Character Foils: What They are & How to Use Them

Writers have three ways to build a character. They can describe the character with narration. But, don’t do that, that’s boring. They can create a character by showing that person’s actions and decisions. And then, there is a third, sneakier technique called a foil character. Foil characters are two characters that contrast to one another. In literature and film, a foil character will contrast from the story’s protagonist. This contrast will highlight the hero’s personality. So, let’s dive deeper and talk about what makes a foil character. Plus, we’ll look at a few examples of foil characters. 

Definition of Foil Characters in Literature 

So, what is a foil character anyway? Foil characters are characters that contrast, in personality, to other characters. Usually, the foil character contrasts with the protagonist. They are like a photo negative of the story’s hero. So, if the hero is strong and courageous the foil character will be weak and cowardly, or visa-versa. 

Foil characters give the author an indirect way to emphasize the hero’s strengths and weaknesses. Readers are going to naturally draw connections between a hero and that hero’s foil. They will discover aspects of your character without the author having to spell these traits out. 

Now that we know what character foils are, let’s look at some examples. 

Examples of Character Foils in Literature

Let’s start with an example that everyone seems to be googling for some reason… 

Literary foils in Romeo and Juliet

I’m only doing one set of characters though. You’ll have to write the rest of your high school essay yourself. 

Romeo and Mercutio, Romeo and Juliet 

Romeo and his best friend Mercutio couldn’t be more opposite in their approach to love and to life. Mercutio likes to have a good time. He’s not romantic, or broody, or overly serious. The only time Mercutio isn’t joking is when he’s angry. 

Above all, Mercutio is a cynic. He doesn’t believe in Romeo’s silly romantic ideas. He says things like, “…dreams… are the children of an idle brain, Begot of nothing but vain fantasy.” 

On the other hand, we have Romeo. Romeo, the romantic. Romeo who falls madly in love with someone he met once at a party. Romeo who risks his life for a girl he hardly knows. Romeo, oh Romeo… 

By poking fun at Romeo’s expense, Mercutio sews the seeds of doubt in the minds of the audience. Maybe this great love affair between two teenagers is not all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe Romeo and Juliet’s love is not worth dying over. Let’s be honest, Mercutio had a point. 

But, maybe if the two families had lightened up Romeo and Juliet would have dated like normal. Mercutio wouldn’t wind up dead, either. But, then it wouldn’t be a tragedy or a very good play at all. 

Lizzie and Lydia Bennett, Pride and Prejudice 

These two sisters of the Longbourne Estate are a stark contrast of each other. Lydia is the spoiled, youngest daughter of the Bennett family. She is flirtatious and improper. She doesn’t worry about her image or how her behavior reflects on her family, and she rushes into major decisions, like her marriage, with no thought of consequence. 

Lizzie is bright and intelligent. She prides herself on her judgment, and she’s very concerned with how others perceive her. Her pride and her prejudice towards others are her biggest flaws. These two traits are at the heart of the conflict she faces in the novel. So, that’s why the book is called that. In case you were wondering. 

Lizzie is also very romantic and is determined to find the perfect partner. She won’t settle for a marriage of convenience. 

Both Lydia’s and Lizzie’s contrasting values cause major conflicts in the novel’s plot. 

Now, let’s talk about some movies.

Examples of Character Foils in Disney Movies 

Woody and Buzz, Toy Story 

Are there two more perfect foils than Woody and Buzz? Probably, but you know what? That was a dramatic way to start a paragraph. Actually, I don’t have anything to add to this paragraph. We should just move on.  

Let’s start with their appearance. Woody is tall and lengthy where Buzz is short and stocky. Buzz wears a white space suit accented with primary colors. Woody, a cowboy, wears earth tones like tan and brown. 

Look at their personality and viewpoints. Buzz is sure of himself, of his singular identity as a space ranger. He’s an adventurer at heart.  Woody is grounded in his life as a simple toy. He doesn’t want to venture very far from the safety of his home. Buzz is delusional, of course, but he’s also confident and daring. Whereas Woody is insecure, but caring and a natural leader.

The arc of the story follows both characters as they overcome their flaws. They’re forced to grow together to resolve their shared conflict. During this, their relationship grows as well. 

The film’s writers use these two character foils as a way to drive the plot forward. Neither Woody nor Buzz can evolve without overcoming their own faults. And, they largely overcome these faults by recognizing each other’s strengths. The two heroes realize that only their combined effort is enough for them to achieve their shared goal of returning home. 

How to Use Character Foils in your Writing

Character foils underscore the personality traits of your protagonist. That can mean their strengths and their flaws. So, write foils that are the opposite of your character in both positive and negative ways. Have your foil’s story arc mirror the hero’s in some way. Remember your foil is not meant to be the story’s antagonist. They can be a friend or even a close family member of your hero. 

Use your foil to teach the reader something about your story or theme.

In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio shows the audience the folly of Romeo’s actions as he pursues Juliet. His needless death demonstrates the futility of the two families’ feud. It also foreshadows the play’s tragic ending. 

In Pride and Prejudice Lydia is the cause for the major conflict of the novel’s third act. When she marries Mr. Wickham we see the consequences of choosing the wrong romantic partner. 

In Toy Story, the two foils, Woody and Buzz, are also the film’s protagonists. They must both learn from each other to overcome the film’s major conflict and grow as individuals.

Want to learn more about character foils? Check out these resources. 

Resources

1,000 Character Reactions from Head to Toe by Valerie Howard

1,000 Character Writing Prompts: Villains, Heroes and Hams for Scripts, Stories and More by Bryan Cohen

Character Foils in Romeo & Juliet– Shmoop

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