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Foil characters make the characteristics and personality of the protagonist stand out. A foil character may be an enemy or a friend. A character that reflects (like shiny foil) the attributes of another character is a foil character. The foil character’s characteristics and personality serve as a contrast to the main character. They are named after the medieval practice of placing a metal foil around a gemstone to make it shine brighter. This idea of the word foil as “contrast” comes from the practice of backing a gem with metal foil to make it shine more brightly. Shakespeare used it in this sense in Henry IV, Part I. The future Henry V is a dissolute prince. In a soliloquy he anticipates changing his ways when he becomes king. He thinks that his subjects will appreciate his reign more because they’ll have his rotten youth to compare it with:

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.

Foils are a great way to develop the protagonist’s characterisation without dropping an anvil of a message upside your reader’s head. Foils often have conflicting personalities and dissimilar physical features. Through the use of the foil a protagonist’s background, upbringing and current position in society can be examined. The foil can share similarities in the given areas or have completely different circumstances in life. In the classic good-guy versus bad guy scenario, both the hero and villain can be considered as foils of each other, in that each acts to show how the other behaves in certain situations. Note, then, a foil is not always a minor character. Two main characters can be foils for each other.

However, as virtually any story with multiple characters can contrast the characters to show greater depths to them, regardless of what side they are on in the good versus evil equation. In fact, good versus evil doesn't have to come into the picture at all. Sometimes, also, a foil is a secondary, flat character that comes on stage, sparks a response, then fades from the story. More often, though, the foil is a recurring character that has a personality, or an opinion of things, that is different from another recurring character. Many intentional foils are depicted as physical contrasts to the main character. When foils are intentionally written, oftentimes the writer/playwright will be specific in drawing comparisons between the two. (Consider, for example, how the main romantic plot of Twelfth Night has Olivia and Viola deliberately compared against each other. Even their names bear similar letters. In the same way, consider how/if Malvolio and Orsino both certain of their love for Olivia, and hers for them, could be considered as foils for each other.)

Thin vs. fat and tall vs. short are among the commonest way of setting up contrast. Similarly, when the hero's love interest is blonde, the villainess tends to have dark or red hair; when the villainess is blonde, the hero's love interest tends to be dark or red haired.

As implied earlier, virtually any two characters or character-types can serve as foils to each other if they're put together properly and a little good writing goes into the creation of them. However, there are a surprisingly large number of character-types that exist primarily for the purpose of being a foil, usually to the main character - or in the case of a set of characters, to each other.

Examples of Foil in Literature Paradise Lost, Wuthering Heights, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are books that are often used for examples of foil.

Example #1 Milton’s “Paradise Lost Book I” is based on the comparison of two contrasting characters: God and Satan. Satan, in the entire work, appears as a foil to God. The negative traits of Satan and the positive traits of God are frequently compared which consequently brings to the surface not only the contrast between the two characters but also “justify the ways of God…” We reach a conclusion that it is only just for Satan to be expelled from the paradise because of his refusal to give in to the will of God.

Example #2 In “Wuthering Heights”, Emily Bronte depicts two contrasting settings that are foils to each other. The entire action of the narrative takes place in two neighbouring houses i.e. Wuthering

Heights and Thrushcross Grange. While describing Wuthering Heights in chapter 12, the narrator says:

“There was no moon, and everything beneath lay in misty darkness: not a light gleamed from any house, far or near all had been extinguished long ago: and those at Wuthering Heights were never visible…”

The description of Thrushcross Grange, in contrast to the Wuthering Heights, creates a calm and peaceful atmosphere. “Gimmerton chapel bells were still ringing; and the full, mellow flow of the beck in the valley came soothingly on the ear. It was a sweet substitute for the yet absent murmur of the summer foliage, which drowned that music about the Grange when the trees were in leaf.” The foils in the settings also help in the development of the foils in the characters i.e. the people from Wuthering Heights are unsophisticated and thus are foils to those from Thrushcross Grange who have a refined disposition.

Think of any romantic love triangle, two persons in the triangle are almost always (invariably) foils to the other: Twelfth Night Viola and Olivia, Wuthering Heights Linton and Heathcliff, The Great Gatsby Tom and Gatsby Also consider non-romantic rivals like Feste and Malvolio (Twelfth Night), Heathcliff and Hindley (Wuthering Heights)

Now, think of any pair of friends, or siblings, in a play or novel. More than just an incidental pairing, there may be some evidence of one being a foil for the other: Twelfth Night Maria and Olivia, Wuthering Heights Catherine and Nelly, Heathcliff and Hindley (their friendship is debatable, but still), The Great Gatsby Nick and Gatsby, Brown Girl Brownstones Selina and Ina.

Function of Foil

In fiction, a foil is important in the development of characters. The comparison of the contrasting

traits of the characters helps the readers to not only understand their personalities but also to

comprehend the importance of their roles in a work of literature.

Try to think why writers use character foils. Sometimes it may seem as simple as contrasting what is good against what it bad (think Albus Dumbeldore vs Lord Voldermort) but more often than not they’re trying to challenge the reader to consider where their allegiances rest with characters. Sometimes neither character is explicitly “right” in the case of character foils built on enmity, or sometimes the way the foil highlights the other character is a way of showing different perspectives in the world of the novel (or play).

Things to think about Using the original definition of what foil originally stood for try to consider how foils become essential in making other characters shine brighter. Would Malvolio’s insufferableness be as pronounced were it not for the carousing of Sir Toby and Feste and company? In Wuthering Heights, for example, Catherine is not as cognisant of the limitations of her abode

at Wuthering Heights until she visits Thrushcross Grove and becomes more of a (conventional)


In drama, specifically, which is written to be performed consider how directors can take issues of

character foil to a more explicit degree by making use of costumes and casting.

A fat Sir Toby versus a gaunt Malvolio

The obvious difference of an Olivia in a gown against Viola (as Cesario) in boy’s clothes, and so on.

It is essential, then, to think what attributes of the main character/concept the foil is making more

pronounced, and then how these pronouncements are adding to the ultimate, overall effectiveness

of the text. Ask yourself, what is the writer trying to tell me by using X as a foil for Y?