Famous Foils in Literature

28/12/12 at 4:40 pm

“Foil” is a literary term to present a character in contrast with another with an aim to project it against a backdrop of opposite traits. The word “foil” was taken from the practice of displaying gems with a backing of foil to project their brilliance. Foil is a literary device to project a character by comparing it with another character similar in some essential traits but contrasting immensely in others. It is usually created to project the protagonist, the main character. The foil may or may not be a major character in a story, but it has something in common with the protagonist, and this diverts the attention of the reader or audience to the protagonist. A foil is like complementary colors which are located on the opposite sides of the color wheel, yet they need one another for their best to come out.

1. Sancho Panza

Sancho Panza

Sancho Panza

Sancho Panza is an enjoyable character in Don Quixote, a world famous novel written in 1605 by the Spanish novelist Don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Sancho Panza is a foil to the protagonist Don Quixote and acts as his squire. Throughout the endeavors of Don Quixote, he offers entertaining, humorous, and ironic comments. While Don Quixote is thin, imaginative, and not a practical person, Sancho Panza is fat, realistic, and a practical type of person. Both of the characters differ not only mentally but also in their physical appearances. Sancho is illiterate but has learned a lot about a few books through his master, whom he abandons once but rejoins after experiencing the difficulties of being a ruler. Many times he has saved his master from being victimized as a result of a conflict.

2.  Dr. Watson

Dr. Watson

Dr. Watson (left)

John H. Watson, M.D., better known as Dr. Watson, is a character in the Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He is an assistant and friend of Sherlock Holmes. Dr.Watson is a merger of two junior characters, Sandier and Phillip. While Sherlock Holmes is extraordinarily shrewd and intelligent, Watson is a little below the intelligence of an average reader. Watson, therefore, serves as an important foil and illuminates the character of Sherlock Holmes.

3. Sydney Carton

A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities

Sydney Carton is a central character in the novel A Tale of Two Cities written by Charles Dickens. He is as foil to the protagonist Charles Darney. What is common in both is their appearance. Although Carton resembles Darney remarkably, yet he is widely different in some other traits. While Darney is a well-composed person, Carton appears to be a chronic alcoholic. He was an intelligent lawyer, but over a period of time wasted his personality and became a self-indulgent and self-pitying person. He is a devout lover of Lucie Manette, and it is on account of this love for her that he sacrifices his life by substituting himself for Darney during the final trial.

4. Laertes



Laertes is a major character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He is a foil to the protagonist Hamlet whom he kills in the end to avenge the death of his father Polonius and his sister Ophelia. Laertes thinks that both of them were killed by Laertes. In the very beginning of the drama, Laertes warned his sister against the romance of Hamlet telling her that it was not Hamlet to decide about his marriage; it was, rather, a matter of the king’s will. Hamlet and Laertes face one another in a duel, and Hamlet is killed by the poisoned sword of Laertes given to him by King Claudius. Laertes differs from Hamlet in courage as indicated by his proceeding to the king’s castle at the head of a mob at the risk of their lives while Hamlet is fearless and bold and parts with his friends lest their lives are exposed to risk.

5. Thisbe



Pyramus and Thisbe are two characters taken from the Roman mythology. It is a sad story of two unlucky lovers told by Ovid in his Metamorphosis. According to Ovid, the characters live in the city of Babylon in two adjacent houses, but they are not allowed to marry on account of the differences between the parents. The lovers communicate through a crack in a wall and plan to meet under a mulberry tree. On reaching there, Thisbe sees a lioness with a bloody mouth from a fresh kill. Thisbe runs away leaving her veil, which is trampled by the lioness near the stream. Pyramus believes Thisbe has been killed by the lioness and, in turn, kills himself under the mulberry tree. Splashes of his blood color the white mulberry fruit red. Thisbe, on her return, finds Pyramus dead and kills herself too. Gods listen to her and give the color red to the mulberry for ever in remembrance of their love.

