Vocab Lessons explains a common screenwriting or filmmaking technique so that screenwriters can better utilize them in their writing. This post will cover a character foil, which is a character whose traits either mirrors or is opposite to the main character
The concept of the foil originated in literature, and spread to drama and later screenwriting as a convention of storytelling. Classic examples include Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Romeo and Mercutio from Romeo and Juliet, and Elinor and Marianne from Sense and Sensibility. The foil is most often a supporting character who reflects the main character. Sometimes though (like in Sense and Sensibility) there are duel protagonists that are foils of one another.
Basically, the foil has traits counter to those of the main character, and their traits help to highlight the opposing traits in the other character. Where the main character is grouchy and stingy (think Scrooge), the foil is kind and generous (think nephew Fred). The foil, though, often has something in common with the main character, which makes the relationship even more interesting. They can both be detectives, or look alike, or even be related.
Foils are extremely valuable in screenplays, not only for character development, but for the plot as well. The best example of this is in Jerry Maguire, the best feel-good movie ever. Jerry, the main character, puts his heart into his work as a sport agent, but doesn’t open up in his love life (to girlfriend/fiancée/wife, Dorothy). Ray, the foil, is all heart when it comes to his wife and family, but only cares about money when playing football. At the climax of the film, Ray shows his love of the game when he undergoes an injury and dramatic recovery on the field, which inspires Jerry to profess his love to Dorothy and win his wife back. Each man learns from the other, and each goes through a character arch in which he becomes more like the other. It’s the kind of brilliant character development and arch that every screenwriter should study and steal from.