Character Talk: The Foil and The Stock
You’ve started writing your book and the characters have started to take shape. And you notice that one of the characters is far too familiar. Like you know them from some book or movie already. Though it’s completely an original character you brewed from your imagination, and yet it feels like the Simpsons already did it. That’s a stock character in the making, a couple of them always find their way into almost every story.
Writers mainly rely on characters to create conflict. To achieve this effect, writers often create a character who is the polar opposite of the protagonist. Unlike the antagonist, who is the opposing force to the main character, a foil may not necessarily be a villain to the hero. But rather, it serves as an effect of contrast to shine a light on the protagonist’s qualities.
The stock and the foil: These two characters will be the focus of this article. What is their purpose in the story? How can you develop a foil and choose an appropriate stock character for your story? All this, while we take a look at some of the most memorable characters from both these categories.
It ever so happens that you’re watching a movie or a television program and there’s that one character you can instantly recognize as the femme fatale, the hero, the nerd or the girl next door. Such familiar characters have an indelible part to play in well-known stories. Such characters which appear in multiple stories, packed in a slightly different avatar are stock characters.
Stock characters gained popularity through Commedia dell’ arte style of theatre. The audiences of the 1500s were quickly able to identify each character based on what they have seen the characters do or say in the previous plays. Characters such as the hero, the villain, the jester, and the princes could be told from a mile apart. And the tradition still persists in sitcoms.
Foil characters share few or no values or traits with the main character. If one character is Positive Peter, and his best friend is a Negative Nancy, then Nancy is a foil to Peter. This is the simplest of literary plot devices where you put two characters together, and they highlight each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The most common foil characters are the heroes and villains, who stand for opposing values and want to achieve separate goals.
The most famous example of a foil character is Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, whose ordinary foresight serves to highlight the genius of Holmes.
Foils help you:
- Understand the main character’s traits and motivations more clearly
- Know good from evil, strength from weakness, smart from dumb
- Indicate who the protagonist is more clearly
Can there be more than one Foil?
Yes. Some works of literature have more than one set of foils. Two characters that foil each other, or multiple foils for the various major characters. Applies more to stories that run into series. The Harry Potter series is replete with examples of multiple foil characters.
Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy are pretty much textbook examples of foil characters. They have a lot in common: They both study at Hogwarts, the same age and gender, they play the same position on their house Quidditch teams. But beyond these surface similarities, they are polar opposites. Harry is the Chosen One of the prophecies, the only one who can defeat Voldemort. Draco, on the other hand, grows up worshiping Voldemort.
Harry’s maternal cousin Dudley Dursely is another example. Dudley is pompous, arrogant and greedy, all the opposite traits of Harry. Dudley is also obese, whereas Harry is lanky. We also get to see the contrast between the two in how they are treated by the Durselys. Vernon and Petunia treated Harry poorly, while they spoiled Dudley like he was royalty.
Hermoine and Luna, Dumbeldore and Voldemort. There are many more foil characters in the Potter universe. Can you think of any more such characters? Tell us in the comments.
Now you have a clear idea about the stock and foil characters and how you can employ them in your next story. With this article, we have discussed all the major types of characters in literature. Our next series of blog posts focus on dialogue writing. Acquaint yourself with how to punctuate dialogue in fiction.
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