Foils: Two Characters For the Price of One

A while back, I read a blog entry by psychologist Mark Changizi arguing that patients should wear skin-colored hospital gowns.

The logic is simple. Skin tone often changes due to illness, but those changes are hard to see against a green or white hospital gown. Because green and white are so drastically different from our skin tone, healthy skin and slightly greenish/reddish/yellowish skin end up looking the same. However, if patients wore gowns that matched the color of their skin, it would be much easier for nurses to see when there is a change. A slightly greenish hue is much easier to detect when it's up against a flesh colored gown.

To see a dramatic demonstration of this, take a look at Mark’s original blog post. He has some flesh colored patches that look similar to each other when placed against a green background, but look completely different when placed against a flesh colored background.

It's a trick of our brains. We are better at seeing subtle differences if we have an immediate point of comparison. So what does this have to do with character development? Well, I’m glad you asked. [Completely forced and utterly unscientific analogy ahead.]

Trickster's Choice (Daughter of the Lioness, Book 1)A while ago, I read Trickster's Choice by Tamora Pierce. I was struck by the strong supporting cast, particularly two sisters named Sarai and Dove. My sense of them was much clearer than I would have expected given the amount of screen time they had. This was especially impressive because they were relatively nuanced characters. It's sometimes easy to sketch out a character with limited screen time if it's a larger-than-life extravagant person, but these girls were fairly normal, yet still well-rounded.

Curious as to how Pierce did this, I went back and analyzed the sections where the girls appeared. I found that Pierce used one technique over and over. She repeatedly presented the girls together and by doing so, caused their differences and unique characteristics to jump out.

Here are three passages -- three slightly different ways in which the girls are used as foils for each other.

1. In the Way Others React To Them

Before anyone could stop him, the man who had first spoken had wriggled over to Sarai. Awkwardly he leaned forward to touch his forehead to Sarai's shoe. "You are as gracious as you are beautiful," he whispered.

Aly bit her tongue. It was Dove who had truly found a way to keep these men alive. She glanced at Dove, who met her eyes and shrugged. "She's prettier," the younger girl murmured as she passed ly on her way back to the wagon. "Everyone always goes to her first."

2. In Their Interaction With Each Other

"Where did you hear that?" Asked Sarai, curious. "I never heard anyone say anything about his return."

"That's because you attract attention," Dove informed her older sister. "I go out of my way not to attract it, so I hear more things. People forget I'm here."

"Oh." Sarai shrugged. "I hate being quiet. It's so very boring."

Aly, shaking her head at Sarai's indifference to what she might learn this way, so that Dove was shaking her head as well.

3. In Their Own Descriptions of Themselves

"I hate still rooms," grumbled Sarai as she took the saddle from her mare. Dove unsaddled her own mount. It seemed the girls planned to stay a while. "If I have to stew up anymore smelly plants, I will scream." Sarai placed her horse's blanket on the grass and sat on it. Aly washed Fesgao and his companion as they dismounted at a distance to leave the girls and Aly in relative privacy.

"Sarai is happier on horseback," Dove explained. "I don't mind mixing up spices and medicines, but it's hard to concentrate when Sarai starts to mutter."

After reading this, what is your impression of the two girls? Note that simply reading the three passages gives the impression that the girls are more two-dimensional than they actually are. In the actual book, Pierce uses other opportunities to round them out. For example, there are several instances when Sarai shows that she's more than just a hotheaded beauty. But the point is that the three passages here do an efficient job of sketching out defining characteristics in a small amount of space.

Can you think of any books that use foils effectively? Do you use foils?

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  1. This totally isn't answering the question, but I found the writing here a little too expositional for my taste. In the first passage, the author should have left it at "She's prettier." We could have inferred her popularity from the actions of the wriggling man (which is intriguing, btw) and the first comment.

