One of my all-time fave literary devices is the foil. Foils are great.
No, not the kind you make hats out of. No, not the kind you fence with. No, not the—you know what, maybe I’ll just tell you the kind I mean. There are too many kinds of foils out there.
(nyuk nyuk nyuk)
In literature, a foil is a character who makes another character (usually the protagonist) stand out. The two are similar, but not identical; and the foil, just by existing, helps to show who the protagonist really is.
In other words, foils = easy characterisation.
Foils naturally show who the protagonist is (and isn’t). You don’t have to sit the reader down and tell them, “Character X is like this and Character Y is like this.” You just put the two characters in the same situation and let them do their thing.
This is why I think foils are so great. Not only do you have to do a lot less describing, but you also lessen your risk of talking down to your reader.
Readers, as well all know, are pretty smart. (Yes, I did just compliment myself. Someone has to.) They don’t need you to give them a blow-by-blow description of what each character is like. In fact, does anyone even like blow-by-blow character descriptions? I know I don’t. Who likes being told, “Check your brain at the door, I’ll just explain everything”? No. Brains are for using.
Just let your characters be themselves, and let their similarities and contrasts work their magic to create a picture of who the two characters really are.
Par exemple, let’s take a look at how my main character (Beth) and her foil (Winnie) handle the same situation:
Beth and Winnie both need to get dressed. Beth chooses a fancy, fashionable mourning gown with a bustle and corset and a skillion tiny buttons up the back. Her clothes are so tight and complicated that she can’t dress herself and needs to rely on a servant. Winnie, meanwhile, just throws on a crappy old dress and a holey cardigan and goes about her day.
I have told you literally zero things about Beth and Winnie’s personalities. (But if you want to know more you can go here.) You still learned something about who they are, though, didn’t you?
You know that Beth values fashion and that Winnie’s all about comfort and convenience. You know that Beth is willing to depend on another person if it means she looks good, and Winnie doesn’t give a what about how she looks—to the point where she’ll wear clothes that aren’t just unfashionable, but dirty and beat-up. You know that Beth will go through a lot of trouble and pain to keep up appearances, and Winnie just doesn’t care what people think she looks like.
By showing how your protagonist and your foil go about doing the same thing, you can say a lot about who they are—without talking about their personalities. And I think that’s pretty neat.
What are your thoughts on foils? Do you like using them? Does your WIP have any? (TELL ME ABOUT YOUR WIPS YOU GUYS) What’s your favourite literary device?