Foil: not just a type of fencing sword or a material to wrap food in. It’s also a character archetype, though what exactly that archetype looks like is a matter of debate. Do the characters have to be mirror opposites, or will any differences work? Should their contrast be played up in the plot? Can anyone understand Wes’s new Sherlock Holmes theory? That’s what we’re exploring this week!


Generously transcribed by James. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.

[opening theme]

Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren. With me today is…

Chris: Chris.

Oren: And…

Wes: Wes.

Oren: Now today we’re talking about foil, which is great for baking potatoes and keeping food fresh or just crinkling because you like the sound.

Wes: Well don’t forget that it’s important for keeping the government out of your head.


Oren: Right, exactly. You gotta get a little hat out of it. It’s great. So, that’s about all the uses for foil in storytelling, right? For foils we don’t need any more than that. We’re good?

Wes: No. Unless they’re swords.

Chris: Yeah. We need to give Samwise Gamgee more ways to cook potatoes, so that seems pretty useful.

Oren: See the problem here is that we all have the same attitude towards foil and none of us are contrasting with each other, you could say. None of us are foils to each other. Ha! Got it. Took me a while.

Chris: All we have to do is bring up literary topics. I think we’ll manage it.

Oren: Yeah.

Wes: All good.

Oren: So I wanted to talk about foil characters because I only kind of know what a foil character is, but it’s a term that people use all the time and that I’ve used in the past and I’m like, do I even know what that word means? I don’t know. [transition to deep, corny voice] So I figured I’d ask you guys because the first stage of any Mythcreants podcast is sandwich discourse.

Chris: We do like our sandwiches.

Wes: We do.

I think just the most important thing to take away with this is character foils. Again, this is just another thing that in literary analysis they like to make a big deal out of. But really, it’s pretty simple. You’ve got usually a main character and secondary characters. When they interact, their interactions emphasize their differences. Then you can call them foil characters, I guess. But that happens in real life too. So we’re all actually foils to our friends and family.

Oren: We’ve all been foils to each other the whole time.

Wes: The whole time, yeah.

Chris: Foils all along.

So I would say a character that’s designed to contrast with another character, usually the protagonist. But this doesn’t mean that when you’re designing the character, you’d be like, [transition to gung-ho voice] ‘Okay, now I’m going to design a contrasting character.’ They’re just something that we do often and for a number of good reasons.

I would also say that often the foil character doesn’t contrast in every single way. In fact, if they have things in common with the protagonist, the differences stand out more. So a lot of characters that I would call foils are actually very similar to the protagonist in a lot of ways. But then those differences stand out partly because of their similarities. Oftentimes they have similar demographics. Like they’re both two young men. But not always. Sometimes they have a little bit bigger differences than that. But that’s what I would call a foil.

Oren: Yeah, I’ve also just discovered that in my head to call something a foil suggests that there is a strong contrast, or it’s being used to emphasize something.

I found a lot of examples on the Internet of people being like [transition to uppity voice] ‘These two characters are foils to each other.’ And I’m like, ‘Mhm, no. Absolutely not.’ My favorite that was listed somewhere was Din Djarin and Boba Fett.

Chris: What? What? No.

Oren: Yes.

Wes: That’s horrible. No, not at all.

Oren: They’re foils in that Din Djarin has a character and Boba Fett doesn’t.


Chris: At this point, yes.

Wes: And when they’re put on the screen, you realize that.

Oren: Right, because they took all of Boba Fett’s character and gave it to Din Djarin and now Boba Fett has nothing left. So I guess in that way they’re foils.

Wes: Oh, my gosh.

Chris: Oh, man.

Oren: Another example that’s a little less comical is from the Animorphs books. I’ve seen a number of places list Marco and Jake as foils because Jake is the leader and Marco takes orders. That’s just nonsense.

Chris: What? I mean, does that define them? Does taking orders define Marco more than other characters?

