Writing Excuses 13.27: Characters As Foils
Key points: A foil is a character in a story who acts as a contrast to the main character, externalizing a point of conflict or contrast. May be a sidekick, two side characters, or even two protagonists. Sometimes the foil fills in weaknesses. Beware of flanderizing a foil, reducing them to a flat character. The best foils make both characters more rounded as they change in interesting ways. Foils can be good for exploring knotty topics, showing more than one opinion or view. Often, the foil can hang a lantern on the discussion. Heist novels can be an example of a group of foils! Specialists, weaknesses, and plenty of interaction playing on those weaknesses and the cracks in the process. Foils are a natural with teams who are just meeting, but they also can be good for introducing the long-term relationship of a couple. What keeps foils together? Family! Also, try using the Kowal relationship axes — mind, money, morals, manners, monogamy, and the Marx Brothers. Keeping the morals aligned can help keep a couple together. Manners are a good place for friction.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 27.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Characters As Foils.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Maurice] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Amal] I’m Amal.
[Maurice] I’m Maurice.
[Brandon] We’ve talked a lot about building really interesting characters, giving them arcs, having them changes they go along. Now let’s talk about them messing with one another.
[Oo… Yes. Laughter]
[Brandon] What do I mean by a foil?
[Amal] I thought you were going to say what do you mean by messing with each other.
[Mary] Okay. So, a foil is a character who serves within a story to act as a contrast to the main character. This is not a character who exists to stop their forward progress, which is what the word foil sounds like it is going to be, because of “Curses! Foiled again.” But this is more like… Often a role that you’ll see occupied by a sidekick character. They’re someone who allows the character to express themselves, so that they are getting some of their internal thoughts outside, and also to provide usually a point of contrast or conflict surrounding an internal conflict that the character has within themselves.
[Brandon] It doesn’t have to even be main character/side character. I’ve done it frequently with two side characters that in order to make them both more distinct in the reader’s mind, I make them have some point of friction or contrast, which then as they discuss, they argue about, or… Just offer examples of one another in that way.
[Mary] Like one of the examples we were talking about earlier was Abbott and Costello. In which they are actually kind of foils of each other.
[Amal] Yeah. That’s actually one of my favorite things to read or see, is when you have a rivalry, for instance, and you do have two protagonists. But you can… In order to establish what they each are like, you use the other character… You use that contrast as opposed to another element of the environment or other characters. Instead, it’s almost like you’re making the differences between them a character as well. That kind of grows from the fact that they are… They don’t even necessarily have to be opposites. They can just be complementary, they can be contrasts.
[Maurice] I spoke a while back about one protagonist, whose sole object through the course of the story was to just be left alone and get high. That character’s name was Sleepy. Now his foil is one of my favorite characters I’ve ever created. Just to put that out there. His name is 120 Degrees of Knowledge Allah.
[Amal] That’s amazing.
[Maurice] The reason why they work so well together, and why Knowledge Allah is his foil, is because in a lot of ways they were like polar opposites. Knowledge Allah was an activist, Knowledge Allah knows what he believed, why he believed, and in a lot of ways, Knowledge Allah also played straightman to some of Sleepy’s antics. So, Knowledge Allah actually became the motivating force to help drive Sleepy’s story and drive his arc in a lot of ways.
[Mary] I think that goes to the thing that people talk about a lot, which is opposites attract. That frequently what the foil is also doing is they’re filling in the weaknesses of the main character. Which is why a lot of times you will see husband-and-wife couples in a foil relationship. In The Thin Man, which is one of my favorite series of films, Nick and Nora, they… Well, and actually Asta sometimes acts as a foil, too… But they act as a foil for each other. Although given the way the films are structured, Nora is much more in the foil role then Nick is, because he, as the detective, is often driving the action more than she is.
[Brandon] So let me ask you this. Do you design this specifically, or do you let this grow naturally or some combination of the two?
[Amal] The best example from my own work is this novella that I cowrote with Max Gladstone. The working title of which is This Is How You Lose the Time War. It was totally baked into our concept. It was that… We recognized that Max and I had super different writing styles and writing paces and methods. We wanted to make a virtue of that necessity and have these two characters that were going to be very opposite. One called Red and one called Blue, and have them be agents of opposite sides of the Time War. Everything about those… Like, everything about these differences became part of the plot, part of the texture of the book, and the development of it. But ultimately, the point of those contrasts was… Ended up being more about how they’re each not great representatives of their respective sides. The more that they engaged with each other, which they do because it’s an epistolary story. The more they engage with each other, the more they realized how alike they were in spite of coming from these places that are literally opposites.
