Have you ever watched a police drama where the detective solves a crime in each episode? Most likely, you have. If that detective catches a different thief in one episode after another, you begin to develop a certain respect for the detective’s ability to study clues at the crime scene, to know the value of the stolen item, to determine the motive of the thief, and to anticipate the thief’s intended use for the stolen goods. By the end of each episode, of course, the detective finds the missing item, returns it to its rightful owner, and makes sure that the thief is punished.
What happens, however, to your view of the detective if the bad guy turns out to be not only a thief but also a cold-blooded murderer, a criminal who kills innocent victims who possess the valuable item or simply get in the thief’s way as he attempts the heist? Does that additional crime change your view of the thief and the detective? Of course. You begin to view the criminal in a more negative light, and if the detective puts that more notorious criminal behind bars, you view the detective in a more positive light. These characters essentially serve as foils to one another, making each other look better or worse by comparison.
According to William Harmon and Hugh Holman in A Handbook to Literature, a foil is “literally a ‘leaf’ of bright metal placed under a jewel to increase its brilliance” (232). The authors go on to explain that the term is also applied to a literary figure “who through contrast underscores the distinctive characteristics of another.” As an example, Harmon and Holman cite Laertes as a character who serves as a foil to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet because Laertes is so ready to act when his father is murdered, unlike the pensive Hamlet who appears tentative and reluctant to avenge his own father’s murder.
The presence of Laertes can definitely influence your view of Hamlet. As mentioned above, you may view Hamlet negatively because his inaction makes him look like a coward. Or, like Sharon Hamilton, author of Essential Literary Terms, you may view him positively because his failure to act impulsively demonstrates other qualities, his “honorable conduct and contemplative nature” (131).
If you write fiction, you may want to include a foil in your next story. Keep in mind, however, that the foil is usually not the antagonist. In Hamlet’s story, for instance, his real antagonist is his uncle, Claudius, who first seduced Hamlet’s mother and then murdered Hamlet’s father. As Hamlet plots his revenge against Claudius, Laertes plays a secondary role, one that highlights Hamlet’s strengths and weaknesses.
Similarly, in our hypothetical example mentioned above, the detective may have an antagonist who is jeopardizing all of the detective’s work. For instance, if the detective’s supervisor is corrupt and perhaps being paid off by the thieves, then that supervisor is the antagonist that the detective wants to expose. The thieves, like Laertes, are secondary characters who allow the detective to demonstrate his ability to solve crimes, no matter how dangerous the criminals may be.
So as you consider your next work of fiction, think about moving beyond the basic protagonist-antagonist struggle of your story, and consider whether you should also include a foil. This third character, who while not as well developed as the main hero or villain, can add a layer of depth to your story and also make your protagonist look better — or worse — by comparison.
Hamilton, Sharon. Essential Literary Terms. W.W. Norton, 2007.
Harmon, William, and Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. 11th ed., Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2009.