Oren: No, it doesn’t. Which is funny because there’s a much better option, which some places also list, but it’s just weird that the Jake thing comes up first, which is Marco and Cassie. Because in the books, Marco is the ruthless one who’s like, ‘The ends justify the means, we do what we have to do.’ And Cassie’s like, ‘No, we have to be better and not lose ourselves to make short-term gains.’

Those are actually contrasting views that are often used to highlight each other. Those are foils. But like Jake and Marco because Jake gives orders and Marco follows orders? What kind of nonsense is that?

Wes: That’s silly.

Chris: Now the most prominent foil that’s probably going through popular discourse right now is Wednesday and Enid from Wednesday.

Oren: Yeah.

Chris: Those two are definitely foils, no question about it. Enid is obviously designed to be Wednesday’s foil.

Wednesday is dour and constantly wearing black. Enid is really colorful and really positive. You even have pictures of them posed.

The fact that they are, again, both young women, and they are dorm mates basically, gives them comparable qualities so you can really see where they depart from one another. We even have the room divided in half and their joint window that used to be all colorful that Wednesday scrubbed the color off exactly half of it. So we can see that contrast really easily.

Oren: We really needed that too because the rest of the school is all dark and gothic and Wednesday is dark and gothic. So she doesn’t really stand out in the school but she stands out when you put her next to Enid.

Chris: Yeah, in previous Addams Family stories it has been Addams Family contrasting with everyone else. Right? And that’s been kind of the purpose. So this was a little… not the choice I would have made.

Wes: To put it lightly.

Chris: I might have had an entire article ranting about that.

Wes: Maybe.

Chris: Don’t need to go into it here. Should we talk about why have foil? Why do foil?

Oren: But why is foil?

Wes: Yeah, I think it’s a good thing to touch on.

Your character should interact with the world and probably run into disagreements with people. But having a foil means you have someone around to consistently reveal more about your main character’s qualities in a way. Or if they’ve already been revealed, emphasize them. Because it’s kind of part of an arc too, to say that this interaction point with this foil is actually showing how your point of view character is perhaps developing over the course of the story.

So I think foils are actually really important for character arcs and plot arcs as well, just by providing an essential opportunity for people to see this in action instead of being told about it.

Chris: I mean certainly if you’re going to bring out a character arc, you have to show that your character has a flaw that’s in some way different than everybody around them.

Wes: Yeah, for sure.

Chris: If an entire group has the same flaw, that’s a very different thing and it certainly is not going to make a character look like they have a flaw if everybody is doing it.

But foils can be used in other ways for character arcs. For instance, a foil could have the flaw even worse and inspire the character to be like, ‘Oh yeah, maybe I don’t want to do that.’

But in general, they’re very good for bringing out specific traits in the character and that allows us in many cases to comment on the character. Whether it’s Wednesday is dour and Enid is peppy. So now we can sort of delve more into the fact that Wednesday is dour or Wednesday learning from Enid, Enid learning from Wednesday, all those great things. It certainly makes a character more distinctive when you see them contrast.

And as you pointed out, Wes, the scenes of contrasting characters, oftentimes it creates just more interpersonal tension that brings a scene to life. It creates more chemistry in many cases, creates a little bit more conflict because the characters are contrasting. So that means they’re not always going to agree all of the time.

Wes: Yeah, those moments are great too. Like when you’re talking about a show or like a book, it’s kind of easier to actually remember those moments because they are good scenes.

Usually they have action happening and more than one character. It’s not just an interior monologue or something like that or a bunch of exposition. Things are happening and that provides you with really good examples of characters in action changing and talking and doing and revealing all these kinds of secrets and things that they might be holding on to. So definitely a moment to do a scene and not sum it up.

Oren: The other thing that you should keep in mind with foils is that they are really useful for getting people to ship your characters.


Orem: I’m not going to say that every single foil pair of characters is shipped, but actually wait, no I am saying that actually.

They’re all shipped.

Chris: Well, every pair of characters is technically shipped.

Oren: Yeah, but you know, a lot more. The more two characters contrast with each other, assuming they have any meaningful interactions and sometimes if they don’t. But usually if they have any meaningful interactions, that is going to generate a lot of shipping.

