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Character Development
October 19, 2021

A Foil Character: What Is It?

You have your hero fleshed out. You have a villain so evil they keep you awake at night. Your script is all plotted out. But something in your screenplay still feels missing. What's wrong? You are probably missing a foil character! But, what is a foil character?

As in real life, our main characters interact with more than just their mortal enemies. They often have a whole host of secondary characters that support and frustrate them in other areas of their lives.

A foil character is one of the best ways of fleshing out your script and showcase your hero to your audience.

What Is A Foil Character?

A foil in literary terminology means a character who contrasts with another - often the hero. The term derives from the practice of placing a gemstone on a piece of foil.

The piece of foil would bring out a more extraordinary shine in the gemstone, just as a foil character will for your very own gem - your hero.

The purpose of a foil character is to offer viewers the chance to see a hero's actions and character traits contrasted by a character who embodies opposing qualities.

If we see the hero make confident choices due to their behavior and their foil takes a different path, we will often see the hero succeed, and the foil fail. This helps us understand why the hero's moral values and actions are correct.

Equally, the foil may embody characteristics that the hero needs to learn to succeed. If a hero is cocky, but this flaw provides a setback on their journey, they may well be convinced to change their behavior if they see the foil succeeding on their own by approaching their interactions more humbly.

Foil character can take several forms. Some foil character examples include a sidekick or a rival acting as a minor villain in longer and more complex narratives.

A Foil Character Is Not The Enemy

A foil should never be the main antagonist of your script. There will be opposing traits between your hero and your villain. The job of your foil should be to shine a light on your hero, not to be the central problem.

A hero and a foil should generally interact on an everyday basis to learn from the foil and visa-versa. Your villain should not be in a continuous clash with your hero: they should be following their path with their foils to support them.

However, a foil can be a great minor villain or - in the case of a police serial - a prime suspect or a rival detective with a different mode of operation.

More often, however, the foil makes for a great sidekick.

The Sidekick Foil: Woody and Buzz Lightyear - Toy Story

One of the best examples of a sidekick foil is Woody and BuzzLight Lightyear in Toy Story. While Woody is down-to-earth and emotional, BuzzLight is a problem solver and stoic, rarely exhibiting emotion.

Woody and Buzz - foil characters - initially clash but soon become close as they realize they have a lot to learn from each other.
All rights reserved to Disney.

Woody is initially jealous of Buzz, fearing he may become Andy's favorite toy.

"You stay away from Andy; he's mine," Woody says, pointing his finger at Buzz. "No one is taking him away from me."

Buzz seems unaware of what Woody is talking about and continues fixing his ship, fixated on his mission. He then starts making fun of Woody.

This scene shows that Woody is a hothead who needs to learn how to control his emotions. Equally, Buzz is unemotional and too fixated on his mission. When Woody reveals that Buzz is just a toy and not a real space ranger, he seeks Woody's emotional guidance in helping him realize that his mission is being a good toy for Andy.

Buzz is an excellent foil to Woody, who is the central protagonist of the series.

The growth and development of the hero are central to any great plot, and a foil character is an excellent way of showcasing this.

Does your hero have a sidekick? And what attributes do they bring to the table that your hero lacks? Equally, consider what your sidekick can learn from your hero.

If you're struggling, consider relationships you've had in real life. Have you ever clashed with someone with a different personality who you later befriended? What was the reason for your initial clash, and how did you resolve it?

DC Patrica Carichmichael and Supt Hasting - Line Of Duty - Character Foils In Police Serials

The hero and your foil don't always have to be friends. The foil can sometimes be presented as a minor antagonist. The best examples are in police dramas where we see rivalries between different detectives with different operating modes.

The central antagonists of BBC's Line Of Duty are high-level British police officers in cahoots with a brutal organized crime group or OCG.We are stationed with the anti-corruption officers - AC-12 - and their increasingly complex investigations as the extent of the corruption becomes clear. AC-12 is often on the verge of being thwarted and frustrated by the senior management team of the Central Police. They regularly accuse them of being overzealous and obsessive about police corruption with little evidence.

One of the three central protagonists - AC-12 chief, Superintendent Ted Hastings, is presented as whiter-than-white. Deeply religious, he's someone who knows what's right and wrong and will stop at nothing to root out corruption.

He says, "My actions and those of my officers are determined by one thing and one thing only, the letter of the law." This is often his downfall.

He was so ashamed of looking at pornography on his laptop in Series 5 that he took it to an electronics disposal shop. This made a minor discretion look incriminating even to his colleagues DI Kate Fleming and DS Steve Arnott as the elusive chief corrupt officer and head of the OCG - H - was known to have used a laptop to order their instructions.

He's also old school and not politically correct: he says to DCI Roz Huntley - the main antagonist of series 4 - "I'm the senior ranking officer here, darling" and is then accused of using gendered language by her during her interrogation.  

In series 5 and 6, Hastings is contrasted by Detective Chief Superintendent Patricia Carmichael of the rival anti-corruption unit AC-3. She is his foil. While Hastings has been left behind for promotion because he isn't politically correct and doesn't follow a political agenda, she has risen to the top by currying favor with the senior management.

While Hastings is direct and blunt and likes to manage investigations, Carmichael is passive-aggressive and prefers desk duties.

All rights reserved to BBC/World Productions Ltd.

Hastings cultivates deep personal relationships with his investigating officers, regularly calling them "the best team for the job," taking them for dinners, offering them promotions, and backing them on risky decisions. Carmichael is seen to speak to her subordinates with derision.

When it is revealed that Detective Inspector Brandis made a minor procedural error - using Section 32 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 instead of Section 18(5) - Carmichael suggests Brandis nearly cost her the case she is investigating. She expects her to put in a request to transfer out of the unit in the morning.

In Season 6, we are led to believe that Carmichael might even be the illusive corrupt officer H because of how willing she is to overlook crucial evidence and water down investigations for political gain. This is an example of how a foil character can misdirect us and draw viewers away from the real villain.

Other examples of foil character as minor antagonists include Draco Malfoy to Harry Potter in the Harry Potter series.

Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy can be an excellent example of a foil character as a minor antagonist.
All Rights Reserved, Warner Brothers

Writing Your Foil Characters

The purpose of a foil character is to contrast and draw out the best features of your main character. Their mode of operating and their thoughts are at odds with your hero. But to grow, your hero has to learn from them.

Over time your hero should mellow and pick up some of your foil character's traits to enable them to overcome their challenges. Alternatively, your foil might be slightly villainous and may need to reign in their dark side to embark on the hero's journey arc.  



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A Foil Character: What Is It?
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen using Arc Studio. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, Readers' Digest and Newsweek, amongst many other publications. He has just finished his second novel for young adults, set in a boarding school. He holds a BA in English from Loughborough University.

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