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In fiction, a foil is a character who contrasts with another character (usually the protagonist) in order to highlight particular qualities of the other character. In some cases, a subplot can be used as a foil to the main plot. This is especially true in the case of metafiction and the "story within a story" motif. The word foil comes from the old practice of backing gems with foil in order to make them shine more brightly.
A foil usually either differs drastically or is extremely similar but with a key difference setting them apart. The concept of a foil is also more widely applied to any comparison that is made to contrast a difference between two things. Thomas F. Gieryn places these uses of literary foils into three categories which Tamara Antoine and Pauline Metze explain as: those that emphasize the heightened contrast (this is different because ...), those that operate by exclusion (this is not X because...), and those that assign blame ("due to the slow decision-making procedures of government...").
Examples from Literature
In Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, the two main characters of Dr. Frankenstein and his "Adam of your Labours," his "creature, " his "wretch," are both together literary foils, functioning to compare one to the other.
In the Harry Potter series, Draco Malfoy can be seen as a foil to the Harry Potter character; Professor Snape enables both characters "to experience the essential adventures of self-determination" but they make different choices; Harry chooses to oppose Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters, whereas Draco eventually joins them.
- Corwin, Norman (1978-04-01). Holes in a stained glass window. L. Stuart. ISBN 9780818402555. Retrieved 3 March 2013.
- http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/211951/foil Retrieved 2011-01-18.
- http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/72433?rskey=H1lv7r&result=1# Retrieved 2011-01-18.
- Auger, Peter (August 2010). The Anthem Dictionary of Literary Terms and Theory. Anthem Press. pp. 114–. ISBN 9780857286703. Retrieved 3 March 2013.
- http://www.cramster.com/definitions/foil/509 Retrieved 2011-01-18.
- "Define Foil at Dictionary.com". Original publisher, Collins World English Dictionary, reprinted at Dictionary.com. Retrieved 3 March 2013.
- Metze, Tamara Antoine Pauline (2010). Innovation Ltd.. Eburon Uitgeverij B.V. pp. 61–. ISBN 9789059724532. Retrieved 3 March 2013.
- Leverage, Paula (2011). Theory of Mind and Literature. Purdue University Press. pp. 6–. ISBN 9781557535702. Retrieved 3 March 2013.
- Marrapodi, Michele (2011-03-01). Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories: Anglo-Italian Transactions. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. pp. 132–. ISBN 9781409421504. Retrieved 28 February 2013.
- Heilman, Elizabeth E. (2008-08-05). Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter. Taylor & Francis US. pp. 93–. ISBN 9780203892817. Retrieved 3 March 2013.