Wes: Yep. Oh boy.

Chris: I think a lot of it is that chemistry that just a little bit of interpersonal tension and conflict creates.

Wes: Yeah, definitely. Because it’s fun.

We keep saying a character foil, but I think the term taken almost too literally can say, ‘Okay, well my foil kind of needs to be antagonistic.’ And no, your antagonist has a particular role to fill, and your foil doesn’t need to be a villain. Could be a minor villain, but it’s better to have your Zuko, you know, that kind of situation where he’s not really the villain and they have chemistry and eventually they come together, and they emphasize the differences in each other’s characters. I’m talking about Aang, of course.

You know, the other ones, the whole group is kind of their own set of foils, which is super fun with any kind of ensemble cast.

Chris: Actually, for Zuko, I would mention Azula as being Zuko’s important foil instead of Aang.

Wes: Oh yeah, a great one for him. Yeah.

Chris: Because again, Aang is so different from Zuko that the differences don’t really come out as much.

Whereas Azula is in a much more similar position to Zuko, so now we can really see where they diverge. And it’s used to emphasize how much Zuko has had to struggle, which makes him more sympathetic. And of course, because Azula is pretty evil, it also makes him look more moral.

Wes: Yeah.

Chris: To prepare him for that redemption arc.

Wes: But I guess the nice thing about series like that one is, Zuko is foiled by tons of people throughout the course of that show. I mean, Katara gets some good action, Aang when he gets on board, obviously Azula. But that’s a great example of just a character that gets so many good growth opportunities because he has great foils. Because Azula really helps build that sympathy for him and then he gets kind of shaped by Katara and then the relationship with the other members of Team Avatar.

I think that’s nice. A foil can do its job until a certain point and maybe your main character graduates to a new foil or something like that. Or slays the previous one, as it were.

Oren: Right.

Assuming there’s a character arc involved, then your characters probably aren’t going to be foils forever, right? Because a character arc involves change and then those two characters might not be as different anymore. That can be its own issue.

If the reason why we loved these two characters together was their contrasting personalities and then one of them has an arc that makes them closer together, it’s like, are they as fun together anymore?

Wes: We need the drama.

Oren: You know, bring in someone new.

The villain foil, which Azula definitely is, is very useful if you want to have the whole “the villain is a dark mirror of the protagonist”, which Blake Snyder thinks automatically happens for some reason, but you actually have to work at that. It’s not automatic.

Wes: Yep.

Oren: But you know, you can do that if you want to. If you want to set that up, you can have two characters, your hero and your villain, who are similar in some ways. Chris mentioned demographics. That’s a pretty common one or job. If you want to do the Gandalf-Saruman route where they’re both wizards and they’re both supposed to be these wise figures who oversee the lesser people and then Saruman turns evil. There you go.

Chris: I really liked Adama and Cain.

Oren: Mhmm. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Chris: And Battlestar Galactica. Because again, Cain is a villain that’s introduced later. She’s also an admiral like Adama, but she technically outranks him. So when she shows up, she kind of takes over. And again, they’re both admirals in the military. They were put in a similar situation after the war with the Cylons. But we now see what would have happened if Adama had gone down a much more ruthless route and just decided the military was just going to be in control now.

Oren: And to head off anyone who wants to get technical, he’s technically not an admiral, but they’re both officers. It’s close enough.

Also, she mirrors some of the initial conflicts that he had with Roslin and the other civilian characters, but she’s much worse. That kind of contrasts how far he’s come because, you know, in the first couple episodes, he was not really sure about Roslin as president. He often kind of brushed aside her orders and thought he should do things himself. But, you know, he came around and he recognized what was going on, and then you have Cain show up to be like, ‘Yeah, whatever, I don’t care about that president. Civilian power? What’s that?’


Chris: One thing I also think is fun to think about is the same kind of contrasting technique outside of characters, like in your worldbuilding, for instance. Probably one of my favorites is Night Vale and Desert Bluffs.

Oren: Oh, yeah.

