Wright’s Writing Corner: The Foil

Next in our series of examining my Writing Tips in more detail is The Foil. 

The Foil:    Use other characters to showcase the strengths of your main characters and to make them seem extraordinary.   
The best example of the idea of a “foil”, in fact the place that the term comes from, is Hal from Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part One. In what is probably my single favorite speech from Shakespeare, Hal says:
               Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
               Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
               To smother up his beauty from the world,
               That, when he please again to be himself,
               Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
               By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
               Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
               If all the year were playing holidays,
               To sport would be as tedious as to work;
               But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come,
               And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
               So, when this loose behavior I throw off
               And pay the debt I never promised,
               By how much better than my word I am,
               By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
               And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
               My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
               Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
               Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
               I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
               Redeeming time when men think least I will.
For those of you who are not Shakespeare literate, this basically says: I’ll pretend to be bad, so that when I turn out to be good, I’ll be all the more wondered at. Everyone will be much more amazed and impressed than if I had been good all along.
Hal uses himself over time to act as his foil. Bad Hal of the Past is what makes Good Hal of the Future look so impressive. He is performing The Trick—the technique of making something more surprising by raising expectations of the opposite. In this case, he first inspires dread in his future subjects and then proves to be a very good king, which they notice and appreciate more than if he had been a good lad the whole time. (Or at least that is his hope. )
Normally, a foil is one character acting as a foil for another character, rather than the same character acting for himself. This technique can be done two ways.
The first way is to have the “foil” characters act one way so that the character being showcased stands out. If everyone is dumb, then the one smart guy stands out. If everyone is corrupt, the one man with virtue stands out. It can be done subtly, too. If everyone is intelligent but not a genius, the genius character who has all the wonderful breakthroughs can still stand out.
The degree to which one emphasizes the difference depends upon the result you wish to achieve. A smart character often looks smarter against the background of fairly intelligent sidekicks and an intelligent villain than against a group of goofy yokels.
The second way is to have the “foil” characters comment on the main character directly. The comments of the secondary characters can tell us a great deal about the main character.
A good example of this is the movie Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind  (which is one of my top three favorite movies.) Nausicaa takes place in an alternate world with giant insects and poisonous jungles. In one scene, Princess Nausicaa is in an air vehicle trying to help folks in a second damaged vehicle. Nausicaa takes off her breather mask in order to yell instructions to the troubled folk. Her people exclaim in horror, amazed that she would take off her mask.
The comments of the secondary characters very quickly communicate to the viewer both that the air in this place is poisonous and that Nausicaa is extraordinarily brave. These secondary characters are used well throughout the film, helping the viewer see what a kind and wonderful person Nausicaa is.
The technique is used almost in reverse in the story/movie Cold Comfort Farm (another of my top three favorite movies). In this story, a perfectly ordinary young woman, Flora Post, goes to stay with relatives on their cursed farm. Because Flora is so normal, the eccentric qualities of the characters on the farm are doubly emphasized. Someone else, arriving at this gloomy place, might be daunted. But Miss Post merely asks cheerily, “Why doesn’t Cousin Amos just sell this and buy a farm that doesn’t have a curse on it in Berkshire or Devon?” Her calm modern outlook acts as the foil, making the many quirky characters vastly more entertaining.
The previous examples have discussed characters whose main purpose in the story was to act as a foil, but the technique can also be used in short doses. Take any character in your story and have a brief scene where another character gives an opinion about him. It is always interesting to see someone through another person’s eyes. It is an easy way to emphasize qualities about the first character the reader might not have thought of or expected.
Is your character big and strong? An older relative who remembers him as a baby and still thinks of him as young and vulnerable gives a whole new aspect to the character. Is one character mean, have characters who know a bit more about his background explain why they are not bothered by the character’s bad attitude. Or go the other way, and have one character suspect another’s good intentions of having a sinister motive. (Even if it is not true, it could reveal new aspects of both characters involved.)
This last technique has another advantage, too. People love gossip (whether or not they feel they should indulge.) Getting Joe the Fry Cook’s opinion of Jessica, who comes to his diner every day, is like hearing the latest gossip. It is a wonderful chance to let the readers feel as if they are being let in on secrets not everyone knows. Just having someone have a different opinion of the character than the reader has been shown to date can be quite refreshing.
To sum up, characters reactions to each other are a great way to bring additional depth and clarity to your story. They can be used to emphasize unusual characteristics or to show sides of the person that the reader has not seen before. Like Prince Hal, if you go out of the way to showcase your characters in this fashion, “like bright metal on a sullen ground“ your final story will be all the “more wonder’d at.”