    The second passage didn't, to me, sound like the way that people really talk. Are most characters that self-aware? I would like to just see Dove benefitting from noticing something Sarai did not, without hitting me over the head with this explanation. I think sisters would know this about one another, and even touch on the subject, but not put it so bluntly as "I go out of my way not to attract attention." (Now, I'm sure plenty of this goes on in the book, and I can't be too critical because I haven't read it!)

    Otherwise though, they are definitely foils! I think one of my favorite sets of foils is Heathcliff and Rochester in Wuthering Heights. One is dark, one is light, one is rich, one is poor, one is brooding, one is always happy...

  2. "A while back, I read a blog entry by psychologist Mark Changizi arguing that patients should wear skin-colored hospital gowns."

    While it might be easier for the doctors, I'd think that it would be worse for the patients. The whole hospital experience would be even more humiliating this way.

  3. I tried to think of an example of a foil, but I couldn't. (Except if you count Macbeth. Which I don't.)
    I haven't used foils for any of my writing so far, but I might try it to show personalities in a short time, like in a short story.
    But I wonder if a foil would work so well in the long run, say a protagonist and an antagonist in a novel. If you focus too much on their differences, they might come off as two-dimensional or even cliché. Well, I guess if you just watch out for something like that, it should be fine.

    Anyway, that's it. Thanks for the post.

  4. This is really interesting, Livia! I think the snippets you chose worked well. And the only foil I can think of off the top of my head is Hamlet, but I'm sure there are tons of others!

  5. Jennifer – the beauty and headache of writing is that every excerpt has its admirers and detractors. Michelle at literary labs ran an experiment yesterday that really brought it home for me.

    Donald – maybe they can put patterns on it so patients don't look like they're naked.

    Jake – good point about two-dimensional characters. I think that is something we need to be careful of whether or not we use foils.

    Sara - man, it's been so long since I read Hamlet. I'm seriously rusty on my Shakespeare.

  6. Interesting post. I try to make all of my supporting characters foils for the main protag. But not just that, I try to make each character distinct enough so that together, they all bounce and spark off each other. Out of curiosity, I looked up the word. Here's the origin, which is so cool: "The FOIL is named after the medieval practice of placing a metal foil around a gemstone to make it shine brighter."

  7. Nice, succinct post there! Thanks for the examples from the text--I've read that book, so I'm also familiar with the characters. Have to say, it wasn't my favorite of Pierce's books, but I adored the crow-boy. :D

    Speaking of foils, my favorite set is Boromir/Faramir in Lord of the Rings. Like Sarai and Dove, they're siblings, but unlike in Pierce's stories (and unlike the movie-version of the books), their nature as foils were left to the interpretation of their actions, as Jennifer mentioned above.

    That's one thing I think is a little weak about Pierce's writing--she tends to try controlling the reader's perception of a character by having another character state something that could be/already has been inferred by action. It doesn't keep me from enjoying the story or liking the characters, but it is one of the areas that I find weak about her writing.

    I guess what I infer from this is that foils are more effective as foils when their nature as such isn't stated so blatantly.

    Thanks for the post! :)

  8. Catherine -- thanks for looking that up! That's so interesting.

    L.Scribe -- I love Boromir and Faramir! And I hate what they did to Faramir in the movies.
    I personally don't mind more direct characterization in YA books, but I should note I took the most exaggerated characterization examples of the book in order to get my point across, so it's not the most accurate representation of Pierce's writing. In fact, I sent her the link earlier today and she said she was getting a little nervous with my examples until she got to my disclaimer about the passages not being representative. So I do hope that people don't walk away from this blog article with a skewed perception of her writing style. That was certainly not my goal :-)

  9. There are some things Pierce over describes, but I enjoy her stories enough to gloss past the writing style.

    I'm not sure if you would consider them foils, but I enjoy the contrasting between Tarma and Kethry in Oathbound and Oathbreakers by Mercedes Lackey. They are as close as sisters, but their proximity to each other illustrates their differences in appearance, personality, and abilities. It also highlights their similarities in ethics and justice.