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Character Foil: Definition & Examples

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Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

In this lesson, you will learn the importance of a character foil in literature. A character foil definition is provided and examples are used to help you see the significance of a foil character in specific stories. Updated: 07/20/2020

Character Foil Definition

Take a moment to imagine your favorite literary character. What is it about this character that stands out to you? Is it the character's choices? Dialogue? Actions? Do you relate to the character on a personal level? If you're like most people, your favorite literary character is the protagonist, or central character, of the story. The protagonist is often the character readers identify with and care most about.

In addition to a protagonist, most stories have a character foil. A foil is a character whose values differ from those of the protagonist. Usually a foil experiences the same events as the protagonist, but since his values differ, so do his choices and behavior. A foil's main purpose is to show contrast to the protagonist. In this way, a foil can show how things could have been different for the protagonist if he had chosen a different path.

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Examples of Character Foils

There are many great examples of foil characters across classic text and into modern literature. Here are some popular examples.

Hamlet

In William Shakespeare's play Hamlet, Hamlet discovers his father has been murdered. The murderer is Hamlet's uncle, who then takes over the throne. If Hamlet were brave and bold, he would take action to bring his uncle to justice. Instead, Hamlet is reluctant to actually do anything. He makes everyone believe he is going mad and puts on a fake play about a man killing his brother and taking the throne. None of his weak actions directly accuse his uncle at all.

Laertes serves as a character foil for Hamlet.
Laertes serves as a character foil for Hamlet

Laertes serves as a foil to Hamlet. Laertes is the son of Polonius, who is Lord Chamberlain of the royal court. Laertes has many similarities with Hamlet. They are roughly the same age, both return home from schooling abroad, and both have strong-minded fathers. In addition, when Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius, both have fathers who have been murdered. This is where the difference between Hamlet and Laertes can be seen. Upon hearing of his father's death, Laertes rushes home from France, ready to take action against the murderer. Laertes' decisiveness, courage, and nobility in the face of the same situation as Hamlet show him as a strong foil.

Besides Laertes, Hamlet actually has another foil: Fortinbras. Fortinbras is not seen for most of the play, but there are many similarities between the two. Hamlet is Prince of Denmark; Fortinbras is Prince of Norway. Fortnibras' father was killed by Hamlet's father; Hamlet's father was killed by his uncle. However, Fortinbras is different in that he is a valiant, determined man. Fortinbras brings his army to attack Denmark in order to avenge his father. As you have already learned, Hamlet did nothing near as courageous to avenge his father. Fortinbras and Laertes are both foils to Hamlet, showing the difference between a brave man and an insecure one.

Harry Potter

J.K. Rowling also uses the character foil in the famous Harry Potter series. Harry is only one year old when his parents are killed by the evil Lord Voldemort. In the following 17 years, he is wrapped up in an epic battle to defeat Voldemort, showing his brave and courageous determination to fight for what is right even in the face of death.

In the Harry Potter series, Neville Longbottom serves as a character foil for Harry.
In the Harry Potter series, Neville Longbottom serves as a character foil for Harry

In this case, Harry's foil takes the opposite stance; Neville Longbottom is anything but brave and as unskilled a wizard as they come. However, there are many similarities between the two. Both lost their parents to Voldemort: Harry's were murdered; Neville's were tortured until they lost their minds. Both were then raised by relatives: Harry by his aunt and Neville by his grandmother. Both are the same age and begin school at Hogwarts at the same time. The difference can be seen in how Harry rises to every dangerous occasion, while Neville makes mistakes and gets pushed around by just about everyone.

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