figure that helps to draw attention to the characteristics and behaviors of another literary figure. For example, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Beth is a foil for her sister Amy’s character. Beth is kind, shy, and selfless, whereas Amy is portrayed as self-centered and rather thoughtless. The disparity between their character traits sheds light on who they both are, but doesn’t necessarily result in the opposition between the two.

The purpose of an antagonist character is to be in direct opposition to the protagonist of a story. The antagonist, through their actions, interferes with and prevents the achievement of the protagonist’s goal. The relationship between the antagonist and protagonist, unlike between foil characters, brings intentional conflict and moves the action of a story forward rather than illustrating differences in character traits or personalities. For example, Captain Hook is an antagonist character for Peter Pan in that their rivalry makes them adversaries. The purpose of this antagonistic relationship is more to drive the plot of the story than reveal differences in character.

Why are Foils Important in Literature?

The significance of a foil in a literary piece depends on its use as well as the protagonist or other character whose foil it is. It is because although foil stays with the protagonist, it becomes a catalyst for revealing information about him/her, or proving a motivating force. If protagonist acts alone, they may not have the same reaction from the readers that they get when they have a foil with them. The major importance of a foil lies in the attraction that it exudes with reference to other characters as it shows that the central characters are more human-like than foils are.

Different Types of Literary Foils

Foils are of several types. A writer may use a human being as a foil. It could be an object or even the subplot of the story itself. The foils, if they are human beings, could have different character traits or for that matter, if they are objects they may be personified. The same is the case with subplots. 

Why Do Writers Use Foils?

When writers feel that they need to make some characters feel more life-like, more human-like, and more likable to the readers, they use foils. Foils either accentuate the qualities or belittle them when compared with other characters’ traits. Therefore, foils become handy when it comes to enhancing the understanding of the readers about some characters. That is why writers use foils to make their characters stand tall or belittle them.

Non-Human Foils

The writers do not always use characters as foils. Sometimes they use something else such as animals or the structure of their plots or some natural element. These are called non-human foils. They help the writers in three important ways. They assist them in character building, in making their character strengths, and in creating lifelike traits in the central character.

Why is Foil Significant in Writing?

A foil is significant in writing as it helps the writers create lifelike characters. The writers make their characters stand out among the rest with unique character traits or having the same characteristics accentuated by the use of foils. Foils make the protagonists unique and unusual human beings.

Examples of Foil in Literature

Foil is an effective literary device for creating interesting and meaningful characters. Foil gives writers the opportunity to highlight certain aspects of a main character’s personality by setting them against another character with a contrasting personality, motivations, or set of values. This contrast captures the reader’s attention and enhances the meaning of a literary work.

Here are some examples of foil in literature:

Example 1: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Despairing of human relationships (people were so difficult), she often went into her garden and got from her flowers a peace which men and women never gave her.

In Woolf’s novel, though these characters rarely interact, Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith serve as literary foils. Both Clarissa and Septimus share similar character traits. However, they are foils for each other in their attempts to control outside elements. Clarissa wishes to control her external environment and the people in it, as demonstrated by her approach to the party she is hosting. This is illustrated by the passage, indicating that Clarissa is far more at peace in her garden where she can “control” her flowers, unlike human relationships. Septimus, by contrast, learns that he cannot control his own internal thoughts or feelings and subsequently decides to end his life.

By allowing the reader access to the separate experiences and internal thoughts of Clarissa and Septimus, Woolf is able to pair these characters as foils even though their paths in the novel are quite different. Both Clarissa and Septimus struggle with their desire to control elements that are beyond their capability of doing so. Their reactions to the same struggle and their coping mechanisms lead them to very different responses and choices. This enhances the reader’s understanding of both characters, and the overall meaning of the literary work, and reflects the way the characters view themselves in the story.

Example 2: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

“He ain’t no cuckoo,” said George. “He’s dumb as hell, but he ain’t crazy. An’ I ain’t so bright neither, or I wouldn’t be buckin’ barley for my fifty and found.”

In Steinbeck’s novel, he creates one of the most famous pairs of foil characters in literature. Lennie and George contrast with each other in nearly every way: physical appearance, strength, abilities, intelligence, and capacity for understanding situations. These distinct differences between the two lead other characters in the novel, as well as the reader at first glance, to make assumptions about them at a surface level. These assumptions based on appearances, however, are counter to Steinbeck’s intended meaning in the novel which is that human decency is dependent upon seeing and understanding others beyond surface characteristics.

For example, in this passage, George reveals that he sees qualities and value in Lennie’s character that others don’t recognize. In addition, George’s statements indicate that he doesn’t view himself as stark a contrast to Lennie as others might. This creates greater understanding and meaning for the reader that these characters are not simply opposite individuals that have formed a friendship. Instead, George and Lennie supplement the deficiencies in one another in a way that supports their survival, literally and figuratively, in the harsh migrant worker setting. George protects and helps Lennie to navigate situations and interactions with people that would otherwise put his life at risk. In turn, Lennie is protective of George and gives his life meaning and purpose.

 Example 3: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Romero never made any contortions, always it was straight and pure and natural in line. The others twisted themselves like cork-screws, their elbows raised, and leaned against the flanks of the bull after his horns had passed, to give a faked look of danger. Afterward, all that was faked turned bad and gave an unpleasant feeling. Romero’s bull-fighting 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.

In Hemingway’s novel, Pedro Romero serves as a foil for the protagonist, Jake Barnes. Romero, a bullfighter, is portrayed as dignified and confident. In this passage, Hemingway also makes clear the authenticity of Romero’s character through his passion for bullfighting. Romero not only faces actual danger in this passion, but he conveys emotion and a sense of purity that gives his life meaning and purpose. Romero’s qualities are in sharp contrast to those of Jake Barnes, who is rarely authentic in conveying his true thoughts and emotions, and whose life has lost direction, meaning, and passion.

Interestingly, Hemingway doesn’t just utilize Romero’s character to reflect or accentuate the traits and values that Jake Barnes is lacking. Readers know from Jake’s narration that he is fully aware of Romero’s authenticity and actually admires it. Yet, in the novel, Jake consistently chooses to undermine his own attempts at doing, saying, or feeling anything authentic himself. This creates an even greater contrast between these characters for the reader and illuminates a deeper level of Jake’s character as it has been shaped by his past physical, psychological, and emotional war wounds as well as the current ex-patriate environment in which he finds himself.

Synonyms of Foil

Foil doesn’t have a direct meaning. The following words come close to it in meanings such as antipode, contrary, counter, negative, observe, reverse, opposite, or antithesis. Some synonyms are literary devices too.