traci's lists of ten

Traci's 41st List of Ten:
Ten Assignments on Dramatic Foils

Posted to NCTE-Talk on 09/08/01.

Earlier this year, someone asked for a definition of foils on NCTE-TALK. In case you don't have the info handy, the most basic definition is that a foil is a person who is paired with another character to develop the latter's traits and personality by contrast. A foil is much like the twin character in class, rank, and background; but has opposing characteristics that provide a mirror to those of the paired character. Laertes is foil to Hamlet. Bernard is foil to Biff in Death of a Salesman. Asagi is foil to George in Raisin in the Sun (Thanks to Shane for the example). My dog is foil to my cat. OK, just kidding with that one — though if I had a dog and cat I'm sure that they'd behave according to literary roles.

There are more complex definitions that suggest that the foil must contrast the main character, rather than just any character. And playing off the meaning of the word "foil" as a verb, some definitions explain that a foil must keep the protagonist from achieving his goals — the protagonist is foiled by the contrasting character.

Whatever definition you use, when you ask students to write about a character and the related foil, you are essentially asking them to write a comparison/contrast paper. Your standard comparison/contrast paper can get pretty boring after a while, generally at the point where you begin daydreaming about tennis matches. Character A does this, and character B does that. Character A looks at the world this way, and character B looks at the world that way. My goal with this list is to provide some assignments that (if I'm lucky) will get away from character development as tennis match.

(Though I wish that it did, this list has no connection whatsoever to the Aluminum Foil Deflector Beanie —

  1. [MATHEMATICALLY SPEAKING] The FOIL Method (First, Outer, Inner, Last) is a process used in algebra to multiply expressions in two sets of parenthesis. For your paper, apply those questions to the foil in our reading:

    1. What is the FIRST thing that you notice about the two characters?
    2. What OUTER characteristic is most noticeable about the two characters?
    3. What INNER characteristic is most noticeable about the two characters?
    4. What is the LAST thing that you notice about the two characters?

    Once you've explored these characteristics, pull the ideas together. How does the juxtaposition of these characters make for a more sophisticated and rich development of the roles than would have been possible without the foil?

  2. [MIRRORING] When you look into a mirror, you see an image who looks just exactly like you; though, in actuality, the image is your exact opposite. If you're not sure what I mean, hold a book or magazine up to a mirror — the text will appear backwards. The letters are all there, and they are all perfectly formed — they're just backwards. Your face is backwards too. You're just used to seeing it that way. Now think about the character and foil in a work that we've read. A foil is sometimes described as a mirror for the related character. For this assignment, consider how the foil compares to the related character just as your face compares to the image you see in a mirror. Write a paper that explores how the foil seems identical to the related character and yet is an exact opposite. How effective is the relationship that the author establishes between the two characters? How well is the author able to create a mirror reflection between character and foil?

  3. [LIGHT BY CONTRAST] Photographers know that you cannot have darkness without light. To produce a good image, you simply must have good contrast. Even the darkest picture must have some bits of light in order to capture the image properly. How does this principle hold for the foil and main character in our reading? How does the foil provide contrast that is necessary to defining characteristics of the protagonist? What would be lost if the foil were not in the piece? How would the character be simply a darkness without the contrast of the foil?

    NOTE: Think of dark and light as metaphors here. The characteristics that are contrasted by the foil are probably not dark and light — they might be action and inaction, decisiveness and indecision, laziness and industry.

  4. [GOLD FOIL] The use of the term "foil" for contrasting characters in a piece of literature is an analogy that grew from the use of the word as it relates to jewelry. In jewelry making, foil is often placed behind a jewel to increase its brilliance. In its literary use, a foil is a character who works in the same way: a character who is set near protagonist in the work to make key characteristics stand out, to increase the key character's brilliance, so to speak. Now your assignment — Think of yourself as a literary critic. The word "foil" hasn't been applied to this relationship between two contrasting characters. Your job is to write a paper that suggests a new analogy to describe their relationship. Your paper will do two things: explain your new analogy completely, and show how two characters from a work that we've read illustrate the analogy.

