Let’s talk about FOILS.
Not the crinkly metal stuff that you use to wrap food, but the literary foils that you find in your favorite stories.
So what are they?
Foils are characters existing in the same story, often (but not necessarily) within the same social sphere, that reveal or accentuate qualities in each other that might not be noticeable otherwise.
There are two ways to observe this in literature.
- By using the phrase “These two characters are foils of each other” to describe the relationship between two characters that are like two sides of the same coin. Examples: Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy; Prince Hal and Hotspur; Peta and Gail; etc. Typically with these relationships, the reader will make comparisons between the two characters in order to highlight their differences.
- By identifying an individual character as “a foil.” This is the more traditional use of the term, and it describes the function of a particular character within the story. This is the one I’ll be discussing because it has some interesting implications for our real-life relationships.
A character that exists solely as a foil means that their entire function within the story is to bring out specific (typically positive) qualities in the protagonist.
Example: “The slutty best friend.”
How many romantic comedies have you seen where the main girl’s best friend is unrepentantly sexually promiscuous? Answer: ALL OF THEM. Why? Because this makes the primary female object look like a saint in comparison. Even if she does sleep around a little bit, it’s only because “she want to find the ONE *siiigh*.”
Her best friend is a foil who exists to bring out the positive, romantic, good-girl qualities in herself.
(Yes, romantic comedies are really that shallow. But honestly, are you surprised?)
Interestingly, the term “foil” comes from those olden days when they used candles. The idea was that, if you put a sheet of metal foil behind the candle, it would reflect off of the foil and better illuminate the room.
If you think about things that way, it seems like foils are just measly, insignificant scenery that just sit around making the protagonist look more awesome. And, in bad fiction, this is more or less true.
But that’s not how the really good authors write them.
The one’s that are worth their salt know how to write a foil that is also a compelling and well-rounded character.
Example: Ron Weasley.
Let’s face it, Ron will never be as great of a wizard as Harry Potter – or as good at quidditch, or as famous, or as brave around spiders…
By nature of his lack of confidence (and competence) he serves to emphasize the heroism of Harry.
BUT Ron is still a fantastic character that has his own complex web of struggles, victories, and defeats, and he does have some really excellent qualities.
One of the key differences between the slutty best friend and Ron is that Ron recognizes his role as a foil in Harry’s life and struggles to stay loyal to him despite perpetually standing in his shadow. And his decision to continue to support Harry (most of the time), is part of what makes him so cool.
So a well-written foil tends to look more like a character who is associated with the protagonist and who emphasizes their positive qualities to the reader and to the world while also allowing their own struggles to fall into a lower priority than the needs of the protagonist.
You know what that sounds like?
Yup, your friends are all your foils, and, in your friends’ stories, you are theirs.
So what can we learn from this?
Well, you can ask yourself two questions:
- How are you treating your foils?Do you treat them like scenery? Do you brush them aside when your own needs as the hero are piling up? Do you bask in your own limelight without giving them the credit they deserve? Do you always put your own career ambitions before those of your friends’? Do you make sure they know they are appreciated?Our friends are the reason we survive our own stories at all. We would be useless heroes without them. It’s our job to remember to give them the credit they deserve.
- What kind of foil are you?Are you being the supportive foil that your friends deserve? Do you highlight their good qualities when making professional connections? Do you have their back when they have a crisis? Do you remember to bring them up whenever you can if someone of their expertise is needed? Are you willing to set aside your own story to help them write theirs?Just like we hope that our foils will support us, we need to be supportive foils ourselves. Not everything is about you. Sometimes we have to be willing to step out of the light and let our friends bask in the glory of their victories. If you’ve done your job properly, you’ll make your friends look good without anyone ever noticing you were there.
(Also, word to the wise, it’s best to have foils that will bring out your good qualities, not your bad ones. Remember, you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.)
So take a look at the relationships in your life, and find your foils.
It might make you realize how much you appreciate having well-written, complex, and interesting foils for friends rather than the flat ones they put in rom-coms.