Jake stared as the girl passed him. She wore high heels, a knee-high dress, and had wavy red hair that fell to her back. She gave him a wink. He didn’t stare at her legs because of attraction, rather he focused more on the precision of her steps and the distance between her strides. He chased after her, all the while wondering “Why is she in such a hurry?”
It’s easy for writers to fall into the trap of telling when describing his/her characters.While telling can be an effective tool, it’s too often relied upon as a lazy means for characterization.
How can we avoid the Telling Pit of Drudgery? The obvious answer is “show don’t tell,” but that answer can sometimes seem vague. One way to help “show” is to compare and contrast him to another character.
Enter the Character Foil.
A character foil is someone who contrasts another character so much that it ends up high-lighting both their traits.
The common example of this is Watson and Sherlock. We know Sherlock is brilliant, but have him bouncing off ideas on the less brilliant (But by no means stupid) Dr. Watson, and suddenly he’s a genius.
It’s thanks to the comparison as a result from foils that our characters begin to stand out among the crowd.
So how can we help Jake stand out? Well, the trait I’m trying to high-light in the above paragraph is his inquisitive mind and his sexual apathy. So, let’s see how we can draw out those traits by introducing Keith, whose sexual drive is on par with the average teenage boy, and show them in a scene together.
Both Jake and Keith turned to stare at the women that just passed them. High heels, knee high dress, dress, and wavy red hair. She winked at them and continued to stride down the road.
“Damn…” Keith said, “Did you check out those legs?”
Jake nodded. “Indeed, her strides were bit long and she seemed a bit in a hurry. I wonder what she’s up to.” He put a finger to his chin.
Keith glared at his friend. “Are you gay?
Jake narrowed his eyes. “Just… come on…” and he took off running after the girl.
Not only did we mention to include all the details in the first paragraph, we gave readers something that will hold their attention –conflict. As a bonus, I also managed to reveal hints about their personalities through the way they spoke with one another.
Foils are a cheap, yet effective way, to make characters distinct and memorable in people’s minds. Consider with your own characters now how they relate and how they differ. Play off those differences and have fun with what comes out of them.
I liked how you began and ended with example prose to get your meaning across. Not only did it clarify what you were saying but it made reading the post very enjoyable. Great job!
Thanks for the comment, glad it was both entertaining and educational for you 🙂
Good article to read. This was a solid analysis of the basics of foils. Adding an example was an nice touch to round out the article. I would love to see you write about how foils can be used as a long term story tool to shape a character over the course of an entire book or series.
That would be an interesting direction. I have more ideas to expand on this in the future, anything in particular you’d like me to talk about?
I loved your description of telling as the “Telling Pit of Drudgery.” It’s a great post, and I like your call to action at the end of it as well. I immediately started thinking about my own stories and characters! Can’t wait to see what more you have for us.
I’m glad the article was of help to you 🙂