I know, I know, I’m really late to the Hamilton party. It’s a brilliant play, for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with character foils. You know what, though? The way it uses foils is amazing.
To review: “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.” -Wikipedia.
Now, on to things I’ve learned about foils from Hamilton.
Difference is about similarity.
Alexander Hamilton is an orphaned genius who rises from nothing to join the revolution and later plays a key role in the new U.S. government. Aaron Burr is … also those things. Their lives run strangely parallel from their first meet up until (spoiler, I guess?) Burr fatally shoots Hamilton. Their similarities let us see what utter opposites they are.
If you want to show someone is a genius, put them next to somebody smart.
It’s counterintuitive, right? Foils rely on contrast, and isn’t the opposite of a smart person a stupid one? But no: the opposite of an exceptional person is an averagely capable one. Hamilton portrays its title character as a genius who fights his way into the company of other brilliant people—and still excels. That’s far more impressive than being the smartest person in a room where nobody else is smart.
Put a genius next to idiots … sparingly.
There’s only one song (“Farmer Refuted”) where Hamilton argues with someone who can’t rise to his level of debate. He argues circles around the guy, who repeats his solid points over and over until an infuriated Hamilton resorts to shouting insults. It works, it’s hilarious, and we don’t need more than two minutes of it.
Don’t always make your protagonist look good.
Even in the idiot vs. genius exchange, Hamilton looks smart, sincere, principled … and given to pointless anger, childish insults, and poor impulse-control. And that’s when he’s right. He spends most of the play surrounded by people who understand truths he doesn’t, and the play is better for it.
One character can have many foils.
Hamilton vs. Burr: driven (“Just you wait!”) vs. cautious (“Wait for it…”)
Hamilton vs. Eliza: ambitious vs. appreciative of the present moment
Hamilton vs. Jefferson: hungry vs. established
Hamilton vs. Washington: restless vs. at peace
Notice how consistent Hamilton is here: driven, ambitious, hungry, and restless. The way each character clashes with him illuminates their personality while confirming Hamilton’s.
“Foil” is not a character’s only role.
All these characters have important stories of their own. Nobody is just a foil.
Show who people are through their personal philosophies. Then make them fight.
Every character in the play brings a strong and different philosophy (“I will not throw away my shot,” “Wait for it,” “How lucky we are to be alive right now,” etc.), and they collide. This can spark political debates, irreconcilable personal differences, or character growth. Characters often don’t understand why they drive each other up the wall, but we know: their personal philosophies clash.
Nobody needs to win these debates.
Is it better to “talk less, smile more” or to “rise up”? To work “non-stop” or to “wait for it”?
Who cares? It’s about contrasting characterizations, not finding a right answer.
Sometimes, somebody needs to win these debates.
Jefferson is ultimately portrayed as a fairly principled statesman (and an insufferable ass), but his positive traits only appear long, long after Hamilton rips him to shreds for his complicity in slavery. The play doesn’t always take sides, but “slavery was evil” is not negotiable.
Foils show how people change.
When Hamilton reaches out to his betrayed and grieving wife by echoing her personal philosophies (in “It’s Quiet Uptown”), we understand he’s finally learned something.
Foils show how people don’t change.
The Burr and Hamilton of the final duel clash for the same reasons they always have. Yes, Hamilton has grown somewhat—he does throw away his shot—but he’ll never back down or learn to take his time. I’ve got immense respect for a story that lets a difficult protagonist stay difficult.
That’s what I’ve got. So … what’d I miss?