Think of a few literary or movie characters who made an indelible mark on you. Ask yourself, why do I remember these particular characters when I've forgotten so many others? What makes these characters, but not others, memorable?
Probably, you will identify certain characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, values, beliefs, and even views of the world. The characters you admire will probably have acted honorably, valorously, and heroically. Those you recall, perhaps with a shudder, feeling fear, disgust, or horror, probably strike you as evil or dangerous, as contemptible and loathsome, because of their characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, values, beliefs, and world views. While the admirable characters support others, the contemptible are usually interested in serving only themselves.
More specifically, though, how are characters sketched by writers?
Most characters are collections of personality traits. These traits are implied through the characters' actions, or behavior, including the words they speak, their dialogue. In movies and, more than ever before, in novels, behavior is the means by which personality traits, attitudes, values, beliefs, and world views are shown.
In the thriller Falling Down (1993), William Foster, an unemployed engineer, sees society as “falling down” right before his eyes. While the movie leaves no doubt that society is, in fact, in a state of partial collapse, it is also true that Foster himself is “falling down.” He's lost his job. His marriage has ended in divorce. His ex-wife, Beth, has been awarded sole custody of their daughter Adele and has secured a restraining order against Foster, who has a penchant to act aggressively, even violently, toward others, including, apparently, Beth herself. Foster has lied to his mother, with whom he stays, telling her that he is still employed. In fact, he carries an empty briefcase around town, wearing out shoe leather as he wanders more or less aimlessly until he conceives of the idea of visiting Adele on her birthday, despite the restraining order that has been issued against him and Beth's clear demands that he avoid contact with her and Adele.
At first, Foster is a likable, understandable character. He is an educated, hardworking man who plays by the rules and expects to be treated accordingly. He is courteous, polite, respectful, and dutiful—until things don't go his way. Then, he becomes aggressive, insulting, violent, and, eventually, even murderous.
Throughout the film, as Foster encounters escalating examples of the increasingly extreme societal decline he is convinced has overtaken life in Los Angeles and, perhaps the United States as well, he himself collapses further and further psychologically, and he reacts to the instances of social decline with more and more extreme behavior, ratcheting up his aggression and violence, revealing himself to be a truly unstable and dangerous man.
As his reactions to stress and what he sees as the erosion of social conventions and, indeed, society itself become increasingly extreme and violent, his behavior begins to distance us from him. We understand that he is not who we thought he was. His civility is a mask. The real man is a walking time bomb who could go “off” at any moment.
Showing what a character appears to be allows writers to reveal what he actually is, and this difference surprises the movie's audience. This same technique works not only in Falling Down but in many other movies. It also works in novels and other forms of fiction.
In addition to showing Foster's personality—his traits, behaviors, attitudes, values, beliefs, and world view—as he reacts to various incidents which confirm his belief that society is “falling down,” even as his own psyche collapses, the film shows how inappropriate, unnecessary, and dangerous his reactions are by contrasting them with those of another character who encounters similar problems as those which face Foster.
Using a foil, a character whose behaviors, attitudes, values, beliefs, and world view strongly contrasts with those of another, opposing character, is a tried- and-true means of characterization which Falling Down uses to good effect. In Falling Down, Sgt. Prendergast is Foster's foil.
Foster has “lost” a daughter; Prendergast has lost one through the girl's death. Foster's marriage has ended in divorce. Prendergast's wife Amanda suffers from anxiety, which makes her feel the need to control her environment and to order both her own and Prendergast's lives. Foster has been fired from his job. Despite less-than-ideal working conditions, Prendergast wants to remain on the Los Angeles Police Department's force, but Amanda wants him to retire to Lake Havasu City, Arizona.
Both Foster and Prendergast see a collapse of social traditions, organizations, institutions, and mores, but—and here is the chief difference between these men who, to a large degree, live rather parallel lives—Foster feels cheated by “the system” and wants what he considers to be his due, whereas Prendergast is content to prop up society and to help to protect and defend it against its threats, including Foster himself.
The use of Prendergast as Foster's foil more sharply defines the characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, values, beliefs, and world views of both the unemployed defense engineer and the detective.
One effective way to sketch a character is to show what he seems to be so that, later, you can reveal what he actually is like, and a superb way of revealing this discrepancy is to contrast the character with a foil.
Such techniques of characterization are widely used as time-tested ways of sketching characters because they are effective. By showing characters react to a variety of situations and incidents and by contrasting these reactions with those of another character who is the opposite in his or her characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, values, beliefs, and world views, writers create indelible characters who stand out as memorable individuals. Such an approach can be, and is, used in all genres of fiction, both on the page and on the sound stage.