When Opposites Attract

Foils and antagonists are two types of characters that serve different functions. An antagonist or villain works in direct opposition to the protagonist or hero. The antagonist presents obstacles to thwart the hero from achieving his or her goal. The foil, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily working against the hero. A foil’s qualities simply differ from the hero’s.

The hero and foil often work together, such as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The key difference between the foil and antagonist is that the antagonist’s actions oppose the hero while the foil’s character traits create conflict. Also, a foil shines the spotlight on another character’s personality traits and/or flaws, without necessarily thwarting their plans. When done right, however, there will be conflict!

The term “foil” came into its current usage as a literary device from the concept of putting tin foil behind a gemstone to make it look more brilliant. The foil character works in the same way—to add credibility to the hero or to spotlight his or her faults.

Opposing personalities add a great deal to a story. Pairing these two characters can transform a ho-hum scene into one with explosive conflict. But we need to—dare I sayplan these character traits in advance. 😉

Conflicting personalities rub against one another, which allows the writer to maximize slower moments within the plot. After all, if everyone in the scene “plays nice,” we risk boring the reader. With a bit of character planningoh, my, there’s that word again—clashing personalities lead to conflict-driven scenes.

If the hero dances on the edge of the law, the foil might be hyper-vigilant about following rules of any kind. If the hero never follows directions, the foil might be a map enthusiast. If the hero’s loud and extroverted, the foil might be shy, quiet, and reclusive.

Positioning the foil and main character in close proximity will draw readers’ attention to the hero’s attributes. A story could have more than one foil. In my Mayhem Series, I created a foil for my hero and another for my villain.

By crafting opposites, these characters’ scenes crackle with tension. Foils show the hero’s and/or villain’s strengths and weaknesses through friction. Remember to include the element that ties the two characters together, a believable bond that’s stronger than their differences.

Since Garry mentioned my video excerpt in the comments on Thursday, I’ll include it as an example of the foil/hero relationship. Don’t worry. There’s no need to watch the entire video (unless you want to). You should recognize the opposing personalities pretty quick.

Have you used a foil in your story? Please explain. Or: What’s your favorite fictional foil/hero relationship?

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About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3) and Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-7 and continuing). Sue's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

22 thoughts on “When Opposites Attract

  1. Fun post, Sue. I learned the origin of the word “foil” in the dramatic sense and got to hear you read! High point of my week for sure!

    Hope you had a great Easter!

    • Thank you, Joe!

      We had a quiet Easter, but nice. All afternoon serial killer documentaries played while I dusted and cooked. We’re a “unique” couple. LOL Hope you had a nice Easter, too!

  2. “…putting tin foil behind a gemstone to make it look more brilliant.”

    Thanks for the origin of that word. I’m always learning something new from you, Sue.

  3. Great post, Sue. I loved the PLANNING that must have gone into writing this post. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I love playing foil with friends and family, stirring up trouble, creating conflict. My use of a foil in my stories: I have seven cousins who are secondary characters, who all have different personalities, who all love to reflect the short comings of the other members (and the protag), creating constant minor conflict, but who all come together in the end, united by the determination to save their enchanted forest from the evil powers that would destroy it.

    Great video. It was an interesting example of foil/hero relationship. And it was good to see and hear you read. Good luck with I AM MAYHEM.

  4. In my romantic suspense series, the heroes and heroines act as foils for each other, often back and forth throughout the book. In my Mapleton mysteries, Solomon and now Angie, since he got married a couple books ago, serve that function. Solomon loves to get under Gordon’s skin, but it all comes together as they work to a common goal–solving the case. (But it’s the non-police stuff I–and they–have the most fun with, I think.)

  5. Great information, Sue! I love knowing the origin of the word “foil.” What a fabulous visual definition. I also enjoyed seeing and hearing you reading your work. Congratulations on “I Am Mayhem.”

    I use the two-character relationship several times in my cozy mystery series. The main characters are two half-sisters who are completely different in looks, talents, and interests, but who complement each other by their differences.

    I also have a pair of detectives in my novel series. One is hard-boiled, cynical, and old-fashioned. The other is quiet, gentle, and tech-savvy. They like to nip at each other occasionally. It’s great fun to write.

  6. Hey Sue, loved learning this! Never come away from TKZ without something to add to my tool belt.

    And I was super-excited to realize that, although I’d never known of foil in literature, I have one in my WIP! Must’ve arisen from one of those boys in the basement…love those guys.

    My MC in No Tomorrows has a best friend who she met in 5th grade. MC is OCD, fearful, builds fences around herself and her family to keep the monsters out (you’ll have to read the book to find out if those monsters slip through the barricades).

    Bestie highlights those characteristics by being adventurous, a push-back, rule-breaker, and never lets an opportunity escape to remind MC to live a little, let go of her fears, and step off the cliff.

    Learning she’s the foil, I can now go back to my MS and drip in some more foiling with intention. 🙂

  7. Fascinating, Sue. I did not know what foil really was, except for that mustache-twisting villain who ties damsels to railroad tracks and goes, “Curses! Foiled again!” So Jekyll and Hyde – foils or ant/pro? BTW, what is this “planning” of which you speak. 🙂

    • Hahaha. No comment. 😉

      The foil would not be the antagonist, Garry. Rather, it’s a character whose personality clashes with the protagonist but doesn’t stand in his/her way of achieving the goal. Example: Shawnee and Nadine in my Mayhem Series. Read the ARC. LOL

  8. Sue, I’ve called foils “reflection characters,” in the sense that they make the character face his or her own flaws, see themselves more deeply (thus, the “mirror moment” in fiction can come because another character forces it). Your etymology got me interested enough to pull out the good ol’ Oxford English Dictionary and I found that “foil” can also refer to the thin quicksilver backing that turns a glass into a mirror. Cool!

    If the hero dances on the edge of the law, the foil might be hyper-vigilant about following rules

    This describes perfectly my series hero, Mike Romeo, and his foil-reflection friend, the rabbi and lawyer Ira Rosen, always trying to keep Romeo from crossing that line.

    Three cheers for planning!

    • Cheers!

      That’s such a cool definition you found, Jim. And so apt. “Reflection character” is the perfect description of a foil. I should’ve remembered that from your book!

  9. In a really complex story, the foil can have a subplot of his/her own which reflects back on their opposite as well as the opposite’s plot. In STAR-CROSSED which clocked in at close to 140,000 words, the hero has escaped being a slave because the heroine is in the process of rescuing him. His best friend didn’t escape, and his story reflects not only what the hero has escaped, but his owner is the novel’s antagonist. I bring the two friends together through the hero’s memories and mental conversations before the story brings them together for the great escape.

    The heroine’s foil is part of maintaining the slave system for the antagonist, but she becomes friends with the hero’s best friend. Every time the heroine and her foil reach a point where they can make the right moral decision, the heroine makes the right decision, no matter what the cost to herself, and her foil makes the cowardly decision until the end of the novel.

    • I was going to mention a separate subplot for a foil, but I didn’t want to cause confusion. Thank you for including it here, Marilynn. Perfect example!

  10. Good blog, Sue. I liked your research into foil. I agree that Watson is Sherlock Holmes’ foil, but to Sherlock Watson was also his Everyman and sometimes his protection — he’d ask Watson to bring his weapon on an adventure.

    • That’s true, Elaine. By showing how Watson protected Holmes, the reader becomes aware of the bond that ties the two characters together, thereby adding credibility to the foil/hero relationship. I’m glad you pointed that out. Thank you!

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