[Brandon] It’s really easy to, I feel like, flanderize one of your foils. Which is this concept that we use where a character, over time, becomes more and more focused on their quirks, rather than more and more rounded. More and more flat, hitting one note. But when a foil is done correctly, I feel like it, in the best films and books where I’ve seen it, both characters become more rounded over time because of the friction between them changing them both in interesting ways.
[Mary] I think that I often, because of that, because of the way it allows you to flesh out a character… The times that I plan ahead to insert a foil… Most of the time, they develop naturally. But the times that I plan ahead are when I’m planning on tackling a topic that is particularly knotty or weighty, because it gives me a way to explore multiple aspects of that topic by having two characters whose contrasting opinions and views on it show that there’s… It’s not just a single side. So if I were telling a story about the merits of hamsters, I might have a character who is very, very pro-hamster and her best friend would be anti-hamster. Their conversations illuminate a lot… Not just about the topic, but also about how much of this is just the nature of the character versus the nature of hamsters.
[Maurice] So, the reason I do a lot of foils is actually because a lot of my stories tend to deal with some of the weightier topics. So by having that foil who’s like the opposite of whatever character I’m working with, helps me from sliding into a screed at any point. Because then… Now I have to look at the other side. I have to embody another school of thought, and let that play out more naturally.
[Brandon] You have to… You have a natural motivation as a writer to hang a lantern on what’s going on, the… You’re speaking… You start into kind of a lecture, that other character’s going to be like, “Oh, you’re lecturing us now?” It’s very natural. It works really well.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and break for our book of the week, which is Breaking the Chains of Gravity.
[Mary] Yes. So, Breaking the Chains of Gravity by Amy Shira Teitel is a phenomenal nonfiction book, and it’s one that I came across when I was working on The Calculating Stars and Fated Sky. This is about the space program before NASA. So it starts from the very early days of people just like “Let me see if I can get this rocket off the ground…” And lots of people getting blown up.
[Mary] It carries you through to the very early days of NASA. One of the things that I just had no idea about was the sheer number of women who were involved in it, with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And also like… It also… I don’t want to minimize the fact that many of the early… And the book does not. That many of the early rocketry pioneers were Nazi war criminals. But it does highlight the fact that they began as a teenage rocketry club in Germany that got absorbed by the German army, which I didn’t know. That does… It certainly changes your view of rocketry when you begin to look at its past. But there were just so many people, and it’s a fascinating, incredibly well-researched book. She’s got a real grasp of narrative, so it’s an engaging read at the same time that it’s filled with really cool factoids.
[Amal] Has… This is… Can I piggyback on that recommendation? So, there’s this amazing poem by Sofia Salatar called Girl Hours. It’s dedicated to Henrietta Swan Leavitt. It’s a brilliant poem. It’s basically as if… Written as if it’s preparing to be an essay on the subject, but then broken up, so like the top part is actually notes and says, “In the 1870s, the Harvard College Observatory began to employ young women as human computers to record and analyze data. One of them, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, discovered a way to measure stellar distances using the pulsing of variable stars. I didn’t know about this until I read this poem, and it’s absolutely gorgeous.
[Mary] So I’ll put that in the liner notes as well. So you should check out this poem which is called…
[Amal] Girl Hours.
[Mary] As well as Breaking the Chains of Gravity.
[Brandon] So. Let’s talk around foils. We often view them as the kind of A character-B character interaction. Have you ever designed a group where each character is meant to kind of be a foil for the same concept, or a foil for one another in a big group dynamics?
[Mary] This is what a heist novel is!
[Amal] Yes! Yes. I want you to talk more about that, because I loved reading when you were writing about how you did research for a heist novel by watching heist movies.
[Mary] Yeah. I watched a lot of heist movies, but I also read as many variations on heist novel as I could. Scott Lynch’s… I want to talk about something other than my own book. But Scott Lynch’s Red Sea under Red Sky and lies of Locke Lamora… These characters all act as foils for each other. Each of them has a weakness, and there is another character in the group who needles them on that weakness. That weakness represents both what their skill set is as well as what their personal failing is. So having that conflict externalized allows for the book to be a lot more dynamic. One of the things about a heist, in particular, is that it’s a group of characters each of whom has a specialty. The thing that a foil does in this case is remind you that they may have an area of specialty, but there’s… That area of specialty means that they have a ton of other weaknesses. So it prevents the group from feeling just like a flat one-sided gro… Collection of experts. Which then is actually no fun to watch. Like, if you watch a group of experts go in and accomplish something, it’s actually not very interesting. Just as an example of this, I was talking with Kjell Lindgren, who’s an astronaut. He was talking about actually in space, he always felt very safe, because they had practiced and practiced and practiced and practiced everything that they were doing. They over prepare before they go up there. So, you go out, you do a thing, and it goes… And all of the acceptable variables, because of the amount of prep time that you’ve put in. So that, in a book, is not very interesting. But if you throw a foil in there, that suddenly offers you a lot of places to insert cracks into the process.
