What is a foil character? Is it a character who wears tin-foil on their head? Wait no, that’s Joaquin Phoenix in Signs. Foil characters exist to expose something in the main character of a story. You may have heard the term in reference to the works of William Shakespeare, but he’s not the only writer who uses them. We’re going to show you some examples of foil characters from literature, film, and television. By the end, you’ll know how to recognize foils from a mile away and perhaps hatch an idea for your own foil character.
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Foil Literary Definition
What’s a foil in literature?
The foil literary definition is a little bit different than the general definition. So, what’s a foil in literature?
Foils are used in literature to show conflict between the protagonist and an external factor of the story. It’s true that the protagonist of a story is driven by conflict with the antagonist, but the antagonist is not usually a foil.
An easy way to think about the difference between a foil and an antagonist is this:
- A foil seeks to expose something essential about the protagonist.
- An antagonist seeks to oppose something essential in the protagonist.
Of course, one character can do both of these things, like Killmonger in Black Panther.
To learn more about foil characters, let’s check out a video on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — perhaps one of the most famous foil character examples in literature.
Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature (monster) foil one another. As a result, the two serve to expose philosophies and characteristics in each other. If you’re looking to learn more about how foil characters are used in literature, Frankenstein is a must-read. Now that we’ve reviewed how they’re used in literature, let’s do a character foil definition.
CHARACTER FOIL DEFINITION
What is a foil character?
A foil character is a fictional character that serves to expose something intrinsic in another character. Oftentimes, the thing that is exposed is a character folly, like cowardice or greed.
Foil Character Examples:
- God and Satan (Paradise Lost)
- Sherlock and Watson (Sherlock Holmes)
- Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy (Harry Potter)
Dramatic Foil Character Definition
What’s a foil character used for?
William Shakespeare is widely credited with proliferating the use of foil characters. And most of his plays, histories, tragedies, and comedies included, revolve around specific tenets of character conflict.
Let’s take a look at the 1953 adaptation of Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar. Aside from being one of Marlon Brando’s best movies, there’s a great example of how to use a character foil in Julius Caesar. As you’re watching the clip, keep in mind that Mark Antony (Brando) is meant to foil Brutus, the man who killed the titular Caesar.
What is Antony doing in this scene? I’d say that he’s exposing Brutus’ dishonorable ways. How does he do it? Through the use of juxtaposition and dramatic irony. As a result, we see how Antony foils Brutus.
Romeo and Juliet is another one of Shakespeare’s plays that’s full of foil characters. The foil characters in Romeo and Juliet are some of the most famous of all time. We’re going to look at a clip from the 1996 film version of Romeo and Juliet, but first let’s remind ourselves of the story’s set-up. Romeo and Mercutio have found themselves in a precarious situation, warring with the antagonistic Tybalt.
When analyzing character foils, consider taking a story beat and breaking it into this equation: problem (x) + characters (y1 &y2) = resolution (z). Now let’s plug in for those variables.
- X: The problem in this scene is that Tybalt wants to kill Romeo.
- Y1: Romeo wants peace.
- Y2: Mercutio wants to protect Romeo.
Now let’s see what these variables add up to.
What’s the resolution (z) of the foil characters in Romeo and Juliet? Mercutio is killed by Tybalt, but more subtextually, one could argue that he’s killed by Romeo’s inaction. The main takeaway of the scene is that Mercutio’s boldness juxtaposes Romeo’s cowardice -- which ultimately exposes a character folly in Romeo.
Define Foil Character in TV
Structuring a show around a foil
The BBC series Sherlock is one of the best adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson rely on one another to survive — but they also foil each other. Let’s think about how they’re different.
- Sherlock is neurotic, insensitive, and selfish.
- Watson is pragmatic, empathetic, and selfless.
Despite their differences, Sherlock and Watson make a great crime-solving pair. Let’s take a look at a scene from Sherlock to see how their unique relationship is set up.
One way to foil characters is through the use of clever word-play. Perhaps no character is a better wordsmith than Sherlock Holmes — watching him and Watson verbally spar commands our attention. Sherlock and Watson may be opposites but they serve to expose each other's strengths.
Foil character examples in Disney movies
Foil characters in Disney movies
Disney movies, and particularly Disney animated movies, excel at utilizing character tropes while still feeling fresh and compelling. This is the case with Disney foils.
Think of Beauty and the Beast. No, the foils aren’t the two titular characters, but instead the Beast and Gaston. The Beast isn’t conventionally attractive, while Gaston, with his chiseled jaw and muscular frame, is.
But Gaston is a foil in more ways than that. He may be a hunk, but he’s also arrogant and insensitive. This highlights Beast’s qualities to the contrary: he’s abundantly sensitive, and for much of the movie is plagued with self-doubt. This use of a foil is so successful that Disney pretty much used the exact same dynamic in Tarzan.
In Frozen, Elsa’s foil is her sister, Anna. Elsa is fearful and emotionally distant, while Anna is more sure of herself, and seeks connection with her sibling. This foil relationship is crucial to both characters’ arc and the plotline as a whole.
Toy Story features an iconic foil relationship. Buzz is everything Woody isn’t: new, shiny, and delusional. Woody’s more cautious nature, and his resistance to change, directly contrasts with Buzz’s taste for excitement. It also informs the theme of the film.
Movie Foil Examples
Atypical foil character examples
Not every foil has to be like our previous examples. Take Clarice and Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs for example. Their relationship has inspired countless interpretations, but most critics agree that Clarice and Lecter are each other's foil.
We imported the The Silence of the Lambs script into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software to take a closer look at their relationship. Pay special attention to the ways in which Lecter prods Clarice into exposing her own secrets. Follow the image link to read the entire scene — it's still one of the most emotional and haunting bits of screenwriting.
It’s clear that the killing of the lambs is a metaphor for the loss of innocence. But why does writer Ted Tally reveal this crucial information in this way? I’d say that it’s entirely intentional. Tally juxtaposes the two characters through simple, unspoken characterization. In turn, this juxtaposition creates a foil.
Movie Foil Examples
What is a foil in a story used for?
So what is a foil character used for? Foil characters are used by writers to expose qualities of other characters. Think of the Harry Potter foil character Draco Malfoy. He shows us just how kind and caring Harry is by being… the opposite.
As Draco shows us throughout the entirety of the Potter franchise, foils revolve around the protagonist of a story. Draco constantly represents the path not taken for Harry.
By better understanding how foils are used by writers, we’re more equipped to recognize them in literature, theater, film and television.
How writers use juxtaposition
Juxtaposition is one of the structural building blocks of writing foil characters — but what is it exactly? In this next post, we define juxtaposition by breaking down examples from Ex Machina, Drive, The Godfather and more. By the end, you’ll see character conflict in a whole new light!