Chris: For anyone who’s not familiar with Welcome to Night Vale, which I think most people are at this point.

Oren: I’d forgotten what Desert Bluffs was. It’s been a while. I looked at your notes like, what is-what are you talking about?

Chris: Yeah, it’s similar to the Addams Family, actually. In that Night Vale is this like cosmic horror, super spooky place. But when you get down to it, the people there are nice people. And Desert Bluffs is designed to be the reverse. So it seems, oh, it’s super nice and sunny, but like everybody there is really evil. Again, it creates contrast and makes it so that preserves Night Vale’s novelty will also make Night Vale look more saintly.

Wes: Yeah.

Broadly, I think we’re probably now just talking about opportunities for good juxtaposition in your text and for your scenes or your shows. It’s just like, ‘I’m going to put these things close together.’

Oftentimes in prose, it should be close enough, right? Like not chapters apart, but where you can draw on that immediate contrast and emphasize the unique qualities that each one possesses without really taxing your short-term or long-term memory if you’re reading a book.

But it’s fun. Anything put into contrast is fun. Beyond characters too. It’s a good way to kind of just view shows and read books by looking for points of contrast and then just focusing on what that adds to your experience.

Oren: One of my favorites was from Deep Space Nine when they go to Empok Nor, which is another Cardassian station that’s built in the same fashion as Deep Space Nine, which used to be called Terok Nor when it was a Cardassian station. Because we spent several seasons by this point building up Deep Space Nine as this place that’s warm and lived in and it’s a little rundown and disheveled in places, but that just kind of makes it more charming. It has a working person station vibe as opposed to like the kind of cruise ship vibe of TNG or the military vibe of the original series.

But then you go to Empok Nor, which is the same model of station and has similar sets inside because it’s supposed to be built the same, but it’s all abandoned and spooky and full of murder. And it’s like, this is great. This has some fun contrast. I like this a lot.

Chris: And they get to reuse sets?

Oren: Yeah, and it’s cheap. It’s good on the budget too. So, you know.

Wes: Real helpful.

Oren: Not a problem that you need to super worry about if you’re writing a novel, but you know, who knows? Maybe if it turns into a TV show, it could be helpful.

Chris: Oh, hey, another recent pop culture one. Bill and Frank from The Last of Us.

Wes: Oh, yeah.

Oren: Absolutely.

Chris: Talking about how that works in a romance, there’s different romance dynamics that can help establish what the characters have to offer each other. But with a couple of characters that are foils, oftentimes you’ll have a very pessimistic character and a very positive character because it makes it really easy to see what they offer to each other.

There’s lots of other character contrasts that you can set up that make it obvious how two people are better together.

In this case, Bill is just a complete loner survivalist and was a conspiracy theorist before the apocalypse. Doesn’t think he needs anybody. And Frank is this really friendly people person. So we’ve got like a protector-nurturer dynamic going on there. But, you know, Frank is, again, kind of positive, which Bill really needs. And then Bill is really interested in protecting Frank.

Oren: Yeah.

When I’m looking at how to construct a foil, I think I sort of generally go with either aesthetics, characteristics, or methods. Usually, you’ll want more than one. But those are kind of three different categories.

For aesthetics, you have Wednesday and Enid who just look very different. For characteristics, you could have something like Garak and Bashir from Deep Space Nine. They also look different, but not like in a super contrasting way. In that case, it’s more of Bashir is extremely earnest and Garak is very cynical and also kind of sinister.

And then, of course, you can look at methods. And this one gets a little trickier because you need to be able to create different ways that characters solve problems.

You can have something like Twoflower and Rincewind from the early Discworld books where Two Flower is just extremely fearless because he doesn’t really understand danger. So he’ll see something dangerous and be like, let’s go check that out and just want to get close to it and see what it is. Whereas Rincewind is a total coward and wants to run away from anything that’s a problem. So, of course, you stick those two characters together and you have a fun time. I mean, not a super fun time because you’re reading early Discworld, but~… close enough.


Wes: Fun enough.

