Writing Excuses 6.29: Character Foils

Let’s talk about character foils, and how to use them. We begin with a definition of character foils, expertly read by Mary. Then we talk about some archetypes, like the straight-man and the funny-guy, the hero and the sidekick, and offer some examples.

And then it’s nuts-and-bolts time: we talk about how and why to do this. Howard offers the example of Reverend Theo and Kevyn in the Schlock Mercenary books. Mary explains how she used a foil to strengthen her short story “For Want of a Nail,” (which went on to win a Hugo award.) Brandon tells us how adding a foil character was critical to The Way of Kings. Finally, Dan reveals to us (spoiler alert!) how John Cleaver and Mr. Crowley are foils for one another in I Am Not a Serial Killer.


Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Late Eclipses: an October Daye Novel, by Seanan McGuire, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Writing Prompt: Generate a list of five character pairs. Pick the most interesting of the set, and write about them.

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20 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 6.29: Character Foils”

  1. This was another good one. Mentioning Obi-Wan was great because you see him play a broad range of foils all in one character. I especially loved how you stated that putting in a foil can turn an internal navel gazing conflict into a more interesting external conflict.

    Are you sure you’re not that smart?

  2. One of the best podcasts in a while, great!!

    Just thought I should name some other classic pairings.

    C3P0 – R2D2
    Laurel – Hardy
    Pryor – Wilder (See no evil, hear no evil)
    Barak – Silk (Eddings)
    Spock – Kirk
    Legolas – Gimli
    Dr Jones – Dr Jones Jr (Indiana Jones)

  3. Is it possible to have the antagonist also serve as the foil for the protagonist? If so, what should we be aware of in trying it?


  4. Funny thing. In my current WiP (which I like to call a Renaissance Fantasy) I have two characters-Ricardo and Patricio are foils to each other. Ricardo is solemn, serious leader of men that comes from an abusive noble home, Patricio, is the more Joi de vivre character and best friend.

    Patricio keeps Ricardo self-loathing and anger in check while Ricardo keeps Patricio grounded. Of course, it’s a WiP and I am a discovery writer so who knows what their ultimate relationship will end up like.

  5. The thing I never liked about the foil “thing” is that one or both of the characters end up needing to act more like the other at some point to succeed. After this podcast, I’m seeing that they could be used solely as ways to highlight the differences and not necessarily as a moral/behavioral influence, and in the future will use them as such.

    I’d much rather read a scene where a character and his foil arrive at the mountaintop from different sides after having their own adventures brought on by their own character than a scene where they need to be more like the other and in that way “grow” as a person to accomplish their goal.

  6. Talking of characters, I suggest you check out this short vidcast by author KM Weiland (who I also think would be an excellent addition to the podcast as a guest) on How to Write Strong and Silent Types (Characters):


    Only 2:16 minutes long but well done with a great example from A Band of Brothers.

  7. Another perfectly-timed podcast for me, and thanks again for putting into words something I’d been subconsciously struggling with. I’ve been re-working the intro to my book for years trying to find just the right scene, and had just recently re-wrote it in a couple different ways. One of them was an internalization of the main protagonist while another was the same scene but done as a dialog with a second character. Without quite realizing it, I was experimenting with exactly what you guys are talking about, and now that I can clearly see it, I think I know how to make it better. Thanks!

    Also, if you’ve been watching Person of Interest, Reese and Finch are set up perfectly as foils. Each has particular strengths that, by themselves, was actually preventing them from functioning in society. But when they work together, each brings into focus and fills the gaps in the other, allowing them to function as one in order to save other people.

    My prompt for the week:


  8. This podcast episode actually gave me a lot of encouragement. I have a first draft from NaNo 2011 that I’ve abandoned because I feel it’s too patchy to pull together. However, I’ve realized, based on this episode, that my two main characters (one angry and cagey, another mellow and zen, but both have the same mutant gift) are actually foils for one another. It makes me feel like I knew more than I thought I did!

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