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Writing Excuses 6.29: Writing Character Foils

Writing Excuses 6.29: Writing Character Foils


Key Points: A foil is a character who highlights the features of another character's personality through contrast with their own character. E.g. Straight man and comedian. Buddies, like the straitlaced older guy and the crazy loose cannon guy. Holmes and Watson: eccentric versus common sense or Superman and Everyman. Plucky sidekick and hero, like Batman and Robin. Wise mentor and young apprentice. Siblings. Villain and protagonist! Why build a foil? When your main character is missing something. Or to externalize an internal conflict. Consider reciprocation -- what does the foil gain from the other character? Make sure your foil has a character arc, a reason to be there, something to contribute to the story besides being just the comic relief.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Six, Episode 29, Writing Character Foils.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.

[Brandon] All right. We're going to talk about character foils. Mary is going to define a foil for us.
[Mary] In fiction, a foil is a character who contrasts with another character, usually the protagonist, in order to highlight various features of that other character's personality, throwing these characteristics into sharper focus. Wikipedia.
[Brandon] Computer: tea, Earl Grey, hot.
[Brandon] That was very good. Thank you, Mary.
[Dan] You should read things for a living.
[Brandon] So what I want to do...
[Mary] You know, maybe I will.
[Brandon] For this podcast, is I want to start you, our listeners, thinking about maybe creating some of your characters in pairs. Because it is one great way to pull out a character by creating a foil for them. So let's talk about some of the great types of foil pairs that you can have in a book. [Pause] Let me start off with the basic one. Okay? You guys all kind of gave me blank looks [inaudible -- for a minute there?]
[Howard] Yeah. You're in a...
[Mary] It's a moment of panic.
[Howard] Throw us a softer pitch, Mister Sanderson.
[Mary] I can think of examples of particular foils, but...
[Dan] We're not that smart. I say it every time.

[Brandon] One of the basic ways is the comedic foil and the straight man. One is the foil for the other. Meaning you have one character who's pretty deadpan, that sets up jokes for the other character to make wisecracks about. These foils work very well, because what they do is, they highlight one another's differences. In one case, you've got the smart aleck who maybe is going to be a little more impulsive, who's not going to think things through...
[Howard] Timeless classics like Krusty the Klown and Sideshow Bob?
[Brandon] Okay. Yup, yup. That's a timeless classic there. But the whole idea here is, you highlight each other's strengths and weaknesses by contrasting these characters. You will find this very often in buddy movies. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon are basically foils for each other.
[Dan] Yeah. The straitlaced older guy and the crazy loose cannon guy...
[Brandon] Yup. One will make a wisecrack...
[Dan] Sparking off of each other.
[Brandon] And one will figure out the deep problems. They work very well together, because one has what the other needs, in a lot of situations.
[Dan] A lot of the time, authors will find themselves doing this by accident. I just... I have a novella in an anthology that just came out that the main character was very inward and very morose, and constantly not talking to anyone because he was shy and felt bad about himself. So when the villain showed up, he turned out to be incredibly talkative and very exuberant, because the story needed that other half. So when you plan ahead, you can do it even better.

[Brandon] Yeah. Another big type of foil is the Sherlock Holmes, Watson. The really eccentric character who does not have a grounding in common sense, mixed with a character who is common sense, streetwise, who can... In one case, Sherlock is often brilliant at figuring things out, but he misses some of the simple things that Watson will point out for him. So Watson is an Everyman grounding the Superman together to create a pair that we sympathize with, with one being like us, and one that we want to be like. Together, they kind of create a whole that is very compelling for us.

[Mary] Then there's also the plucky sidekick and the hero.
[Brandon] Okay. Yes.
[Mary] I mean, the classic example is of course, Batman and Robin. But you also see that in a lot of other places. Anyone can feel free to jump in and help me...
[Brandon] No, no, no, this is great. Because this foil...
[Howard] Again, from classic movies, Last Action Hero.
[Mary] Oh, yeah, yeah. Thank you for that.

[Brandon] Well, this... A deeper level of this, I think, is also the wise mentor and the young apprentice, is basically what that is. The veteran who's been around for a while, and the newcomer who maybe has a lot of energy but has a lot to learn. You put these together and they highlight each other.
[Mary] Well, the differences, I will say, with those, is which one is the hero of the story.
[Brandon] Yup.
[Mary] With the wise mentor and the newcomer, the newcomer is almost always the hero. The wise mentor is the foil there.
[Dan] Yeah. If you make the mentor the hero, then you have that sidekick relationship. It's the same relationship, but...
[Brandon] Yeah, that's actually really an interesting way to look at it. I'd never viewed it that way before.
[Mary] Actually... Yeah... Actually, if you look at the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the giant Star Wars arc, that is actually a place where he changes from being plucky sidekick to being wise mentor.
[Brandon] Yep. It does.
[Mary] But he serves as foil in both cases.

