Better Storytelling: Character Foils
Characters with contrasting features that juxtapose and make the protagonist’s characteristics obvious are what we call “foils”.
Is that symbolic to like the different sides of foil? Like, how one is shiny and the other is kinda grainy?
🤔 I have no idea, actually. But, I can tell you that when one character is drastically different from another, their personalities standout and really solidify their identity and story role for the audience.
In Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck), the two protagonists are obvious opposites of one another. One is smart, the other is slow. The bigger one is docile, and the smaller one is aggressive. They don’t really have anything in common except they’re acquaintances. Because of this, we can distinctly distinguish between which is which because they are so different from one another.
Having characters that are almost opposites of your main characters help the reader to notice certain traits. If there is something key that captures who your character is, you want those to stand out. Most likely, those features are what will drive the character’s actions and the reader’s connection throughout the conflict.
Steinbeck’s juxtaposition of the characters really makes our little time with the characters very vivid. Just by the two being so different, we start to zero in on key features that later make a huge difference. Like, the fact that Lennie is not only big but slow makes us suspect that he’s probably stronger than he realizes. Our conceptions about little guys, especially when around bigger guys, leads us to assume George will be a firecracker because of feelings of inadequacy. And, guess what, we’re exactly right. Though it may feel like a template, it serves its purpose to foreshadow the conflict and keep us engaged. We want to see if we are right. You have an option to fulfill that or throw us in a loop with a twist.
That’s the second time you’ve mentioned “juxtaposition”. What the hell is that?
Oh, you can read about that literary element here. 😉 It’s one of my favorites.
How do I do this?
This one is pretty easy to do. You basically have to do your antonyms.
- Identify key traits in your protagonist that you really want to emphasize.
- Create a character (or multiples) who personify the opposite of those traits.
- Have those characters do things together so the audience can see how different they are and relate better to the characters based on their own personalities.
- If you want the readers to lean more toward your protagonist, make the decisions (s)he makes successful, and the foil’s decisions failures.
Simple, yeah? I love foils. It’s fun coming up with the other character. Think hero and villain! Just like that. Unless you start getting the anti-heroes. Then, the character foils him/her self! That’s for another time, though. Let’s just get this down first! 😆
Have you found any good examples of foils that really changed your reading/watching experience with a story line?
Let us know in the comments below, and on social media, of course. Not to mention, you can learn more about similar things if you subscribe to my newsletter to the right.