Dana's Dojo: Curses! I'm a Foil Again!

Today in the Dojo: Manipulating foils and mirrors to contrast and enhance.

I made the mistake once of asking Nikki for some column topics, expecting something rather easy that I could breeze through in an afternoon.  I should know better.  First she hits me with Subplots, then we get into Foils and Mirrors.  I latched on to Foils and Mirrors.  I have mirror characters, thinks I.  How hard could it be?

Yes, I know.  I don’t blame you for laughing at my folly about now.

There is not a word about foils and mirrors in the index of any of my books on writing.  Nary an article in any of those magazines I lug from apartment to apartment.  Not a single damned useful thing anywhere.

Grr, said I, and turned to the intertoobz.

A little while later, after sifting through the pages that assumed I want to do something arts-and-craftsy with actual foil and mirrors, I found some information that really kind of bugged.  Literary definitions were pulping foils and mirrors into a kind of blended mush.  Foil didn’t mean what I thought it did.  Mirror barely appeared at all.  But there was some great stuff in those articles that made up for the shattering of my assumptions.

I will, of course, be putting the patented Dana Hunter spin on things, and redefining things just a bit.  But for the most part, I’ve adjusted my own definitions to come more into line with common wisdom, and only imposed my own idiosyncratic interpretation where it seems to resolve the most confusion.

So here we go….


The term foil came into literary use by way of the jewelry biz: jewelers place a bit of foil behind a gem to make its brilliance really pop.  Some clever literature person looked at that, had a brainwave, and filched the concept.  Voila, the literary world now has foils as well.  Only the foils involved here would probably be very upset if we tried to smash them flat and stick them behind the gemstone in a brooch.

And so, in its simplest sense, the idea of a foil is a character who sets off another and makes them really shine by contrast.  Sticklers say that the foil must enhance the main character rather than the secondary ones.  And then some either very confused or extremely clever persons took off on another definition of foil, which is a thin sword used in fencing, and said, “Hmmm.  The foil could be the bastard who foils the protagonist, ha ha ha.”

Indeed.  But it works, although it tends to confuse things a bit, as there are no specific terms for which type of foil we mean.  Do we mean a Watson, whose dimness and goodwill makes Holmes’ intelligence and coldness stand out like a halogen?  Or do we mean Snape, who constantly trips up poor Harry Potter and makes his life miserable?

“Mirror” is sometimes used as a synonym for “foil”, so I shall appropriate it to my own nefarious purposes and create the following definitions for our discussion: a foil opposes, a mirror reflects.  Remember that mirrors are also used to reflect and enhance light as well as simply reflect images, so this works very well.

Right, then.  So what are they?


Literary definitions are narrow and persnickety.  They are refined beings and don’t like to mix with the commoners.  We, however, are not literati: we are rough-and-ready writers who are looking for tools, not objets d’art.  We don’t care what shape the hammer is as long as it will do for pounding down the nails.
And so, while we will use the classical definition of foils and mirrors as characters, I set out to prove to you that anything can be a foil or a mirror.  In a pinch, a lump of rock will do.

Michael Connelly uses the media as a foil to his main character Harry Bosch in City of Bones.  I use a manor house as a mirror for Luther Novotny.  Everything from nature to a play has been used as a foil or a mirror in great works of literature.  Don’t limit yourself to narrow definitions.  When you think foil and mirror, think things as well as people.  People are preferred most of the time, but there are times when people will not do the job.  The hammer is made of glass.  Time to look for the flatiron you acquired on impulse in the antique shop the other day, and then that nail’s gonna be pounded.

In fact, I would even go so far as to say that your foil or mirror could be something within the characters themselves.  That’s blurring the lines into conflict, but why not?  Who says we can’t use a screwdriver to set the screw before we start twisting?  Just remember you’re the only one likely to know that’s what you were doing, so don’t be too upset when the literati don’t ooh and aah over your clever use of the concept.  It’s okay.  We’ll know.


Like real foil and mirrors, what kind you use and where you put them make an enormous difference.  If you want the room to be brighter, you stick the mirror behind the lamp: if you want the room to look bigger, you stick a larger mirror on an accent wall.  If you want to become a fencing champion, you must have the proper foil.  It’s the same thing in writing.  A misplaced or misused foil or mirror will spoil the effect.

There are a few simple things to consider.  Did I say simple?  I assure you, I speak in relative terms.  We all know that nothing in writing is truly simple, no matter how easy it sounds.