[Brandon] So let's talk about creating this. I can see a couple ways to approach this. One way is you're building your main character and something is missing. How do you go about... Have you ever designed, as Dan did, a foil just for a character that you felt there was a hole in?
[Howard] Yes.
[Brandon] Okay. Howard. Go for it.
[Howard] I love... And this is sort of author's message warning here. I love both science and religion. I love the discovery of personal principles through faith. I love the discovery of scientific principles... World operating principles through experimentation. In the Schlock Mercenary universe, I have Kevyn, the mad scientist, and Rev Theo, the theologian. Some of my favorite strips to write are when the two of them are arguing. Because that is when Kevyn, who doesn't want to believe in a God, doesn't need to believe in a God, will argue with Theo, who absolutely feels like faith is critically important, and how can you center yourself without this? I've had people respond to strips where the two of them have been arguing... The same strip... I've gotten e-mail from people who said, "Oh, thank you so much for not making religion just be a strawman, for actually representing it well." Somebody else will e-mail me and say, "Oh, thank you so much for fairly representing science in this discussion, because I know how religious you are." So I felt from that, that I'd done it right. But when I look at the two of them as an actual foil, one for another, or one to the other... I wasn't thinking about it in those terms. So when you look at the stories now, Kevyn is far more important to the story, or has been in past books, than Theo is. So I don't know that the balance is necessarily there.
[Brandon] Right.
[Howard] But that was definitely how I created them.
[Mary] I... I'm just going to say a sentence that I have not actually said, but I'm going to enjoy very much. In my Hugo award winning short story...
[Mixed] Oh! Wow!
[Dan] Well, then. Name dropping yourself.
[Mary] Hee, hee!
[Brandon] I knew Mary before she was a Hugo award winner.
[Mary] I'm so excited about it, so... But...
[Howard] For those of you not benefiting from the video, she just blushed.
[Dan] The same color as her hair.
[Mary] [inaudible]
[Howard] Mary went all monochromatic. It's awesome.
[Mary] Boy, that was not a good plan to bring this up. But, in For Want of a Nail, I have the main character, and was having difficulty, the plot was not moving. It was dull. So I gave her a brother. The sibling pair is another classic type. But I gave her a brother who had very good reasons for having rivalry with her, and that created a conflict through the thing, and allowed them to act and... Sharing the differences, act as foils for each other. But one of the reasons that I created that was because she was too nice on her own without someone to needle her.

[Brandon] Right. That worked very well, that relationship pair. I've actually got an example of this, I'm going to hold it until after we do our book of the week, because I'm going to let Mary tell us about a wonderful book.
[Mary] Yes. That is Late Eclipses by Seanan McGuire, and I narrated it, for full disclosure.
[Brandon] [chuckles] This is the...
[Dan] Narrated by Hugo award winning Mary Robinette Kowal.
[Mary] So... I very much enjoy the Seanan McGuire books, but one of the things that she has done with these is that she has introduced a foil character... She's actually got a couple for October Daye. These are wonderful mysteries, they really move. One of the things that's interesting is that there is a character who is... Who is October Daye's doppelgänger essentially, her fetch. So on the surface, they appear to be the same character, but they have just enough differences that it makes each of them very distinct. Very interesting, interesting way to play off of each other.
[Brandon] Yeah. That's exactly what we're talking about in this podcast, is using contrast to show how distinctive people... Your characters can be. Excellent. So, name of that book again?
[Mary] Late Eclipses by Seanan McGuire.
[Brandon] Howard, how do they get it?
[Howard] Head on out to You can start a 14 day free trial membership, and download this or any number of other fine titles.

