What Is a Foil Character in Literature?

And Why Do Authors Use Them?

Earnshaw Room, Ponden Hall
Ponden Hall was the model for cozy Thrushcross Grange, a foil for the less refined Wuthering Heights. Vesna Armstrong / Getty Images

Have you ever been reading a novel and found yourself wondering, “What’s eating this guy?” or, “Why doesn’t she just dump him?” More often than not, a “foil” character is the answer.  

A foil character is any character in literature that, through his or her actions and words, highlights and directly contrasts the personal traits, qualities, values, and motivations of another character. The term comes from the old jewelers’ practice of displaying gemstones on sheets of foil to make them shine more brightly. Similarly, in literature, a foil character “illuminates” another character.

Uses of Foil Characters

Authors use foils to help their readers recognize and understand the important qualities, characteristics, and motivations of the various characters. In other words, foil characters help to explain why other characters do what they do.

Foils are sometimes used to explain the relationships between a plot’s “antagonist” and “protagonist” characters. A “protagonist” is the story’s main character, while an “antagonist” is the protagonist’s enemy or opponent. The antagonist “antagonizes” the protagonist. 

For example, in the classic Lost Generation novel “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald uses narrator Nick Carraway as a foil to both protagonist Jay Gatsby, and Jay’s antagonist, Tom Buchanan. In describing Jay and Tom’s contentious shared love for Tom’s trophy wife Daisy, Nick depicts Tom as an Ivy League-educated athlete who feels entitled by his inherited wealth. Nick is more at ease around Jay, who he describes as a man who “had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it... .”

Sometimes, authors will use two characters as foils to each other. These characters are called “foil pairs.” For example, in William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” Brutus plays foil to Cassius, while Antony’s foil is Brutus. 

Foil pairs are sometimes the story’s protagonist and antagonist, but not always. Again from the quill of Shakespeare, in “The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet,” while Romeo and Mercutio are best friends, Shakespeare writes Mercutio as Romeo’s foil. By poking fun at lovers in general, Mercutio helps the reader understand the depth of Romeo’s often illogically desperate love for Juliet.

Why Foils Are Important

Authors use foils to help readers recognize and understand the traits, attributes, and motivations of the other characters. Thus, readers who ask, “What makes him or her tick?” should be on the lookout for foil characters to get the answers.

Non-Human Foils

Foils are not always people. They may be animals, a structure, or a subplot, a “story within a story,” that serves as a foil to the main plot. 

In her classic novel “Wuthering Heights,” Emily Bronte uses the two neighboring houses: Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange as foils to each other to explain the events of the story.

In chapter 12, the narrator describes Wuthering Heights as a house where:

“There was no moon, and everything beneath lay in misty darkness: not a light gleamed from any house, far or near all had been extinguished long ago: and those at Wuthering Heights were never visible... .”

The description of Thrushcross Grange, in contrast to the Wuthering Heights, creates a calm and peaceful atmosphere.

“Gimmerton chapel bells were still ringing; and the full, mellow flow of the beck in the valley came soothingly on the ear. It was a sweet substitute for the yet absent murmur of the summer foliage, which drowned that music about the Grange when the trees were in leaf.”

The foils in these settings also help in the development of the foils in the characters. The people from Wuthering Heights are unsophisticated and are foils to those from Thrushcross Grange, who display a refined disposition.

Classic Examples of Foil Characters

In “Paradise Lost,” author John Milton creates perhaps the ultimate protagonist-antagonist foil pair: God and Satan. As the foil to God, Satan exposes both his own negative traits and God’s good traits. Through the comparisons exposed by the foil relationship, the reader comes to understand why Satan’s stubborn resistance to the “will of God” justifies his eventual expulsion from paradise.

In the Harry Potter series, author J.K. Rowling uses Draco Malfoy as a foil to Harry Potter. Though both protagonist Harry and his antagonist Draco have been empowered by Professor Snape to “experience the essential adventures of self-determination,” their inherent qualities cause them to make different choices: Harry chooses to oppose Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters, whereas Draco eventually joins them.

In summary, foil characters help readers to:

  • Understand the traits and motivations—“axes to grind”—of other characters
  • Tell good intentions from evil, strength from weakness, or true ability from empty braggadocio
  • Understand who protagonists and their antagonists are, and why they are enemies

Perhaps most importantly, foils help readers decide how they “feel” about the characters.

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Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "What Is a Foil Character in Literature?" ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, thoughtco.com/foil-characters-4160274. Longley, Robert. (2021, December 6). What Is a Foil Character in Literature? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/foil-characters-4160274 Longley, Robert. "What Is a Foil Character in Literature?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/foil-characters-4160274 (accessed June 9, 2023).