Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Underused Foil

By Rex Hurst

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 protagonist.

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.

1 comment:

Kasie Whitener said...

One of the ways to define something is by what it's not. So adding a foil to show what the protagonist is not enhances the dimensions of the main character. Thanks for the reminder, Rex!