[Brandon] Excellent. Now, my example of this is very similar to Mary's. If any of you have read my book Way of Kings, there was one big thing that... Dan can attest to this, the writing group was just having big problems with, and it was one of the characters. It was actually kind of in my vision, the soul of the series, a character named Dalinar, who was this aged... Older... Middle-aged man who is kind of struggling with his place in the kingdom, struggling between whether he's going to be a spiritual man or a warlord, and some of these things. It was just not working. It wasn't working at all. Part of the reason is that he's... He was... Starting to see these visions and worried that he's going insane. His contrast between feeling that these visions were real and worrying about going insane actually wasn't working, because it made the character too inactive. He kept wishy-washing... Wishy-washying? He kept being wishy-washy.
[Howard] Waffling.
[Brandon] Waffling between, "Oh, I'm going insane" "Oh, I'm seeing these visions, I should have faith in them." It was... It made a character who couldn't do anything and felt very weak. I split out the "I'm going insane" to his son. Made his son have a lot of viewpoint... Viewpoints where he said, "Oh, no, my father is seeing these things, he's going insane. What do I do when my father that I love is going senile?" Then left Dalinar with a "I have to have belief in these things because if I don't believe in what I'm seeing, then... Then I'm going insane and I just don't want to accept that possibility." By having that be a contrast, by... From two characters instead of one character waffling... The end result was a much more active protagonist which worked wonderfully in the book because there could be that contrast between two characters.
[Howard] Also, per the Wikipedia definition, it casts that contrast into sharper focus for us, the reader. We can see much more clearly what a character believes when we see that in the POV of another character who is disagreeing with them.

[Mary] Well, it also makes it an external conflict rather than an internal conflict, which is inherently more interesting.
[Brandon] Right. Internal conflicts are great, but the longer you go on them, the more we get into navelgazing, wallowing in our problems, and the more boring the actual writing becomes.
[Mary] Yeah. So one of the things you can actually do is, when you're looking at creating that foil character, is look at your character's internal conflicts and think about how you can externalize them.

[Brandon] Yeah! Have somebody that keeps pointing this out to them. That's wonderful. Now, a true foil, though, to work really well, I believe there has to be reciprocation. The foil has to be missing something also that the character that they're quote unquote foiling is then offering to them.
[Mary] You complete me.
[Brandon] Yes. Yes.
[Dan] Okay. I've got an example here from my books. John Cleaver and Mr. Crowley...
[Brandon] You write books?
[Dan] I do. Isn't that neat?
[Brandon] Wow! I should read one of those.
[Dan] Yeah. I haven't won any Hugos, so...
[Brandon] Who has?
[Howard] [inaudible]
[Dan] I'm sitting on the wrong couch. But... John Cleaver and Mr. Crowley... Sorry for the spoiler, guys, for the first book. But I had this character of John Cleaver who is very dark and feels very separated from humanity and contrasted him very specifically and for very... I planned this all out. I wanted the villain to be someone who is much less human than John is, but who can connect with humanity much better than he can.
[Brandon] Right. That foil relationship is beautiful. Because you've got the human, who can't connect with humans, and the monster, who can. So who is the monster and who is the person?
[Dan] Yeah. In light of what you were just saying, that each foil has to offer something to the other one, what I did not expect and yet what I can see very clearly looking at the book is that that kind of turned the bad guy almost into a father figure for John. He... You can see that very strongly in books two and three, he keeps looking back at this monster as a driving influence in his life.
[Howard] Surrogate father, sort of.

[Brandon] Well, you know, a lot of people write and they ask us, "How can I make my villains more engaging, more interesting, more sympathetic?" Because a really sympathetic villain is awesome. One of the ways to do this is to actually make them a foil for the main character in that there are things they offer the main character. Things they have that the main character wants. That will make the villain hugely sympathetic to us, because if we love the main character and can see in the villain... Something the villain has that the main character is just struggling to get, we'll actually have that kind of... That electricity between them.
[Dan] Yes. When you say the villain has something to offer the main character, that's not purely in the sense of like a Faustian bargain. Your villain can be doing that. But also has something genuinely valuable that...
[Brandon] Right. If the villain has a family, and the main character has always wanted one. Something like that. Less to offer, more that the villain has something that the character is striving for. It's going to work wonderfully.
[Mary] This is how you keep your foil from being Scrappy Doo... Because you give them a character arc, you give them a reason for being there, you give them something to bring to the table besides, "Hello, I am your comic relief."

[Brandon] Yup. All right. This has been a great podcast. I think since Mary's been bragging a little bit... You're going to have to give us...
[Mary] Doomed!
[Brandon] No, we love you Mary. You haven't been bragging. You were rightly proud of your short story. Will you give us a writing prompt?
[Mary] Yes. What I want you to do is, I want you to come up with a list of five character pairs. Then pick the one that is most interesting to you and write about them.
[Brandon] All right. Thank you all for listening. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: apprentice, character, conflict, contrast, foil, mentor, reciprocation

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