When I was younger, there was a point in my life where I was really, really into dissecting the games I played. And I don’t just mean in story. I took those games apart. I learned to open and edit .ini files to put campaign-only units into skirmish games, or how to break the game in ways that designers never anticipated. I dove into the files. I put games through the wringer.
It probably helped that I only had a few games at the time, and I was determined to get the most out of them.
Anyway, during this process I managed to get my hands on sprite sheets, and from there I started the tedious process of editing those sprites.
It was a disaster. I very quickly learned that there was an art, a technique, to crafting sprites, and I was not one who had skill at that craft. For whatever reason my sprites came out looking like muddy, unclear messes, with the colors all bleeding together into shapeless mush. It wasn’t until a few years later, when I started my high school art classes and actually learned a bit about art, that what I’d seen in the other sprites, the ones made by those who understood what they were doing, became clear to me.
Contrast. It was all about the contrast. Up close, the colors I’d picked had made sense to me, because they were the natural colors. However, the more I pulled away, the muddier everything became, the more the colors blended.
The professional sprites, on the other hand, looked nothing like that when zoomed in. Up close, they were full of bright, vibrant colors, colors far different from what my mind said needed to be used. Colors that weren’t just vivid, but often in direct contrast with the colors around them, or even what the eye saw when the sprite was viewed as a whole.
A lot of you are probably wondering right about now where I’m going with this. So enough with the story; the point is this: My sprites looked muddied and washed-out because I didn’t understand the power of contrast with my designs. I had used colors that were similar to one another, colors that my eyes saw, colors that were, on their own, just fine. The problem was that when I pulled my viewpoint back, they all bled together, and the individual colors were lost in the similarity.
On the professional sprites, however, the colors contrasted. And to my eye (and probably the eyes of many non-artists), up close everything looked garish and out of place; neon green next to dark red. But once the eye pulled back, the view widened, the stark contrast between those two colors suddenly made for a wonderful picture. The colors blended, yes, but did so to form a better whole.
Today, we’re going to talk about foils. Not aluminium foil, that shiny stuff that goes so well on your barbecue for certain meals. No, what I want to talk about today is the importance of the character foil.
You may have heard this term before when discussing a book or a movie. Usually in the context of “Oh, X character was such a good foil for Y character.” Or from the words of an author (more than one) “The two characters are just perfect foils for one another.”
Basically, a foil is the concept that two characters, or a set of characters, like the colors in those professional sprites above, contrast one another in order to make their strengths and personalities more apparent to the reader.
Now, the contrast I’m speaking of does not mean opposition, though—and this is an important distinction—this does not mean that it can’t. But generally, when we speak of character foils, what we mean is that two or more of our characters contrast one another in terms of personality, actions, temperament, or some other distinction.
But here’s the catch: It’s not that the two characters are dissimilar. In fact, they may share the same sum-total values or ideals. But that the two characters, in the process of interacting with one another, will showcase one another’s differences as to better show them to the audience. Like in the story of the sprites above, I was creating sprites that seemed to work from my perspective and putting two similar colors next to one another. But once the view was pulled back—and the fuller story revealed—two colors that worked well because of their similarity became lost in one another.
This is why foils, even small ones, should be a critical part of your character design. What differentiates your characters from one another? How do they act differently in different scenarios, and how will this function when both characters are in the same scene, interacting with one another?
Rise, for example, was created with a number of character foils in mind (in fact, if you pay close attention, the characters themselves, or at least those in leadership positions, are aware of this). Steel and Nova, for examples, are foils to one another. One is silent and stoic, the other a wise-cracker who makes jokes and acts flippant half the time. Alone, each of these character traits is decently identifiable to the audience. When the two characters are placed next to one another though, sharing a scene … well, suddenly the differences between them become stark.
The power of the foil is that this just doesn’t apply to the reader understanding the character’s strengths, weaknesses, and depths better either. It will also contribute to the character’s interactions themselves, facilitating both development and growth. Characters that react with one another—either through small differences or large ones—force one another to develop.
For example, let’s go to another work of mine: the two Unusuals novels. The primary characters of each novel, Jacob Rocke and Hawke Decroux, are designed to be foils to one another. Rocke is a workaholic, driven by a dedication to his job that leaves little room for other frivolities of life. Hawke, on the other hand, is easygoing and relaxed, and in no hurry to go in the immediate pursuit of work if he, for example, is well-enough off for the next few days and doesn’t need the money. Rocke is always moving forward, like a relentless tank in search of answers. Hawke, on the other hand, plays things patiently.
Alone, each of their character traits is one display, though in some cases the reader might not pick up one them immediately. When paired up with one another, however, the differences in their personalities, even small ones, come right to the surface. They toss banter back and forth, disagree or question one another on what their next move should be, and sometimes split up in order to make the most use of their respective abilities.
That’s good story-telling. Using two characters that have the same objective but contrast in methods and attitudes to one another makes both of them far more vivid—neon colors next to one another that when viewed through the lens of the story as a whole, give the total picture a crisp clarity.
But there’s one other really big reason to have characters that are foils to one another: Show versus tell. Show versus tell is one of those topics that comes up again and again and again in writing classes, on writing panels … just about everywhere there’s a group of writers. Even experienced ones. Point is, there’s always talk going about how to properly balance showing and telling (and many books today still struggle with this).
Now, before I mentioned that when you have a character with traits, oft-times these traits can be tricky for the reader to pick up on, even when they’re demonstrated in the story. Which is why you get books with characters that monologue about their own attributes (“I guess I just don’t see work like everyone else”) where the narrator/POV just flat out tells you things (Mark had never liked getting up early). The author wants the reader to know about this particular thing, and so they tell you.
Foils however, allow us to show the reader a character’s attributes more clearly. Two characters interacting, working with one another? Their differences and similarities will often be shown through their interactions, rather than needed to be told by the author.
So, in summary, character foils are when an author creates two or more contrasting characters and then has them interact in order to more fully showcase their respective strengths and weaknesses, showing them to the audience through what the characters say and do around one another. Regardless of how that interaction takes place (antagonist/protagonist, two best friends, two rivals … etc), by interacting the characters show their own strengths, weaknesses, and differences, setting them apart in the reader’s mind.
One last small note. Does this mean that your story needs a foil to succeed? Actually, no. You can show your characters through other means, bring their strengths and weaknesses to the forefront via other methods. You don’t need a foil in order to make your story work.
But if you’re planning on having several characters, a building a few that are foils for one another may be in your interest. Give it a shot. See what happens.
But even if it’s not for your work at the moment, don’t forget about it. Foils are like a detailing tool: you might not always need one, but it’s great to have it in your toolbox for when you need it.