6.Coal and Diamond

Dr. Iqbal

Dr. Iqbal

In Dr. Iqbal’s poetry book Asrar-i-Kudi; Secrets of the Self, there is a dialogue between a coal and a diamond. This beautiful dialogue has been translated by many great Orient lists. Coal symbolizes a soft character while the diamond stands for a firm character. Coal is a foil to diamond having a common origin but very different characteristics, one being soft the other being the hardest material, one being black and the other being the most brilliant of gems. The diamond asks coal to get rid of his inherent softness and to be like stone because the zest of life is in being firm and not being weak.

7. Lord Voldemort

Lord Voldemort

Lord Voldemort

Lord Voldemort is an antagonist who debuted in in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. He is an archenemy of the protagonist Harry Potter because of a prophecy about him that he had “the power to vanquish the Dark Lord.” What is common in both characters is the possession of some extraordinary powers. Voldemort is so dreaded that nobody even dares to pronounce his name, and people speak about him using some byname or a descriptive phrase like “You-Know-Who,” “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” Except for being powerful, they differ greatly in their character. Harry Potter believes in good and love while Voldemort is a staunch evildoer and considers love as just a foolish idea.

8. Mr. Hyde

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Mr. Hyde is a major character in the novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde written by Robert Louis Stevenson and published in 1886. The story is about a London lawyer, Gabriel John Utterson, The lawyer tries to find out the reality of some strange events happening between his friends Dr. Henry Jekyll and Edward. It is, in fact, the study of a rare mental condition commonly known as split personality and scientifically termed as Dissociative Identity Disorder. In this case, one person owns simultaneously two or more distinct personalities. Mr. Hyde is Dr. Jekyll’s foil as he owns a good and a bad personality at the same time. “Jekyll and Hyde” is proverbially used for a person behaving too differently under different situations.

9. Mr. Badger

Wind in the willows

Wind in the willows

Mr. Badger is a major character from the classic children’s literature The Wind in the Willows. It was written by Kenneth Grahame and was published in 1908. The U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Grahame in 1909 that he had “read it and reread it, and have come to accept the characters as old friends.” The BBC ranked the book at #16 of the Big Read in 2003. Mr. Badger was a friend of Mr. Toad, the protagonist, for whom Mr. Badger acts as a foil. He is an extremely unsocial hermit differing totally from Mr. Toad who is a kind, good-natured, fairly intelligent, and wealthy person belonging to Toad Hall.

10. Emilia



Emilia is Desdemona’s maid in Shakespeare’s masterpiece Othello. She is also her foil as she complies with the instructions of her husband Iago while knowing the repercussions of her actions upon the life of her mistress. They are as different in status as a housemaid could be from  the wife of  a man of the stature like Othello. One thing which is common is that at the end, both Desdemona and Emilia share the same ill fate at the hands of men. In the end, Emilia tries her best to prove the innocence of Desdemona and failing which she ultimately kills herself after Desdemona is killed by Othello.


Heat soothes in cold weather and a cool breeze is a summer delight. A starry night against a dark sky is a brilliant treat for our vision. There are no absolute contrasts. In fact, the contrasts coexist in different ratios. In extreme cases, one attribute is present in traces while the other predominates in abundance. It is the correct ratio of the complement which creates a special effect. In Hemingway’s Noble Prize winning Old Man and the Sea, the great marlin seems to be a foil to the old man. Both share the virtue of persistence and will to survive, but they differ vastly in their physical powers.

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4 Responses to “Famous Foils in Literature”

  1. Hannah

    Apr 4th, 2013

    Actually Lord Voldemort is NOT a foil. He could be a foil, but he is the MAIN antagonist in the Harry Potter series, and by definition, a foil is NOT an antagonist. (:

    • ben

      Jun 29th, 2013

      I believe that Hermione would better fit the role of a foil character.

    • Anthony

      Sep 20th, 2013

      Actually antagonists were made to foil protagonists, though in this case I do however agree with you that voldermort does not make a good one, Draco malfoy however a minor antagonist within the book does make a good foli.

  2. Anthony

    Sep 20th, 2013


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