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Have you come across a fictional character that is the complete opposite of the main character? Think of Draco Malfoy (the Harry Potter series), Vivian Kensington (Legally Blonde), or Peeta Mellark (The Hunger Games). Such characters are called foil characters.
A foil character highlights the traits and characteristics of the main character, adding intrigue and value to the story. In this article, we’ll start with a simple character foil definition and provide several examples from literature and movies to help you understand the concept. Let’s begin with the basics: What are foils in literature?
A foil character in literature is a character used to highlight and contrast the traits and qualities of another character, often the protagonist. They help emphasize the distinctive characteristics and traits of the main character. Of the various types of characters, the foil character is unique in that it’s a literary device aimed to enrich storytelling.
Foil characters often end up as the antagonists or villains of the story, but that’s not always the case. Writers enjoy pitting opposite ideas, ideals, and characteristics against each other, but opposites need not always conflict! As we’ve seen from our foil character definition, foils only need to contrast with each other. This can also be achieved through a dynamic team of opposite characters like Donkey and Shrek from Shrek.
How is a character foil different from an antagonist?
The goal of the character foil is to spotlight the hero’s attributes by showcasing their mutual difference. The antagonist’s goal, however, is to stop the hero from achieving whatever they seek.
So, character foils can appear in a story as the antagonist, the best friend, the mentor, or even the love interest. You could pick anyone from your usual set of stock characters and they can be your character foil! But before we delve into the various examples of foil characters, let’s take a quick look at their history.
Have you ever wondered what “foil character” means? The term “foil” comes from the old practice of backing gemstones with a thin metal foil to make them shine more brightly. Like the metal foil brightens the gem by reflecting light, a character foil highlights the protagonist through contrast and comparison.
The word “foil” in the context of a character has been used for centuries, but it’s difficult to trace its origin. However, Shakespeare makes a direct reference to the term in Henry IV, Part 1, which is its earliest known usage:
“And like bright metal on a sullen ground
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.” (Shakespeare 1.2.214-217)
Prince Henry says that his faults will act as a foil, making his good deeds stand out even more. In a sense, his past self acts as a foil character for his present one!
Although the earliest mention of the term can be found in Shakespeare, foil characters have been used well before his time. Let’s see some character foil examples from ancient Greek and Roman plays and early English literature.
1. Antigone and Ismene in Sophocles’ Antigone: Antigone’s boldness and commitment to bury her brother’s body contrasts with Ismene’s cautiousness and reluctance to defy authority.
2. Oedipus and Tiresias in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex: Oedipus’s relentless pursuit of truth and his quick temper foil Tiresias’s wisdom and foresight.
1. Beowulf and Unferth in Beowulf: Beowulf’s bravery and heroism are juxtaposed with Unferth’s jealousy and cowardice.
2. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Sir Gawain’s chivalry and honor are contrasted with the Green Knight’s supernatural qualities and challenges.
3. Everyman and Fellowship in Everyman: In the morality play Everyman, Everyman’s search for salvation contrasts with Fellowship’s abandonment and worldly values.
Now that we’ve answered “What is a character foil?” and traced its history, it’s time to learn more about character foils through examples.
Foil characters play a wide variety of roles in modern literature and media. Take a look at the following character foil examples:
Iago and Othello in Othello
Joker and Batman in the Batman comics
Cersei Lannister and Ned Stark in Game of Thrones
2. Best friend or ally
Dr. John Watson and Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes stories
Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggage in The Lord of the Rings
James Wilson and Dr. House in House
3. Mentor or guide
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote
Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars
Giles and Buffy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer
4. Love interest
Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice
Jack and Rose in Titanic
Jim and Pam in The Office
5. Rival or competitor
Gatsby and Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby
Melanie Hamilton and Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind
Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly in Chicago
There are several pairs of foil characters in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:
a. Mercutio and Romeo
Mercutio and Romeo are best friends, both belonging to noble families. While Romeo is emotional and idealistic towards love, Mercutio is witty, humorous, and cynical about love. Mercutio’s skepticism contrasts with Romeo’s passion, creating a dynamic that drives the story forward. Mercutio’s wry remarks about love contrast and reveal the depth of Romeo’s feelings.
