Nausicca, having removed off her breather-mask
The Foil: Use other characters to showcase the strengths of your main characters and to show how they are extraordinary.
The best example of the idea of a “foil”—in fact the place that the term comes from—is Hal from Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part One. In what is probably my single favorite speech from Shakespeare, Hal says:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds To smother up his beauty from the world, That, when he please again to be himself, Being wanted, he may be more wonder'd at, By breaking through the foul and ugly mists Of vapours that did seem to strangle him. If all the year were playing holidays, To sport would be as tedious as to work; But when they seldom come, they wish'd for come, And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents. So, when this loose behavior I throw off And pay the debt I never promised, By how much better than my word I am, By so much shall I falsify men's hopes; And like bright metal on a sullen ground, My reformation, glittering o'er my fault, Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes Than that which hath no foil to set it off. I'll so offend, to make offence a skill; Redeeming time when men think least I will.
For those of you who are not Shakespeare literate, this basically says: I’ll pretend to be bad, so that when I turn out to be good, I’ll be all the more wondered at. Everyone will be much more amazed and impressed than if I had been good all along.
Bad Hal of the Past is what makes Good Hal of the Future look so impressive. He is performing The Trick—the technique of making something more surprising by raising expectations of the opposite. In this case, he first inspires dread in his future subjects and then proves to be a very good king, which they notice and appreciate more than if he had been a good lad the whole time.
Or at least that is his hope.
In this case, Hal was his own foil over time. Normally, however, a foil is one character bringing to the fore the strengths or weaknesses of another character. This technique can be done two ways.
The first way is to have the “foil” characters act one way so that the character being showcased stands out. If everyone is dumb, then the one smart guy stands out. If everyone is corrupt, the one man with virtue stands out. It can be done subtly, too. If everyone is intelligent but not a genius, the genius character who has all the wonderful breakthroughs can still stand out.
The degree of emphasis depends upon the result the author wishes to achieve. A smart character often looks smarter against the background of fairly intelligent sidekicks and an intelligent villain than against a group of goofy yokels.
The second way is to have the “foil” characters comment on the main character directly. The observations of the secondary characters can tell us a great deal about the main character.
A good example of this is the movie Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind (which is one of my top three favorite movies.) Nausicaa takes place in an alternate world with gigantic insects and poisonous jungles. Princess Nausicaa is a brave and spunky young woman who wants the neighboring kingdoms to live in peace. She is devoted to peace but is not afraid to fight whenever it is needed.
Naussicaa’s spirit and courage is emphasized by the reactions of the down-to-earth working men of her kingdom (which is a small valley kept fresh and away from the poison of the jungle by a constant wind.) For example, in one scene, Princess Nausicaa is in an air vehicle trying to help folks in a second damaged plane. The two planes are over the Toxic Jungle. The men driving the second plane cannot hear her. In order to save them, Nausicaa takes off the breather mask and shouts out instructions. Her people exclaim in awe, amazed that she would take off her mask.
The reaction of these secondary characters communicates to the viewer very quickly both that the air in this place is poisonous and that Nausicaa is extraordinarily brave to be willing to endure it in order to help them. These men are used throughout the film, helping the viewer see what a courageous and wonderful person Nausicaa is.
The technique is used almost in reverse in the story/movie Cold Comfort Farm (another of my top three favorite movies). In this story, an ordinary young woman, Flora Post, goes to stay with relatives on their cursed farm. Someone else, arriving at this gloomy place, might be daunted, but Miss Post merely asks cheerily, “Why doesn't Cousin Amos just sell this and buy a farm that doesn't have a curse on it?”
Because Flora is so normal, the eccentric qualities of her relatives on the farm are doubly emphasized. Her calm modern outlook acts as the foil, making the many quirky and bizarre characters vastly more entertaining.
The technique can be used through work. It can also be used in short doses. Any character can offer an opinion about any other character, in order to bring out qualities that might otherwise not be emphasized. As human beings, we are often interested in seeing one person through another person’s eyes. The Foil provides a way to clarify differences between characters, as well as an easy way to emphasize qualities about a character that the reader might not have noticed.
This is particularly true the juicy tidbit being shared introduces qualities about the character being discussed that might be new to the reader. Having someone have a different opinion of a given character than the reader has been shown so far can be quite refreshing.
Is Guido big and strong? An older relative who remembers him as a baby and still thinks of him as young and vulnerable reveals a whole new aspect. Is Sarah mean to all? A character who knows her backstory can explain about how she was such a cheerful child, before she lost her family in that flood.
Or, going the other way, is Tara kind to everyone? Maybe another character doubts her good intentions, accusing her of sinister motives. (This would reveal new aspects of both characters involved, even if the claims were not true.)
People love gossip (whether or not they should.) Getting Joe the Fry Cook’s opinion of Jessica, who comes to his diner every day, is like hearing the latest gossip. It is a chance to let the readers feel as if they are being let in on secrets not everyone knows—what Joe thinks of Jessica, what Jessica thinks of Thom down in accounting, etc..
To sum up, characters react to each other the way real people do. Taking advantage of these reactions can bring additional depth and clarity to any story. They can be used to emphasize unusual characteristics, to make a character stand out from the crowd, or to showcase aspects of the character that the reader has not yet seen.
If you take advantage of The Foil and showcase your characters in this fashion—using the reactions of other character to help them stand out “like bright metal on a sullen ground,”—your final story, like Prince Hall, will be all the “more wonder'd at.”