All terms

What is a foil?

A character that contrasts with another character.

Opposites Attract: Understanding the Role of Foils in Character Development

Every great story has its heroes and villains, friend and foes, and partners and rivals. But what about those characters that don't fit neatly into any of those categories? Enter, the foil.

A foil is a character that exists to contrast with another character, highlighting specific traits or qualities of that main character.

For example, while Sherlock Holmes is brilliant and logical, his foil, Dr. Watson, is empathetic and nurturing. This contrast serves to illustrate both of their characters more fully, and helps the reader to see unique strengths and weaknesses that they might not have noticed otherwise.

Foils can be used in a wide variety of ways, from minor characters that serve to move the plot along, to major characters who provide meaningful commentary and insight into the protagonist's journey. They may also be used to balance out the tone of a story, or to provide a counterpoint to broader themes or motifs that are present throughout.

So the next time you're reading a book or watching a movie, keep an eye out for those characters who seem to be just a little bit different from the rest. They may just be the key to unlocking a deeper, richer understanding of the story.

Foiling Around: Examples of How Foils Enhance Character Development in Literature

Learn by example! Check out these two examples of how foils have been implemented in literature:

Gatsby and Nick in The Great Gatsby

In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the wealthy and mysterious Gatsby serves as a foil to the more grounded and practical Nick Carraway.

Whereas Gatsby is flashy and ostentatious, Nick is thoughtful and reserved. By contrasting their personalities, Fitzgerald is able to more fully explore the themes of class, success, and the American Dream that pervade the novel.

Milton's Satan and His Heavenly Counterparts

John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost contains a number of examples of foils, including the central character of Satan who serves as a foil to the righteous Adam and the angelic Gabriel.

Whereas Satan is rebellious, prideful, and cunning, Adam and Gabriel both possess virtues like humility, wisdom, and selflessness. By contrasting these characters, Milton is able to explore themes like free will, temptation, and the nature of good and evil.