What is a Foil Character?

Foils are used in all types of literature. A character that exhibits opposite or conflicting traits to another character is called a foil. Foil characters can be antagonists, but not always. Sometimes, foils will even be other characters alongside the protagonist. When an author uses a foil, they want to make sure that the reader is picking up on important attributes and characteristics of a main character. For this reason, foils are important to watch out for! Occasionally, a foil can refer to a subplot which is used to foil the main plot.

At its most basic, a foil is a character used to reflect the characteristics of a protagonist.

Breaking Down Foil Characters

Foils Help You:

  • Understand a character's traits and motivations more clearly
  • Know good from evil, smart from obtuse, or strength from weakness
  • Reflect more accurately on who the protagonist is

What are the traits of the main character? What are the traits of the foil character?
  • What traits are opposite?
  • What actions have/do these characters take(n) that are different?
  • How does the reader feel about each character?
  • How does the author feel about each character?

Do You Know Your Foils?

A foil is used to reflect specific traits of a main character (protagonist).

Think about Tom and Jay from The Great Gatsby. Through the narrator, Nick Carraway, the reader sees both Tom and Jay, two men in love with the same woman. Tom is an athlete, with an ivy league education and old money. Jay is a more delicate gentleman, with ‘new’ money. Tom is abrasive and often makes Nick feel uncomfortable, while Jay “had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it…”

There can be more than one type of foil in a work of literature.

Some works of literature have more than one set of foils, may have more than 2 characters that foil each other, or the foil represented could also be a subplot foil. In Julius Caesar by Shakespeare, Brutus’ foil is Cassius, while Antony’s foil is Brutus!

A foil pair is always the main character (protagonist) and their enemy (antagonist).

Check out Romeo and Mercutio from The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. These two guys happen to be best friends; however, Shakespeare wanted to make sure the audience knew what a desperate lover Romeo was, so he made Mercutio his foil. Mercutio often made fun of love and lovers, showing he was more logical and sensible than the love struck Romeo.

Application: What Do I Do When Reading a Novel?

When reading a novel, small attributes and details frequently become important as the plot progresses. Using the Storyboard Creator, readers can record subtle information about foils to help visualize the contrast in characters.

Classroom Extension: How Do I Use This in My Classroom?

  1. Choose a novel or short story that contains one or more foil characters.

  2. Customize the storyboard below to follow each pair of characters in the work of literature.

  3. Replace the “NAME” placeholder with the name of each character.

  4. While reading, look for characters in the novel or story who have traits that completely oppose one another. Write down adjectives or direct quotes that provide a contrast in beliefs or attitudes for each character.

  5. Before completion, choose a Storyboard That character to portray each character from the novel. Using the drag and drop feature, place them in the box on the left. You can even add a background like in the example below!

Example Foil Project for The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet

After Completing the Storyboard - Follow-Up Discussion

When completed, think and write about the two characters who are foils. Make sure to base your explanation off of the evidence you wrote down. Here are some guiding questions to help you talk about foils:

  1. What is the main trait that the author is trying to juxtapose? (e.g. love vs. logic)

  2. What three adjectives would you use to describe each character?

  3. What happens when these characters interact?

  4. What is the author's view on the topic that is being contrasted? (e.g. love is more romantic and tragic than logic)

Pat yourself on the back, you are now a Foilin’ Fool and you have the completed storyboard to prove it!

Foil Character Examples

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