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What is a Foil Character?

Character foils are used in all types of literature. Foil character definitions can help you to identify these characters and understand how they contribute to the overall themes of a story. By providing a different perspective on the central conflict, foil characters can help to advance the plot and make the story more engaging. So, what is a foil in literature? It's a tool that great authors use to create more nuanced and compelling characters. A character that exhibits opposing traits to another character is called a foil. Foil characters can be antagonists, but not always. Sometimes, character 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’s personality. 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 and this instance can be termed a narrative foil.

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

Exploring Character Foils in Literature

Foil is a powerful literary device that can add depth and complexity to any story. Exploring foil examples in literature can help you gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the complexities that make your favorite stories interesting. For instance, in Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio serves as a dramatic foil for Romeo. In this case, as a secondary character, Mercutio is a dramatic foil whose own personality traits are in direct opposition to another character's. When foil characters are highlighted in juxtaposition with another character, readers are able to see their opposite traits more clearly.

The Importance of Foils in Character Development and Plot Advancement

In literature, foils, whether they are secondary characters or play a more dominant role, are often used to provide a sharp contrast to the main character's personality traits, highlighting certain qualities or aspects that are essential for their adventures. Literary foils are often used to provide a deeper understanding of the protagonist's self-determination by placing them in direct opposition to their own foil. Through this old practice, authors can effectively emphasize certain traits and make their protagonists stand out, while also creating tension and conflict in the story. Whether the foil is a supporting character or an antagonist, they play a crucial role in shaping the protagonist's essential adventures and helping them overcome obstacles.

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 Foil Characters 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 about Foil Characters

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:

Guiding Questions for Foil Character Discussions


Main Trait

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


Describe Each Character

What three adjectives would you use to describe each character?


Character Interaction

What happens when these characters interact?


Author's View

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

Related Activities

Looking for activities with foil characters? Check out some of our examples below!

How to Teach the Creation of Foil Characters in Creative Writing


Introduce the Concept of Foil Characters

Start by introducing the concept of foil characters to students. Explain that foil characters are used in literature to contrast with and highlight the traits, motivations, or beliefs of other characters. Provide examples from well-known literature to illustrate how foil characters enhance storytelling.


Discuss the Purpose and Impact of Foil Characters

Engage students in a discussion about the purpose and impact of foil characters in creative writing. Explore how foil characters can create conflict, emphasize themes, and deepen readers' understanding of the main characters. Encourage students to think critically about the role of foil characters in enhancing their own stories.


Analyze Existing Foil Character Examples

Provide students with examples of foil characters from literature, films, or other media. Guide them in analyzing the characteristics, interactions, and effects of these foil characters. Discuss how the contrasting traits or beliefs of foil characters can create tension and drive the narrative forward.


Brainstorm Contrasting Traits and Roles

Engage students in a brainstorming session to generate ideas for creating foil characters. Encourage them to think about traits, roles, or beliefs that can provide effective contrasts to their main characters. Guide students in considering how these foil characters can add depth and complexity to their stories.


Develop Foil Characters and Relationships

Instruct students to develop their foil characters and their relationships with the main characters. Encourage them to create detailed character profiles, including physical descriptions, personalities, and motivations. Guide students in identifying specific traits or beliefs that contrast with the main character and contribute to conflict or tension.


Incorporate Foil Characters Into Writing

Guide students in incorporating their foil characters into their creative writing. Encourage them to consider how the interactions and conflicts between the main character and the foil character can shape the plot and character development. Provide feedback and support as students revise and refine their writing to effectively utilize their foil characters.

Frequently Asked Questions about Foil Characters

What is a literary foil and what are some examples of foil characters in literature?

A literary foil is a character in a story who is used to create contrast and highlight certain aspects of the protagonist's personality, character traits, or values. A foil literary example is the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Watson serves as a foil to Holmes, highlighting his genius and unique qualities by providing a more grounded and relatable perspective. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Boo Radley is a literary foil to Scout, highlighting her innocence and curiosity.

How do foil characters contribute to the plot and themes of a story?

Foil characters can help advance the plot of a story by providing contrast and tension with the main character. They can also contribute to the themes of a story by highlighting important aspects of the protagonist's personality, character traits or values, or by providing a different perspective on the central conflict or theme.

How do authors create foil characters in their writing?

Authors can create foil characters in several ways, such as through contrasting personalities, experiences, or values. The foil character should be distinct from the main character, but still have enough similarities to allow for meaningful comparisons and contrasts. The interactions and conflicts between the main character and the foil character can also reveal important insights about the protagonist and the story.

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