A Foil in Fiction: Emphasizes the Protagonist’s Qualities

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In fiction, a foil is usually a secondary character whose traits contrast or oppose qualities of the protagonist. The foil is created to highlight certain characteristics of the protagonist.

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  • Foils and protagonists aren’t necessarily opposites. The foil could be like the protagonist with one important difference.
  • A foil character may be a good person who emphasizes the protagonist’s flaws or a bad person who makes the main character seem extraordinary.
  • A protagonist may have multiple foils.
  • The foil character is usually not the antagonist

Foil Versus Antagonist

A foil could be a best friend or a sidekick whose opposing traits to the protagonist, by contrast, make certain protagonist qualities stand out. The antagonist’s purpose is to stop the protagonist from achieving his goals.

The foils purpose is to bring out traits in the protagonist that make him an interesting and complex person. The antagonist could be a foil but not merely because he fights the protagonist.


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The protagonist and foil may work together, such as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. For example, Dr. Watson’s opposing traits make Sherlock appear more astute and impersonal.

The “good cop-bad cop” behaviors of detectives, parents, and business partners are often given to a protagonist and an important secondary character.

Here’s my attempt at showing Billy as Trevor’s foil.

    Billy huffed and bumbled along as Trevor raced ahead to the car smashed against a tree, its hood crumpled like an accordion.
    When Billy caught up, Trevor had the unconscious driver out of the car and was ending a call with a 911 operator.
    Billy peered inside the front and back seats of the sedan. “His wallet’s on the floor.”
    Trevor lifted his head from the man’s chest. “He’s alive, thank God. Bring his wallet.”
    Billy carried a fat wallet with an abundance of green protruding from inside. His eyes were wide and focused on the wad of bills. He licked his lips. “Who carries this much cash these days?”
      “Does he have a driver’s license?”
    “Yeah.” Billy slipped the plastic license from a slot above several credit cards. “If only my wallet contained a quarter of what this guy has. With that kind of money, I could gain some respect from women.
    “Billy, his name. What’s his name?”
    “Edward Freeman.”
    Trevor touched the man’s cheek. “Mr. Freeman, can you hear me?” He glanced at Billy. “What are you doing?”
    Billy sifted two hundred-dollar bills between his thumb and fingers. “With all the dough this guy has, he’d never miss these two Franklins.
    “Put them back, Billy.”

As all secondary characters should, Billy does his job. He fleshes out Trevor’s character, moves the story along, and gives Trevor someone to talk to instead of Trevor constantly reflecting internally. Billy’s opposing qualities quickly highlight Trevor’s efficiency, caring nature, and honesty.

Other Benefits of a Foil

Foils’ choices and consequences opposite to those of the protagonist can demonstrate what could have happened if the protagonist had made the foil’s choices.

The foil’s opposing traits can create deeper emotions for how the reader feels about the protagonist.

Foils can help form how the reader feels about the protagonist. Click to tweet.

What example of a foil comes to your mind?

Hyperbatons – A Word Reversal Device That Gets Attention

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Hyperbaton is a literary device in which words, phrases, and clauses are transposed from their usual order in a sentence. However, the unfamiliar order retains the gist of the message.

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These word reversals can be used in dialogue or internal dialogue when a character wants to emphasize his message or add a little drama. For example, “A juggling yellow jacket I must see.” The usual arrangement, “I must see a juggling yellow jacket,” doesn’t have the punch.

Because hyperbatons interrupt the natural flow of sentences and can be confusing, novel writers might want to sprinkle them into their stories only occasionally.

In the following sentence pairs, decide what the sentence with the hyperbaton emphasizes that the second does not. In the first example, I think a good chef is accentuated more in the first sentence than the second. The sentence is talking more about a good chef than about the cake.


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Laura rolled her eyes. “One successful cake does not a good chef make.” (One successful cake does not make a good chef.)

Carter watched Lily retreat. Her skirt and ponytail swayed in harmony. Was there no mercy? Love struck he was. (He was love struck.)

Julie worked with persistence unstoppable. (Julie worked with unstoppable persistence.)

Until his last breath, he wouldn’t, of such a deplorable conspiracy, be part. (Until his last breath, he wouldn’t be part of such a deplorable conspiracy.)

Every ache and pain known to wrestlers he suffered. (He suffered every ache and pain known to wrestlers.)

“Stupid … ugly … and incompetent you’ve made me feel.” (You’ve made me feel stupid … ugly … and incompetent.”)

Only chaos I saw around me. (I saw only chaos around me.)

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“A knife to the heart is unrequited love.” (“Unrequited love is a knife to the heart.”)

“Alone, I’ve traversed the continent.” (“I’ve traversed the continent alone.”)

“This woman you love?” (“You love this woman?”)
“Right, you are.” (“You’re right.”)

“Into this, dear cousin, you dragged me.” (“Dear cousin, you dragged me into this.”)

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.” (Bible, John 14:27) (“I leave you with my peace; I give you peace.”)

Employ hyperbatons in sentences; the word reversals can emphasize words. Click to tweet.

What hyperbaton do you use in your everyday conversations?

Aphorism: True, Short, and Witty

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A truth that is said in a quick and witty manner is an aphorism. Aphorisms don’t have to be humorous, but that’s half the reason we like so many of them. And aphorism’s brevity makes their truths easy to remember.

An example of this literary device is Benjamin Franklin’s familiar statement, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

A character in a story might have the quirky habit of quoting famous aphorisms. However, several characters using famous aphorisms may sound clichéd. The solution would be to create some fresh aphorisms and spice up dialogue in our stories.


To get the feel of what aphorisms sound like, here are six.

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From Proverbs 21:19: “Better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and nagging wife.”

By William Faulkner: “A mule will labor ten years willingly and patiently for you, for the privilege of kicking you once.”

Russell Banks: “There is a wonderful intelligence to the unconscious. It’s always smarter than we are.”

Thomas Jefferson: “I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.”

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Albert Einstein: The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.

Attribution uncertain: “If you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas.”



Aphorisms Learned From My Life’s Lessons

The first one is based on what I believe in writing romances about extreme opposites. The others rise from truths I’ve learned from life so far.

“Before opposites attract, opposites distract.”

“Prickly people will stick it to you.”

“Listen, instead of mentally forming your clever response, then you’ll have a clever response.”

“It’s best to ignore a boss who refuses to punctuate his email directives.”

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“Give colleagues what they need, and you’ll have a mob at your door.”

“It’s ludicrous to cover up the awful taste of avocados by smearing butter on them.”

“It’s better to grow up average than beautiful; in an old folks home, developed personality trumps looks.”

Create an aphorism from a character’s grasp of a truth & enliven your dialogue. Click to tweet.

Your turn. Will you create an aphorism from your life’s lessons and share it with us?