Oren: But I mean, that’s why the ruthless edgelord type character and the sweet cinnamon roll type character work really well pairing them up. And the edgy character doesn’t have to be played by Pedro Pascal, but it probably helps at this point. Like it’s getting to be a bit of a tradition.

Wes: Other ways to create opportunities for your foils to interact, I think, is putting them in the same place where they receive plot important information. Just getting information is a good way to just figure out how people respond to it. And the example that I have used for a long time when I’ve talked about this with students or other kinds of things is in Macbeth because it happens right at the start.

When Macbeth and Banquo come upon some witches who are like, ‘Hey, guys, we’ve got a bunch of really cool things to tell you.’ And Macbeth’s like, ‘Tell me more.’ And Banquo’s like, [transitions to adorable voice] ‘Mmmh, is this a great idea?’ But then I just love that it happens after the fact.

The first prediction comes true. Macbeth is Thane of Cawdor. And he asks Banquo, well, don’t you hope that your kids are going to be kings? Because that first prediction already came true. And Banquo gives a cautious response. But I always kind of wish that Banquo said, [transitions to adorable voice] ‘I mean, I hope so. Because if you actually become king, then that means that our grandkids are going to get married~’. Instead of Macbeth just going full on murderer.

But I think getting information and considering what can you do with that information and how the characters approach that with skepticism or, in this case, extreme ambition is a fun way to do it. We’re not throwing them into conflict, but we’re planting a seed for that to play out over the course of the story. And it’s plot relevant, which is always helpful for that kind of stuff.

Chris: Whereas a moral dilemma is probably a good way to have it come to a head.

Wes: Yeah, absolutely.

Chris: Because you can easily put the two characters on different sides of that moral dilemma and then fight, fight, fight.

Wes: Fight, fight, fight. Get it done.

Oren: So here’s a question, Wes. Because when I was first looking up foils, all of the examples were from classics that I either haven’t read or haven’t read in a very long time. And one of the ones that comes up a lot is Victor Frankenstein and ye olde Monster.

Wes: [emphatic] No.


Oren: You don’t think so?

Wes: No, I believe Victor’s true foil in that story is his friend Henry.

They’re foils, I think, in a more important way, but you could look at them as just the humanities against the sciences as foils for that. Because Henry is very much socially aware and likes people and is empathetic. And Victor’s just like, [transition to grouchy voice] ‘No, math’, and other kinds of science. But Henry is there to basically be the foil to Victor because Victor is depressed, he’s gloomy, he thinks he’s destined for greatness. And Henry is, I mean, this is very much a Wednesday and Enid kind of situation. Henry is enthusiastic. He loves experiencing things with Victor, trying to point out the mountains are awesome. And she really liked writing about mountains. So we got lots of that stuff.

Oren: Yay, mountains.

Wes: But you know, and when Victor falls ill, Henry kind of nurses him back to health. I mean, they really do have quite a romance going on with this, too. I’m sure that got shipped at some point.

But what’s most important, I think, about that foil is Henry dies and his absence makes you feel like… A good foil will, when they’re no longer in the story, will give you a sense of what would Victor have been like if Henry was still around. I think that’s kind of good because you see that change and then they go down this path that their foil was kind of maybe keeping them away from.

Frankenstein’s creature is not a foil because it’s just an extension of him and his hubris. It doesn’t do anything to exacerbate his hubris or arrogance. It just makes him say, ‘Oh, man, I shouldn’t have made you. You’re hideous.’ And then he runs away forever. I think it’s boring.

Oren: Yeah, that was kind of the impression I was getting. It didn’t really seem like it fit.

Wes: Yeah.

Chris: I would like to just follow up on that because that’s a really good way if you want to have a character on a downward arc.

I mentioned this in my post on doing a downward arc that it’s very helpful to show that your character has a positive influence and then to start them on their arc, take it away. And often take it away in a devastating manner that encourages the character to act out, which then creates a downward cycle. So in this case with Victor and Henry, you can see how that would happen.

Wes: That’s such a good point and that’s a really good article of yours because you have to do that if you want to have any sympathy for somebody going on a downward spiral.

