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Ten Steps to Writing a Best-Seller: Step 2 – The Foil

Everybody needs a best friend.
In fiction the main character's best friend is often called a “foil.” The purpose of the foil can be many things: I use a foil to get information to the reader that can't get to them otherwise, and I use a foil to suggest things to the main character, maybe a course of action, say, that I couldn't get to him or her otherwise. Many writers also use foils as “interesting” characters to give their book some flavor. I would caution you to be careful about doing this because what the writer considers eccentric or quaint or interesting about a character can, to your readers, be downright boring or, worse, plain dumb. Certain lawyers have written foil characters in their books and those foils get some pretty obnoxious reader reviews, the kind that all writers cringe to get. So…be careful about the look, smell, sound, and feel of your foil character. Don't let them speak gibberish, it will only confuse your reader.
In The Defendants I use a foil character and her name is Christine Susmann. Christine, as you might remember, is ex-Army, a weightlifter, ex-MP, and knows her way around the streets. She takes the naive young Thaddeus under her wing and teaches him how to shoot a gun–which saves his life–and teaches him a few things about how to manipulate bad people and, most important, as his paralegal she teaches him quite a bit about the practice of law.
When I was a new, young lawyer, I luckily had a legal secretary/paralegal a lot like Christine. I didn't know what a contract for deed looked like, so my Christine went around to other lawyers and gathered samples, then she made one for me to use. When I didn't know how to do other things she would always get on the phone and ask around her friends, who worked for other lawyers, how to do this or that.
When I was just starting out I also had a lawyer who was four years ahead of me, who I could bounce things off of. While I was in law school he paid me one summer to do some work for him, God bless him, which gave me enough money to live on that next year in law school. He also taught me which books I would need and how to use them, once I was setting up my own office.
A foil like Christine or Quentin (Thaddeus' DA lawyer in The Defendants) can be an invaluable tool. Remember to give them enough qualities and personal characteristics to make them real so you, the author, aren't just speaking through them, and then let them show you the way. If you've done it right, they will shoulder some of the load for you and give your main character a hand when things get really bad.Thanks for reading!

  • October 20, 2014

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