As writers, our characters need distinct and unique qualities to make them interesting. Sometimes we can make these aspects sparkle a bit more than otherwise by having a one character live with attributes that are the opposite of another. In literature this is known as a foil. In my novel PRINCE, I used intelligence as a foil.
Bonnie & Philip
Bonnie Calahan marries Philip Castile. This is pretty much the only dumb thing she does. She is quite intelligent, as well as an avid reader. She raises her son, Charlie, my main character, to love books as she does. She is clever and a master of words, even described in the book as one who can speak equally well in hyperbole and litote.
If marrying Philip is her least intelligent act, then leaving him may be Bonnie at her smartest. Philip is a selfish bore. But he’s not the village idiot. A clever writer should try to hide a person’s inadequacies from first sight. Philip is a very important businessman. He almost has the presumption of being smart, but upon closer evaluation, he isn’t.
The best way to show these opposites is to put them in the same room. There it is clear who is above the other, the billionaire or the courthouse stenographer. Bonnie must, with great reluctance, ask Philip for money to help in Charlie’s education, and of course, he says no (because he’s the bad guy). Although she leaves with no cash, she clearly came out on top of their little back-and-forth.
Philip had just returned from the opera, but couldn’t tell Bonnie anything about the story. As Bonnie leaves, she sings some of the lyrics from the opera, and they happen to be about Jewish slaves in Babylonian captivity (extra credit if from this you can guess the opera- hint, it’s by Verdi).
Philip cracks a raw egg into a cognac and Bonnie figures out quickly that it is yet another ineffective home remedy for the gout fed to him by one of his lackeys. Even in their conversation, Philip just doesn’t seem to get it. Later Bonnie tells Charlie that when she first met Philip, he believed her when she said you should not try to catch a leprechaun because they give you leprosy, and that he believed the Pieta was an Italian urinal.
Charlie & Hubert
Charlie’s schoolboy nemesis is a bully named Hubert. Even from their first encounter at a baseball game, Charlie comes out on top in every way. He not only rolls insult upon insult, as children do, but in the game he hits Hubert’s pitches, and when Hubert is walked, Charlie lays a hard tag on him with the ball that bloodies his nose.
And so it goes throughout high school with these two, verbally and physically. Hubert gets in a shot, but Charlie comes out on top always. These foils are there to encase the real pair of opposites in the smarts department, and that is Charlie with Philip. Charlie is closer to his mother than anyone else in personality and temperament. Also, Hubert is almost a type for Philip, the bully Charlie is willing to stand up to. Charlie even admits to his best friend that on one occasion when he was in a fight with Hubert that he imagined that it was his father that he was beating up.
We naturally like and respect clever people. Making your good guy smart is one may to insure he is likable. Also, when your bad guy is a bit buffoonish at times, and yet finds a way to succeed, you expect the hero to topple him, so you pay attention to see how it is one. There are various means of adding layers to our characters and the use of foils is a common one. And to have your hero and villain opposites in intelligence just may work is creating both depth and tension.