I think tragedies can be done very well, but you have to start out with something good going on. Otherwise, what’s the point? You’re not going to feel anything.

Chris: You definitely have to show why the character changes and that’s something that people have a lot of trouble with, especially when the character has to change in a negative way without, again, it being too much at once and then we just hate the character.

Wes: Yeah, exactly.

Chris: At that point.

Wes: You want to feel like there’s a chance that as bad as it’s gotten, you’re like, ‘Oh man, but maybe they can pull it back. Maybe they can turn it around.’ Sometimes there could be a turning point where that happens, but if it is a tragedy, then no, but that can still be satisfying in its own way.

Chris: Another interesting couple of characters is Frodo and Gollum, especially as they’re shown in the movie because they have some contrast, but their similarities are really what makes the big impression. But again, we see a possibility for Frodo, a bad possibility for Frodo in Gollum, but also Gollum is devious and tries to isolate Frodo. So we kind of have that reverse there.

Wes: Yeah, that’s nice because Frodo has tendencies that you can see the path with Gollum and Gollum kind of exacerbates those a little bit, but because they have that kind of shared experience, Sam’s attempts to kind of help Frodo become less effective as Gollum and Frodo get a little closer as things go on.

Chris: Because normally Sam would be the good influence character.

Wes: Which is good because yeah, that’s a really good example, Chris. Frodo gets both of them as foils because it’s a small traveling party and their influence waxes and wanes as Frodo changes over the course of the story, which is great.

Chris: Often if you have three characters, you can make them all contrast with each other pretty easily. The more characters you add, of course, the harder that becomes.

Oren: One of my favorite foil pairings is a weird little self-fulfilling prophecy almost, because in a lot of these lists, you will find Sherlock and Watson.

Wes: Ah, yes.

Oren: But when I read the original Sherlock stories, I would not have described them that way.

In the original Sherlock stories, Watson is very blank. He doesn’t have much of a personality. He’s the person whose eyes we are watching the story through.

Chris: Does he represent the audience mainly?

Wes: Generally, yeah.

Chris: Is it there to be like the boy in the original Interview with the Vampire? He’s like, [transition to fanboy voice] ‘You’re so cool, Louis.’

Oren: The main reason I think we see the story through his perspective is so that we can hide information that Sherlock then uses to make his deductions. And it’s like, [transition to sour grapes voice] ‘Man, if I knew that, I would have figured it out too.’ So in the original books, I would definitely not describe Watson as much of a foil to Sherlock, but he has certainly become that in more recent recreations of Sherlock and Watson, in Elementary especially, which is the one that I’m really familiar with. That’s my Sherlock. #mysherlock.

Wes: They do the same in the Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman too, because I think you have to, because otherwise Watson has nothing going on.

Oren: Right, otherwise why is Watson in this story?

Wes: There’s enough pieces from the original stories to make him compelling. It’s just Doyle didn’t bother with it. And if Sherlock is just solving cases, I think that’s why Moriarty really blew out of proportion in recent stories as like, ‘Oh my god, finally somebody to contrast with and compete with Sherlock. This obviously needs to be the main villain from here on out.’ But I maintain this, and I realize we’re getting close to the end of the time that if you closely read The Final Problem, that spoiler alert Moriarty is Holmes.

Oren: Waah.

Wes: I’m done.

Oren: Whoa, okay, just dropping a bombshell 15 seconds before the end of the podcast. Okay, strong work everyone. We’ll be back next week with episode 422. What the heck are you talking about, Wes?


Oren: Alright, well y’all can ask Wes in the comments what the heck he meant by that and he could tell you, I guess. Because we are out of time.

Chris: If you enjoy this episode, please support us on Patreon. Just go to

Oren: And before we go, I want to thank a few of our existing patrons. First and welcome to the podcast as brand new we have Plottr, the popular book planning software which you can learn about at Next there’s Callie McLeod. Then we have Kathy Ferguson who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next there’s Amon Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at We’ll talk to you next week.

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