What Are Foil Characters? With 8 Popular Examples

Are you struggling to develop a memorable protagonist for your next book? Then you need the answer to what are foil characters? Find out here!

When I hit roadblocks and writer’s block while writing a story, I often want to throw in the towel. Then, I often turn to literary devices to reignite my passion for creating my next masterpiece. To this end, understanding concepts like “what are foil characters” can come in handy.

Foil characters help me fix common character development problems like shallow, unbelievable, or unlikeable characters in a short story, novel, screenplay, other work. I consider them a key storytelling skill.

Read on to learn about this clever writing tool and how it will help you create the memorable characters people will love or love to hate. 

What Are Foil Characters?

What are foil characters?

Foil characters represent a polar opposite or comparison to another character, usually the main character. You better define the more important character by describing the foil’s differing physical traits, words, actions, back story, situation, and other defining characteristics.

By contrasting the foil to your main character, you make their subtle traits seem more pronounced to present richer, more relatable characters to your readers.

A foil character can be the antagonist, but it could also be the protagonist’s best friend, sidekick, co-conspirator, co-worker, romantic rival, or sibling. Every time you show the contrasting personality, you make your protagonist seem more this or less that. Foil characters are often the most popular characters in a story. Think Darth Vader or Gollum!

If you want a protagonist to look “good” and “noble”, then your foil character might do and say things that are “wicked” and “repulsive”, but I’d do you a disservice if I left you with this narrow understanding of the foil’s role.

What if you want a character to seem “innocent” and “naive”?  Give them a sidekick who is “streetsmart” and “impulsive”. These characters often become part of your subplot as a character development strategy and enhance your main plot’s telling. You might also find these examples of situational irony helpful.

How Does a Foil Character Improve Your Work?

These characters help you as a writer:

  • Reflect on who the protagonist is and what they stand for
  • Understand why the protagonist does what they do
  • Separate right from wrong in a story where the two aren’t cut and dry

For example, if the protagonist kills someone to save someone from a terrible fate at the hands of the foil, that killing seems justified. If you do not make a case for your protagonist using this literary device, then they seem like the “bad guy” because they killed someone. You could also choose to have your foil do the “dirty work” for your protagonist to keep their hands clean.

Do you see just how important the foil can be?

Examples of Foil Characters

To further explore this, here are some stories you likely remember from high school or later on a cozy evening curled up with an eReader or book.

1. Harry Potter Series 

Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters are the foils of Professor Dumbledore. The former are shown as cruel and devious, while the latter is kind, loyal, and good.

2. William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet 

Romeo and Mercutio are best friends. Shakespeare uses Mercutio’s logical and sensible traits to show how love-struck and impractical Romeo is.

3. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men 

Lennie and George are best friends who stick together despite being different and “fighting” frequently because they don’t always see eye to eye. One is paternal, while the other is child-like. One is big, and the other is small. 

4. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes Series

What Are Foil Characters? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series
Sherlock Holmes series

Dr. Watson’s lack of deductive reasoning skills makes Sherlock seem more brilliant.

5. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights 

Heathcliff and Edgar are shown as complete opposites in appearance, temperament, and how they express their love for Catherine.

6. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 

Victor Frankenstein, Robert Walton, and the monster are interesting examples because Shelley created a trio of foils. Robert, Victor, and the monster are the same in that they all desire to explore and seek answers. But Robert is like the monster in that he doesn’t have friends.

Victor is like the monster in that his wish to explore turns self-destructive. As a trio, their actions help explain the motivations of the others.

7. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby  

This book has several foils for other characters. Among them are the protagonist and narrator Nick Carraway, who is also the foil of Jay Gatsby. Nick’s realistic personality makes Gatsby seem more passionate and wishful-thinking.

8. William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

In this work, Brutus is the foil of Cassius and Antony. Brutus has a moral code and is driven by loyalty to the country, while Cassius and Antony are shown as treacherous.  Antony further acts as a foil to Brutus in that he is more driven by passion while obligations drive Brutus.

Final Words on Foil Characters

If you want to write an amazing short story, novel, or screenplay, it’s key to create heroes and villains readers remember.
For your next character development exercise, write down all of your protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses. Now, brainstorm ways to turn flip these on their head and create a memorable foil character that contrasts with your hero!


A Storytelling Guide: Step-By-Step, With Examples

First vs Third Person Point of View: What Makes Sense for Your Story?

How to Write a Story Outline that Works: 9 Steps

The Hero’s Journey: Explained In 12 Steps

The Inciting Incident: 7 Tips For Starting Your Story With A Bang

Synopsis Example: How To Write A Winning Summary Of Your Story

Allegory vs Parable: What Are the Differences?

7 Types of Conflict in Literature Worth Exploring

12 Character Archetypes To Drive Your Writing

FAQs About What Are Foil Characters

How can I use literary foil characters most effectively?

In most cases, you’ll have the foil interact directly with the protagonist to demonstrate each character’s personality differences.

Are the foil and the protagonist ever one and the same?

In many cases, a foil is so integral to the main plot that you might consider them the protagonist. Two characters can also be each other’s foils, so it’s okay to blur this line in your writing.  A memorable example of this would be Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs.

Dr. Lector is the depraved foil to Agent Clarice Starling’s by-the-book and somewhat naive personality, but you also would not have a book or movie without him. Some would consider him the protagonist.

How do I create a foil character?

First, decide the primary traits you want your protagonist to have. Which ones do you need to emphasize to create a deep character? Now, write down a list of opposites, and build a foil that embodies those traits. Finally, write scenes between the two characters to bounce their opposing characteristics off each other.