[Amal] That’s true. I love that. At the same time, I was… While I completely agree, I find myself thinking of how I really actually really love watching people who are super good at stuff doing stuff. But…
[Mary] But then, the story is very short.
[Amal] That’s true.
[Mary] It’s like we go in, and we accomplish the thing, and then we leave.
[Amal] Exactly. Exactly. I mean, even the Food Network, with experts cooking delicious things, they have to generate some kind of drama somewhere. Oh, no, the pickles are sour. I don’t know. Something like that.
[Amal] Pickles are usually sour.
[Mary] That’s exactly why Gordon Ramsay is so prickly when he’s dealing with adults, but if you’ve ever watched his kid shows, he’s not. Because his role there is not to be a foil to the child.
[Amal] Exactly. It’s to actually be a teacher, it’s to actually embody that role.
[Brandon] Well, they do it for different cultures. If you watch the British version, he is way less of a foil than in the American version. Yeah. Anyway.
[Brandon] [garbled] slightly different tactic on this. I’ve noticed there’s kind of two general groups of foil. There is, when you’re writing a book, there is the team who have… Are just meeting and you find that everybody kind of hates each other. Then there’s the long-term couple who you use their foil nature at the start of a story to establish a long-term relationship. I happen to like both of these. I really like how the second group can really easily show that these two characters know each other so well, because they know how to push each other’s buttons in just the right way, but they also know how not to go too far on pushing those buttons. It makes both characters usually more relatable, unless these two people just don’t get along at all. Which happens sometimes. Which brings me kind of to a question. How do you make sure, when these characters are pushing each other’s buttons, that the reader understands why they are together in this situation? What tactics do you use to make it so that they don’t just say, “Well, we don’t get along. We’re not good for each other. We are not good teammates. We’re going to break apart and go separate directions.”
[Maurice] Well, the easy cheat for me has been, [garbled I kind of] go back to that combination of those two groups that you were talking about, and we call that family.
[Maurice] I was just realizing that, in the scene I was just writing this morning, I was just like, “Why are these people to… Oh, they’re brother and sister, and they’re kind of stuck with each other, aren’t they?” But they do. They know how to push each other’s buttons, but they’re still kind of stuck in this relationship, like we’re not going anywhere, so how do we now accommodate one another?
[Mary] I use a tool that I talked about last week, the Kowal relationship axes, which I will recap for those of you who are listening to just this episode. Which is that basically, there are six kind of sliders, axes, upon which relationships are built. The more you have in common with a person on these, the less friction there’s going to be. So, mind, money, morals, manners, monogamy, and the Marx Brothers, which represents sense of humor. This is a theory my mother-in-law came up with for describing dating.
[Amal] This is amazing.
[Mary] It’s actually really, really phenomenal. So what I do is that I try to make sure that for the most part that my characters’ morals slider is really well aligned. Unless there is a reason that I want to specifically explore that. But if they have to go on a process together, their… That is a place that they have to be in agreement, if there both committing. Their mind can be out of alignment, their sense of what money is for, their sense of manners… Their sense of manners is usually one of the ones that if I want them to… If I want there to be a lot of friction, that’s one of the ones where I will slide them apart, and give them very different backgrounds, so that they have different ideas of what is polite.
[Amal] That is fascinating, actually. The idea that… This has less to do with writing and more from experience, but it’s… I’m Canadian, and I went to live in the UK for six years. The culture shock that I experienced was almost entirely to do with how people treat you when they like you.
[Amal] I was… I just… I have a very thin skin when it comes to sarcasm and being teased. Which made things very difficult when I suddenly found myself in a country where the more people like you, the meaner they were to you. I just couldn’t… Like, I could not wrap my brain around this. I just… I like you, and you’re my friend, why are you being horrible to me? They didn’t see it as being horrible, they saw it as being familiar. Whereas if they were polite and distant to someone, then that would be someone who they weren’t friends with.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and wrap this up with some homework. The homework I’m going to give you is I want you to take a famous soliloquy, like from Shakespeare or something like that, a monologue, a single character saying something, and I want you to insert a foil. It doesn’t have to be comedic. It probably will, from the nature of this assignment, but someone who is contrasting what they’re doing, and interrupting this. Or go the other direction. Take a famous comedy bit, like Who’s on First, and remove one side or the other. Take out Abbott, or take out Costello, and maybe replace them with someone who completely plays along, and see how far it goes, and see how it works when both characters are trying to one-up each other to the joke. Or just take one out and see if the… It works on its own. So, this has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.