Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author



So, yesterday I happened across a discussion of foils. Not aluminum foil, nor those slender little dueling blades, but literary foils. It was a pretty neat discussion, on a podcast called Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, which is mainly a podcast for gaming, but also touches on weird historical trivia and, I don’t know, movies and cooking and a broad collection of this and that. As I say, this particular recent tidbit was about literary foils. I’m sure there are various blog posts on the topic here and there, but I don’t think I’ve seen that kind of discussion elsewhere, so I thought I’d share some of it with you, relating these ideas to SFF along the way.

So, foils reflect the protagonist. This isn’t the same as an ensemble cast, because there should be a single protagonist along with one or multiple foils; the protagonist need not be the same as the point of view character.

Four types of foils:

1. Sidekicks.

Sidekicks serve as actuators, pushing the protagonist to act. I’m sure this encompasses all the sidekicks who are kidnapped, thus driving the protagonist to rescue them, but Ken and Robin pointed to a different role for a sidekick in Archie in the Nero Wolfe books, who is definitely a great example as (a) Archie is definitely playing the sidekick role, constantly shoving at Nero to make him take action; (b) Archie is the one who actually does stuff, while Nero never (hardly ever) leaves the house; and (c) Archie is the pov character, but not the protagonist.

This is all true and Archie is a great example, but let me look around for some SFF sidekicks.

I think Rian might serve as this kind of foil for Maskelle in The Wheel of the Infinite. He does a lot more than motivate Maskelle to act, though he does sometimes serve that function. He also sometimes drives the action through his own actions, plus he plays an important role as someone for Maskelle to explain things to, which is a role assigned by the podcast to a different kind of foil, below. Of course in the real world we do expect categories to blur. Nevertheless, Rian does not take on enough importance to serve as a secondary protagonist or take the male lead role in a romance – that’s a relatively unimportant subplot. I would say he fits into the story as a sidekick. Florian is a sidekick for Tremaine in The Fall of Ile Rien trilogy too, probably, though there’s a big ensemble cast there.

2. Companions.

Companions serve to offer an accessible viewpoint to the reader when the protagonist is not that accessible, or to observe the action for the reader. The obvious example is the Doctor’s various human companions, but this kind of foil is particularly essential in fiction when the protagonist’s pov is never shown to the reader; eg, Dorothy Dunnett’s Game of Kings. Lymond is practically the reverse of “accessible,” by design. The various ordinary people who move in and out of his orbit, taking the pov role, serve both to humanize Lymond and as a window through which the reader can observe the action.

However, that isn’t an SFF example. Many fantastic examples of companions must exist. For “accessible, human viewpoint in the midst of strangers,” I think of Bren Cameron, but he isn’t a foil for anybody; he’s the primary protagonist. A better example is Costis, who serves as a humanizing, accessible viewpoint character for Gen in The King of Attolia. MWT plays with viewpoint a lot in this series, but in TKoA, Gen is almost as inaccessible as Lymond in Dunnett’s series – showing how well it can work to set the protagonist at a distance from the reader.

3. Confidantes.

Confidantes serve as someone to whom the protagonist can explain things – often a pretty clumsy way to handle backstory or other kinds of information — though Martha Wells used Rian to good effect as the person to whom Maskelle could explain things. Overlap for sure in the role of a confidante and a sidekick, but I would not call Rian a confidante.

If you do have a confidante, that character can also serve as a source of advice for the protagonist. Including, sometimes, bad advice, thus providing a push to the plot.

A good SFF example of a confidante would be, let me think … okay, Annova is this kind of foil for Zoe in Troubled Waters. She’s the kind of confidante who offers good advice and emotional support to the protagonist, and who occasionally serves as a motivator by, for example, being poisoned by mistake when the target was Zoe.

According to Ken and Robin, a confidant may also serve as a thematic contrast or support to the protagonist. The example offered in the podcast was Horatio to Hamlet, where Horatio serves as a contrastingly active character. Here I disagree. The term ‘confidante’ is a not right for someone who a thematically contrasting foil, because plenty of foils of that kind do not serve in any way as confidantes. So let’s break that out as a separate category:

4. Thematically contrasting foil.

In The Thousand Names series, Marcus is thematically the opposite of Janus bet Vhalnich. Marcus is open, honest, decent, and ordinary as opposed to extraordinarily secretive and brilliant and ruthless. He also gives the reader a more accessible pov character compared to Janus. This series offers a great ensemble cast, but Marcus is the one who is both a secondary protagonist and a foil for Janus.

In the same series, Jane serves as the same kind of foil for Winter. Jane is volatile and selfish and charismatic whereas Winter is steady and calm and responsible. She is not charismatic through sheer force of personality, like Jane. Winter’s charisma is much quieter; it’s the kind that draws people to her as they get to know her. Jane’s volatility pushes people away as they come to know her better.

5. Parallel foil.

Parallel foils reinforce the protagonist’s nature or themes or character arc or whatever. The podcast argues that this can be the villain, in the “I am your dark shadow” way, but I’d say that is a thematically contrasting foil, whereas there is actually a different kind of character who is a thematically parallel foil.

When you say parallel foil, the character who springs immediately to mind for me is Ronsarde in Death of the Necromancer. He is clearly this kind of foil for Nicholas. They echo each other in so many ways, which is why Ronsarde presents Nicholas to the queen as his protégé and why Nicholas resents that so strongly.

So, I’d say there are (at least) five types of foils, which no doubt blur together a good deal. I haven’t thought explicitly about this when tossing secondary characters into my own books, but let me see …

Well, Elise is a confidante for Kehara, through the first part of The Winter of Ice and Iron. Let me see … hmm … Maybe Tassel in The Keeper of the Mist is a companion for Keri. A very important companion, if so, but then every kind of foil can indeed be very important.

I don’t believe I’d say that there are any foils as such in The Mountain of Kept Memory. The important characters play various important roles, but I don’t think any of them are foils. Oressa is too alone, and really so is Gulien, and Gajdosik is not a foil at all, but an important secondary protagonist. Or that’s how I see them.

Hmm, maybe in The Floating Islands. I could make a case there for several of the other male students being foils for Trei.

Anyway, an interesting topic, and I’m glad Ken and Robin happened to pick that for one of their rare-ish forays into “writing good.”

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2 Comments Foils

  1. Meera

    I really loved this post; and was thrilled to realize I was familiar with nearly all your examples. Fascinating stuff!

  2. Rachel

    Thanks, Meera! It’s going to make me think about secondary characters in a slightly different way from now on.

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