The Importance of, and How to Write, Character Foils

TiriSaelasTiri here.  I’m cowriting this post with Saelas. Saelas, say hi.

[Hi.]

Ereinne is the talkative one of the Oracular group, but I like to talk, too.  I like to know what people think, especially.  Secrets drive me crazy.

Saelas, on the other hand, is perfectly okay with…not saying anything at all.  And being infuriatingly silent.  Even worse, when you ask him a question, he usually just shrugs.

Right, Saelas?

(…he just shrugged, in case you didn’t see that.)

[Actually, he’s trying hard to not laugh. And mostly failing.]

[Saelas, are you still breathing?]

[Don’t worry, he’s okay.  I have no idea why he found that so funny, but he’s okay.]

Ahem. I’m trying to write a blog post here, thank you very much.

[Sorry.]

Anyway, let’s get to the point.  Character foils.  Saelas is my character foil.

A foil is something that’s either “plain” or opposite from something else, creating a contrast that, in turn, highlights certain features in the other thing.  Basically, Saelas’s silence contrasts with my words, and in turn, it makes parts of my personality more noticable—such as how blunt I can be.

[She’s pretty blunt regardless.]

…thanks a lot.

The tricky part is making sure the foil contrasts the right features, and in the right way.  Is me seeming more blunt a good thing or a bad thing?

[Depends on who she’s being blunt to.]

Seriously?

[What? I’m not shrugging.]

Anyway, if it’s written wrong, Saleas could make me seem snappy and pushy and irritable.  (And apparently he does do that, anyway.) But done right, the contrast could instead show my better qualities.

[Turns out, Tiri’s very supportive and a little empathetic.]

So the first thing to making a foil is to figure out what needs to be contrasted.  You can’t contrast everything, and you can’t contrast and emphasize only good things, because the foil has to be a well-balanced character just as much as the character being foiled.

So for me, for the first part of my story, I am pretty irritable and unlikable—so I need a foil to let the reader know I actually wasn’t miscast as the protagonist when I should have been the antagonist.

[Sourpuss, actually.]

Saelas.

[Sorry.]

Okay, I was a sourpuss.  Anyway, Saelas is introduced into the story halfway through to show that I can be more than just an obstinate antihero who’s more willing to pick a fight than follow my “destiny”.  So by not speaking more than he has to, and sometimes not even then, Saelas forced me to talk instead.  (Dialogue does great at revealing characterization, apparently.  That’s for another post, though.) And by being shy and continually trying to fade into the background, Saelas forced me to stand up for him. Well, sometimes.

Here’s the important part, though. A foil character does not create traits in another character.  It only brings attention to what’s already there.  So if I really was completely dispicable to the core, Saelas’s existence wouldn’t make a difference. (At least, not as a foil.  As my love interest or something, he could maybe inspire change in me, but that’s a different discussion and totally irrelevant here.)

Why are you snickering?

[Nothing. Continue on.]

As I was saying, the traits have to be there.

Another thing about foils is they can be used to contrast other things besides characters.  The key is the contrast, right? So what if there were contrasting settings? Or a subplot to contrast the main plot?

Even better, emotions can be used to contrast each other.  That’s a trick to make bad things that happen seem worse—first, contrast it with something especially good or funny.  If the reader’s laughing, and then the horrors happen, it’s even more shocking and horrifying.

(Unfortunately, it doesn’t really seem to work the other way around.)

Foils also work both directions.  Saelas is my foil, but I’m also his. That horrifying scene also probably made that funny scene prior to it seem all the more nice.  With two contrasting settings, they both contrast each other.

Foils work best if they serve a particular purpose.  You can contrast all the things you like, but for what purpose?  The purpose can be anything—for me, the purpose is making me more likable.  For that horrifying scene, it’s to, well, make it more horrifying.

But don’t just contrast for the sake of doing it.  It’s a tool, so use it like one.

So that’s a foil. To sum it all up: a foil contrasts certain elements/traits; it doesn’t create features, just emphasizes them; it works both directions; and they work best if used for a purpose.  Remember those, and writing a foil should be easier.


[Believe it or not, Saelas usually talks less than this.  I think the only reason he talked this much this time was because it was to Tiri.  Don’t tell anybody, but he likes her.  Hence all the teasing.  REMEMBER, THAT’S CLASSIFIED INFORMATION.
…I always wanted to say that. BUT SERIOUSLY.]

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15 thoughts on “The Importance of, and How to Write, Character Foils

  1. Heh, it’s not actually an award. The title makes absolutely no sense, and I did complain about that in my post. But if she does decide to participate, that’d be cool.
    (Also, I posted my previous comment before reading the post, because I couldn’t find a comment space in Shim’s ‘about’ section, so here’s my comment for the post:)
    Cool post!
    I honestly think it would be worthwhile to publish these posts in book format sometime–it’d be a great reference for writers like me who need to look in books for good techniques to use.
    -Jack

    Like

  2. Saelas, you talked! *applauds* Also, this was a fantastic and quite interesting post.

    Also, I know it was about character foils, but you mentioned plot and setting foils, and I was wondering if you had any examples of how those could work, because I’m not really sure how one would go about doing that.

    Like

    • [I did talk.]

      [Well, anything contrasting. Before you describe the creepy, abandoned, haunted house, first describe the flowery, fancy-schmancy, rich-person house across the street. The two houses will be do different that their “personalities” will be more vivid.
      I’m failing to think of any examples of plot, actually.]

      Like

      • Ooh, okay. I was thinking you were talking about the overall setting of the whole book, which is part of what confused me. That makes sense, though.

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        • True. *tries to figure out how this could work on the scale of an entire book* The only way I can think of it working is if you had two characters in completely different settings, so when you described them then it would sort of show the difference. But…I’m not so sure how well that would work anyway.

          Like

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