  5. [DELIBERATELY WEAK?] C.J. Cherryh asks, "Does anyone deliberately write a weak character? Yes, or we'd have nothing but heroic characters and nobody to be a foil." [] Write a paper that explores Cherryh's idea as it relates to a foil that we've read about. Is the foil a "deliberately...weak character"? (Be sure that you define "weak"!) And why? If the character is "deliberately weak," what did the author hope to accomplish — what was the purpose of that weakness? If the character isn't weak at all, why did the author develop the foil so completely? What was the purpose of creating such a strong character in a supporting role? Was the character of the main character damaged by the juxtaposition?

  6. [FOIL AS PLOT BOLTS] SciFi writer Michael Stackpole coined the term "plot bolt":
    Just as a bolt fastens objects together by sticking through them and "hanging them from the holes," a plot bolt extends through the plot of a story and helps to hold the parts together. Plot bolts pull a story together by helping the reader to see the connections and how things "all come together as a connected whole."
    How does the foil in our reading function as a plot bolt? How does the foil in our reading pull the story together? How are the connections clearer because of the foil? How would things fall apart if the foil weren't there?

    (Quotation originally from by Shalanna Collins. Site no longer available.)

  7. [THE MISSING SOLILOQUY] Professor Vavra of the Pennsylvania College of Technology explains that by the use of a foil, a playwright can avoid a soliloquy. Rather than having the main character "[stand] on stage and simply [give] a speech which reveal[s] his thoughts," the playwright can use the foil to tease out the main character's motivations and beliefs — asserting them in action, through conversation and contrast with the foil. For your paper, take on the job of composing the information that would have been in that a missing soliloquy, a statement of beliefs or ideals or motivations that is exposed by contrast with the foil. Your job is to write the monologue in which the main character reveals him- or herself.

    For the purpose of this assignment, you can write in a number of formats: try your hand at an actual soliloquy, write a manifesto, compose a letter to the editor stating your beliefs, pen a diary entry, and so forth. The precise format you choose is up to you — what matters is that you adopt the main character's perspective and explore an issue from that vantage — an issue that is explored in the reading by interaction with the foil. When you finish, step back and write a personal reflection that explains your choices. Why did you reveal the things that you did? How did the information relate to the foil and the events in the piece? Explain the thought process that you relied on as you wrote the missing statement. (Quotation from

  8. [OPPOSITES ATTRACT] You've probably heard the phrase "Opposites Attract." You may even have studied the principle in a science class. For your assignment, think about the ways that the notion applies (or doesn't) to the foil and main characters. In what ways do their opposite characteristics, values, and behaviors bring them closer together rather than separating them? Are they in some ways different halves of the same whole? Your paper should explore the connections that bind them while establishing their contrast — and move beyond the basics of their relationship to address the ways that their opposition and attraction affect the piece?

  9. [DUELING PRACTICE] In fencing (sword fights), a foil is a sort of practice sword, a sabre with a blunt tip that is used in place of a blade with a pointed tip. A foil is used in particular when the two athletes are practicing. Now think about the foil and the related main character in this play. The foil character serves a similar role — helping the main character practice for a later interaction with other characters in the play. For your paper, choose a particular interaction between the foil and the protagonist and explain how this interaction prepares the protagonist for a later conversation, argument, or encounter in the play. How is the character foil a practice foil?

  10. [DIARY ENTRY] Choose a particularly involved exchange between the foil and main character in our reading — they may have just had an argument, one may have confessed something to the other, or perhaps they just had a long sharing of beliefs. Take on the persona of the foil. Imagine that you've gone back to your room (or home, or office, whatever makes sense). You go to your secret hiding place and get out your personal diary. Now write your private, personal account of the interaction -- include not just what happened, but also your personal reaction to the events, and any motivation for your reaction. Naturally, whatever you said to the main character may not be identical to the thoughts that went through your head. Here in your diary, you're confessing all! What did you think? What did you say? And what were your motivations during the discussion?

    Once you finish your diary entry, step back out of the foil's persona, and write your own explanation for the choices that you made in the diary entry. How did you choose the motivations and reactions that the foil had? Tell me about YOUR thought process in a paragraph or two to help me understand more about the way that you wrote the foil's diary entry.

Originally Posted on February 02, 2002.