A Foil in Fiction: Emphasizes the Protagonist’s Qualities

by | Writing | 4 comments

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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.

image by johnhain

  • 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.


image by skeeze

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?

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American Christian Fiction Writers

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  1. Tanya Hanson

    Thanks for another interesting g and helpful post, Zoe. As a retired high school English teacher, I enjoy the memories you bring back! Hugs…

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Tanya, I never learned any of these literary devices in school, or maybe I wasn’t listening!

  2. Marcia

    Is Mack a foil for Carlton in Eva Marie Everson’s THE ONE TRUE LOVE OF ALICE-ANN?

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Hi Marcia, I think Mack is a well-done foil for Carlton. As I remember, Mack emphasized Carlton’s ability to commit to people and tasks. In general, Mack’s character made me fall for Carlton all the more.

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