In classic drama the term foil
refers to a character which is created for the sole purpose of accenting a
quality in a major character.
For example in Sophocles’ ancient drama Antigone, the titular character is supposed to be a strong willed
individual, so to make sure that the audience understood this properly the
character of her sister Ismene was written as a weak and meek person.
In later stories this function was often fulfilled by the
hero’s sidekick. Tonto, Jimmy Olsen, Man Friday, Sancho Panza, Dr. Watson,
Samwise Gamgee, etc. All of them were good, but not quite as good as the hero.
In my opinion, this is an underused tactic in books and
films nowadays, where so many of the characters seem to be monotone. The
strength of the protagonist is supposed to be what sets the hero apart, but if
everyone acts just like him, how then does the character stand out?
And the foil does not simply have to limited to the
It can be equally applied to the antagonist. In my current
work, I have a villain who is working on a grand and sweeping master plan,
something outrageous and beyond the ordinary. The character is a cut above the
average crook, but I felt that I had to illustrate this a little better.
I created two foils, a pair of criminals from the bottom of
society. Drunken villains with no foresight and a smash-and-grab mentality, who
are incapable of making a plan beyond their next stolen meal. Compared to these
two, the antagonist is a super-genius and was my intention.
Another good example is the character of Otis, the
dimwitted subordinate to Lex Luthor in the original Superman.
Not only does the foil accent qualities of your heroes and
villains, but it adds depth to the story. It is an easy way to make sure that
not all of the characters sound the same, or are at a similar emotional level.
As such the foil is an underused tool, which needs to be dusted off.