Character Foils

I learned about character foils in an English Literature class in college, but it's come to mind over and over again the last few days as I've been reading the "war chapters"* of the Book of Mormon. (p.s. - can you believe Mormon knew about this umpteen hundred years ago? fascinating.)

A foil is a person who contrasts with another character (usually the protagonist) in order to highlight various features of the main character's personality: to throw the character of the protagonist into sharper relief. A foil usually has some important characteristics in common with the other character, such as, frequently, superficial traits or personal history.

One of the strongest foils in these chapters is Amalickiah v. Moroni. They're both (originally) Nephites, both have fairly equal education and military experience, both commanders of very large armies. Look how Mormon juxtaposes their characters in chapter 49.

The Lamanites decide to attack Ammonihah (because they'd had pretty good success there the last time) but when they see all the fortifications Moroni and his people have made, they chicken out. So they decide to go to Noah (previously the weakest point in the Nephi's defense system). They get all psyched up about it and their chief captains, a bit hastily, make an oath that they'll destroy the city. They're less excited when they get there. In fact, could basically sum up their experience in these few phrases: "how great was their disappoitntment" (v.4), "were astonished exceedingly" (v.5), "to their uttermost astonishment" (v.8), "to their astonishment" (v.14), "they were again disappointed" (v.17).

End of story - more than a thousand Lamanites, including all their chief captains, are slain, only 50 Nephites are wounded (though some quite gravely) and Amalickiah is furious.

"Amalickiah, who was a Nephite by birth (1) ... was exceedingly angry with his people (2), because he had not...subjected them to the yoke of bondage (3). Yea, he was exceedingly wroth and he did curse God (4), and also Moroni, swearing with an oath that he would drink his blood; [here comes the foil] and this because Moroni had kept the commandments of God in preparing for the safety of his people. [more direct comparison] And it came to pass, that on the other hand, the people of Nephi did thank the Lord their God, because of his matchless power in delivering them from the hands of their enemies" (v. 27-28).


1. Mormon reminds us that Amalickiah is also a Nephite
2/3. Amalickiah is angry with is people because he didn't get what he wanted (to bring the Nephites into bondage). Moroni was also angry with his people (several times). Remember why? Because they sought to overthrow the government and establish a king and refused to fight to preserve their freedoms (Alma 51:14, 17). See the difference?
4. Amalickiah curses God. Moroni and his people praise God and thank Him for their victories.

This is definitely not the only time Mormon uses a foil to highlight Moroni's character and the cause of justice. In chapter 46 Mormon contrasts Amalickiah's deceitful rise to the kingship of the Lamanites and Moroni's rising of the title of liberty. In chapter 48 he contrasts Amalickiah's inciting of the Lamanite army to anger against the Nephites with Moroni's spiritual and physical preparation of the people for war.

In fact, 48:7 is a direct contrast: "Now it came to pass that while Amalickiah had thus been obtaining power by fraud and deceit, Moroni, on the other hand, had been preparing the minds of the people to be faithful unto the Lord their God."


Chapter 54 introduces a new foil: Ammoron, Amalickiah's brother who succeeds him in the throne. He and Moroni negotiate the exchange of prisoners. It becomes obvious what each fights for. Moroni: "we will retain our cities and our lands; yea, and we will maitain our religion and the cause of our God" (v.10). Ammoron: "we will wage a war which shall be eternal, either to the subjecting the Nephites to our authority or to their eternal extinction."

Intense, right? There are many more examples. But get this: the term foil refers to the practice of putting dark, polished metal (a foil) underneath a gemstone to make it shine more brightly.

Considering that, it isn't any wonder Mormon chose to tell the story this way. Can you think of any other great character foils in the scriptures?

*War Chapters: Alma 43-63, p.313-368.
**photos via plainbookofmormon.com, sacredsymbolic.com, bookofmormonbattles.com

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