First, what effect are you going for?  If you want to throw some caltrops in the path of your happily skipping hero, only a foil in the sense of an object with which to inflict jabs will do.  If you want to make someone shine brighter, or highlight some aspect of them, then you’ll want to reach for a mirror.  So, the first simple question becomes: do I want to obstruct, enhance, or reflect?

Secondly, probably most obviously, you’ll need to know whom you’re applying that to.  It’s not always as obvious as it seems.  Foils and mirrors are most usually paired with the main character, but you can use them on secondary characters as well.  It could be the villain.  It’s just probably a good idea not to use them on a bit player, because that’s like putting mirrors under the kitchen sink to make that cabinet look bigger.  Remember that foils and mirrors are a value-added option, so you don’t want to waste them on things of minor importance.  So, the second simple question becomes: who’s worth it?

Thirdly, you’ll need to decide to what degree and when.  Some foils and mirrors are there from the beginning and patently obvious.  Some show up at a critical juncture, perform their function, then bow out quietly (or not so quietly, depending).  Some only gradually become recognizable for what they are as the story unfolds.  So, the third and not-quite-so-simple question becomes: How much am I emphasizing, here, and where do I want that emphasis to be noticed?

Once you know the answers to those questions, you’ll probably find it fairly easy to decide what kind of foil or mirror you’d like to use: character or otherwise. 

I’ll share with you a personal anecdote at this point in case you like to see the silly goober manipulating the mirrors, and to give you an idea of why one might choose not to use a person as a foil or mirror.  When I was first starting to write Luther, I realized he was a hard nut to crack.  He was one of the ominous mysterious types who never really gets close to people and whom no one ever re

ally knows.  I wanted the reader to have some way to gain insight into him, and it wasn’t happening through his interactions with other characters as much as I might have liked.  A Watson was completely out of the question: this man does not like sustained human company.  He makes Holmes look positively gregarious by comparison.  And so, I brought out the details of his manor house and turned it into his mirror.  If you look closely at that house and its grounds, you can see into his soul.  His house is him.  He chose every aspect from where it was located to where it was built and what objets d’art fill it with great care.  The beauty of the manor house is that it also mirrors anyone who goes there.  What people notice about it tells you as much about them as Luther.

See the power of a mirror of the proper size, type and placement?  And why you should not limit yourself to living beings when creating one?


And now we come to that part of any arts-and-crafts missive where demonstrations of what can be done with all those bits of things you just bought can be used.  Maybe I’ll even throw up a completed piece in the true spirit of things.  Only this time, it’ll be of the kind of quality you can hope to match with the instructions rather than one of those confections the directions promise you’ll achieve but must have been done using a different set of instructions and materials altogether.

I’ve got a few examples of what foils and mirrors are good for.  This is by no means the comprehensive list, just something with which to prod the muse and make her/him stop jeering at Survivor and get to work with the scissors and glue.

*A caveat: I use the word “hero” for the character the foil or mirror is being placed against.  Remember that this is a shorthand: it does not mean that the character being set off must always be the hero.*


  • Use your foil to prepare your hero for the final fight against the villain by making him/her overcome a similar but lesser obstacle.
  • Raise the stakes by having your hero fail against a foil whose opposition is similar to what the villain has on offer.
  • Make your hero’s life miserable by constantly having to deal with all of the crap the foil throws his/her way, as if the other crap they had to deal with wasn’t already quite enough to be going on with, thank you so very much.
  • Show how heroic your hero is by the way s/he handles all the thrusts and jabs from the foil.


  • Raise the stakes by having the hero’s mirror fail against the same or similar obstacle that the hero will soon have to deal with.
  • Give the readers (and the hero) false hope/confidence by having the mirror succeed in the same or similar situation the hero will soon be encountering.
  • Make facets of the hero shine all the more brightly for being compared to/contrasted by the mirror.
  • Reveal aspects of the hero via the mirror.

For further ideas on the possible uses of foils and mirrors, visit Traci’s Ten Assignments on Dramatic Foils.  And you thought I was snarky!  Not only is this list of assignments a pleasing read in its own right, it’s chock full of interesting possibilities.  She was only giving teachers ideas for making comparison/contrast papers involving foils more interesting, but she ended up handing us a sparkly new hammer for the toolkit.  And as a special bonus, you’ll get a Magic Eight Ball reading, too!

Dana's Dojo: Curses! I'm a Foil Again!