What Is a Foil?
A foil is a character who demonstrates qualities that are in opposition to those of another character. The purpose of a foil is to highlight or accentuate the main character’s traits either by providing elements of contrast. Thus, it may not be surprising to learn that the term comes from the practice of backing gems with a piece of foil in order to make them appear even more brilliant.
How Do You Identify a Foil in Writing?
Foils are minor characters who lack the complexity and depth of the main character and may represent single traits in concentrated form. For instance, in the original Nancy Drew mystery series, Nancy has two friends, Bess and George, who both acts as foils of each other and for Nancy herself. Bess is plump and feminine, afraid of any dangerous situation. George is brave but somewhat of a tomboy. Nancy’s character combines both bravery and femininity; she absorbs the qualities of each foil character.
Sometimes foils exist to present a duality. A common archetypal duality is the dark heroine and the fair heroine. This duality existed in many popular novels and classic films of the early twentieth century. The "dark" heroine is more sexual and outspoken than the quiet and humble "fair" heroine. Although these qualities exist together in a complex woman, they are separated in these narratives to show the negative consequences for a woman if she acted too much like a man. The dark heroine rarely got the leading man, and sometimes bad things happened to her.
Examples of Foils
1. In Poe’s "The Fall of the House of Usher," Madeleine and Roderick Usher, the last two living family members, are foils who represent a duality: Madeleine is the body, and Roderick is the mind.
2. Henrietta Stackpole and Ralph Touchett are foils for Isabel Archer, the main character in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. Outspoken and energetic, Henrietta represents Isabel’s suppressed will; indolent and detached, Ralph represents an extreme form of Isabel’s conscious will.
3. God and Satan are foils in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
4. In Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein and the monster he creates are foils. Many critics argue that the monster represents a dark, passionate intensity that Victor himself cannot openly express.
5. In Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Jane Eyre, the insane wife of Mr. Rochester, who is imprisoned in the attic, is a foil for Jane. The contrast between loyal and conscientious Jane and the reckless Bertha is made grotesquely clear when Bertha tries on Jane’s wedding veil. This nightmare vision foretells the disaster of that drives the lovers apart until the end of the novel.