Theme. Symbolism. Conflict. Plot structure. Mood and style. These terms are worth knowing, but they’re not always easy to understand – and I say that as someone who absolutely lived for English class from about eighth grade onwards. When you’re already struggling to understand the antiquated language of your very first Shakespeare play, the last thing you want to do is decide which characters are flat characters or round characters, because what does that even mean and how do I apply it? But when it comes down to it, these concepts don’t have to be difficult or confusing. They’re a natural and universal part of storytelling.
I have a vivid memory of one of my old English teachers doing a lesson on foil characters. At first, I remember being confused, but then he gave an example that I knew so well, the pieces suddenly fell into place. I felt as if I’d always known what foil characters were; I just didn’t know what they were called. The example he gave was Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy.
Just before winter break last year, it all came full circle. I taught a lesson on foil characters. I used an example from a book that the sixth graders were reading, but after I’d explained the concept, I asked them if they could think of any other characters they thought might be foils. For a moment, there was silence, but then a boy raised his hand and hesitantly offered that very same example. It was as if, just like for my younger self, they suddenly saw the pieces fall into place. All of a sudden, all the hands in the room were up. They had examples to give, questions to ask, aha! moments to share – and just like that, a new, intimidating concept didn’t seem quite so scary.
That gave me the idea for a blog series, and it seems only fitting that I should start with foil characters.
Foil characters draw the reader’s attention to each other’s traits by being the opposite. They are often similar at first glance, but their differences are more important than their similarities. Harry and Malfoy are pretty much a textbook example of foil characters. On the surface, they have a lot in common. They are both Hogwarts students, the same age and gender, and play the same position on their House Quidditch teams. However, beyond these surface-level similarities, they are polar opposites.
They both play Seeker, which means they are often opponents on the Quidditch pitch. They are in rival houses, with Harry having consciously chosen Gryffindor over Slytherin. Harry has two close friends, while Malfoy has two lackeys to do his bidding. He seems to have no true affection for Crabbe and Goyle and certainly doesn’t see them as his equals. Even in their appearance they are opposites, Harry with his messy hair and hand-me-down clothes, Malfoy with his slick, polished look and traditional wizard’s robes (or, in the movies, fancy suits).
Both were born into the roles that they play in the war. Harry is the Chosen One of the prophecy, the only one who can defeat Voldemort. He is targeted from a young age, his parents are killed, and he’s fighting Voldemort from the moment the dark wizard re-enters his life. Draco, on the other hand, is a Malfoy. He grows up idolizing Voldemort and wishing he would return, and he’s eager at first to join the Death Eaters, although he becomes disillusioned as the war goes on. Neither of them has much choice in the side that they choose, but it would be a mistake to say they don’t make choices. Harry chooses to fight on many occasions when it would be easier to run or hide, while Draco often chooses not to make a choice at all.
At the beginning of the series, Harry is an outsider to the magical world and spends much of his time as a passive observer, figuring things out as we do. He reacts to whatever the conflict of the book is, but he doesn’t see himself as a hero and tries to live a normal life. Voldemort’s return in Goblet of Fire is the turning point, when Harry realizes that a war is coming and he will have to be ready for it. He spends Order of the Phoenix training Dumbledore’s Army and attempting to convince the world that Voldemort is back, while he spends Half-Blood Prince learning Voldemort’s secret weaknesses and investigating Malfoy, who he’s convinced has joined the Death Eaters. By Deathly Hallows, he is no longer an observer or a reactive character. He is a hero on a quest and a soldier in a war.
Malfoy, on the other hand, starts off the series as an active antagonist. While Voldemort has always been the ultimate evil, it was Malfoy’s schemes, taunts, and bullying that Harry had to deal with on a daily basis. Yet as the series goes on, Malfoy becomes more of a nuisance than a real threat. His role in Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix is greatly diminished, he’s not all that successful as a Death Eater, and he’s totally unaware that he’s the master of the Elder Wand until after the fact. Just as Harry starts to become an active hero with a clearly-defined goal, Malfoy goes from being an enemy to an annoyance to little more than a pawn in other people’s schemes.
In Half-Blood Prince in particular, they are on parallel and yet opposite journeys. Both are taking a more direct role in the war, and both have been chosen to do what others on their side consider impossible: killing the leader of the opposing side. They both spend the year working to accomplish this, keeping it secret from all but a select few trusted people. However, while Dumbledore really does want to help Harry succeed and spends the year teaching him about Voldemort’s greatest weakness, it’s strongly implied that Voldemort chose Draco to punish his family for his father’s failure to retrieve the prophecy. He doesn’t care whether he succeeds and doesn’t expect him to.
In a way, you could say they were both chosen by Voldemort. The prophecy could have referred to either Harry or Neville, but Voldemort chose to attack the infant Harry and therefore handpicked the boy who would grow up to defeat him. Voldemort’s choices make a physical mark on both boys: while Draco is given the Dark Mark, branding him as Voldemort’s servant, Harry’s lightning scar is the fulfilment of the line in the prophecy that claims “The Dark Lord shall mark him as his equal”.
It comes down to a lot more than their positions on the Quidditch team or the fact that they are members of rival Houses. In fact, you could say that Harry represents Dumbledore and the Order among his peers, while Malfoy represents Voldemort and the Death Eaters. This larger-scale conflict at first plays out via Quidditch games and school rivalry, and as the kids get older, they themselves become part of the war they’ve already chosen sides in. Although by the end of the series, the rivalry between Harry and Draco is far from the most important battle being fought, it still symbolically represents the war in microcosm. It’s not a coincidence that Harry, having fought with Draco and taken his wand during the battle at Malfoy Manor, is then easily able to win his duel against Voldemort and therefore the war as a whole. Yes, there’s the Elder Wand explanation, but what it comes down to is that, symbolically, he’s already won.
Are there other examples of foil characters in Harry Potter? Certainly. Dudley is another foil to Harry, spoiled where Harry is neglected, greedy and selfish where Harry is generous and selfless, and – to an even greater extent than Malfoy – irrelevant and no longer threatening by the final books in the series. Hermione and Luna are foils to each other: one is the “brightest witch of her age”, but a Gryffindor who ultimately values courage and friendship more than knowledge, while the other is a Ravenclaw who is more perceptive, open-minded, and individualistic than book smart. The two often clash and disagree as if they were designed to be opposites, which they probably were. And then, of course, there’s the contrast between the two werewolves: the kindly, civilized Professor Lupin, who sees his condition as a curse, and the brutal Fenrir Greyback, who fully embraces it. However, Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy are probably the most intricate example of foil characters, with not just a few surface-level similarities to highlight opposite personalities, but contrasting plotlines and character journeys centering around a personal feud in which they are not just school rivals but symbols of opposite sides in the story’s main conflict.