b. Tybalt and Benvolio
Tybalt and Benvolio are excellent character foil examples because they represent opposite families, ideas, and personalities. Tybalt is hot-tempered and aggressive while Benvolio is calm and peaceful. The close interaction between these contrasting characters in the play’s opening scene highlights their qualities and roles in the story.
c. Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet have contrasting personalities, loyalties, and approaches to love. Romeo’s youth is impulsive and passionate while Juliet’s youth is innocent but practical. Romeo prioritizes his love for Juliet over his familial loyalty but Juliet struggles with her feelings due to her devotion to her family. Juliet becomes more mature and independent over the course of the play, taking measured steps to obtain her goal. On the other hand, Romeo’s youthful idealism and impulsiveness lead to the play’s ultimate tragedy.
Here are the central foil characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
a. Hamlet and Claudius
Hamlet and Claudius are natural opposites: Their personalities and actions in the play act as foils to each other. Hamlet is deeply philosophical, intellectual, and morally upright while Claudius is manipulative, cunning, and morally corrupt. Hamlet’s actions are for justice and revenge while Claudius’ actions are for power and self-preservation. This dynamic allows for a deeper interpretation of the two characters in all their complexity.
b. Laertes and Hamlet
A schoolbook foil character example, the pair Laertes and Hamlet follow parallel paths in the play. Hamlet even refers to himself as Laertes’ foil! While Hamlet seeks proof of Colonius’ guilt and debates the ethics of enacting revenge, Laertes is brash and action-oriented. Hamlet has a tumultuous relationship with his family and Ophelia while Laertes is devoted and protective of his loved ones. This dynamic articulates the play’s central themes of action and inaction, contemplation and impulsiveness, and vengeance and its consequences.
c. Ophelia and Gertrude
While they’re not true character foils, Ophelia and Gertrude contrast each other in terms of age, agency, and relationship to Hamlet. Ophelia is innocent and lacks agency in a male-dominated world; ultimately becoming a pawn in her family’s game. Gertrude, on the other hand, is the queen and has some agency in courtly affairs. Ophelia descends into madness due to Hamlet’s conduct toward her while Gertrude attempts to find a balance and retain peace in the court. Their parts in the play show the extent to which court politics and male dominance affected women’s lives in the palace.
Aside from character foils, Hamlet also features a plot foil, where the “story within the story” reflects the themes and events of the main plot.
If we were to list iconic foil character examples in movies Disney has produced, we’d simply run out of space. So here are three popular character foil dynamics we can observe in Disney movies:
a. Hero and villain
This is the most common dynamic in Disney’s foil characters. The movies often feature a brave, courageous, and noble hero who is foiled by a cowardly, cunning, and (obviously) evil villain. This contrast makes for great entertainment, so a lot of Disney movies have used it:
Aladdin and Jafar in Aladdin
Simba and Scar in The Lion King
Hercules and Hades in Hercules
Tiana and Dr. Facilier in Princess and the Frog
b. Good princess and evil witch/stepmother
A modification of the hero vs. villain dynamic, the princess and witch dynamic deals with beauty and femininity. The earliest Disney princess movies featured the princess as good and kind, possessing simple beauty. On the other hand, the villains were evil and cruel, making their beauty sinister. Take a look at the following examples:
Cinderella and Lady Tremaine in Cinderella
Aurora and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty
Snow White and the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Ariel and Ursula in The Little Mermaid
Rapunzel and Mother Gothel in Tangled
c. Hero and sidekick/best friend
Putting two conflicting characters together offers an opportunity for easy character development and comic relief. Here are some examples:
Mulan and Mushu in Mulan
Ralph and Princess Vanellope (Glitch) in Wreck-It Ralph
Moana and Maui in Moana
We hope we’ve answered all your questions and there won’t be any more googling of “What is a foil character?” If you do need help developing your literary foils, our story editing services are at your disposal!
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