Make Your English Teacher Proud By Knowing What You’re Doing With Foil Characters

Have you ever read a book, played a game, watched an anime, etc., that was so bad that you thought it’d be more fun to have brain cancer? I have, and it’s a book called Square One. For those of you in life blessed enough to never have been exposed to this book, I’m about to ruin your lives, so I hope you’re prepared for days of misery and hopelessness to come.

Our wondrous adventures with this book are gonna come in two acts, with act I looking at the potential this book lets pass by, while act II is where I tear it limb from limb because, quite frankly, I’m quite furious that I dropped $10 on this thing, and I’m a violent individual in need of the occasional homicidal outlet, and maybe a psychiatrist.

So.

To start with the boring act I, I suppose it would help if I provide a basic synopsis so you know what the hell I’m talking about.

Rectangle Two is an indie original English-language light novel that follows the fictional character of Akari Ise, an aspiring mangaka who submits his first work to the fictional publisher of Banban Comics and receives a fictional rejection letter on that grounds that it’s a first work, which have the tendency to be terrible. However, it isn’t terrible enough, as it lands him a job working as an assistant for a fictional published mangaka whose name escapes me, so I’ll refer to him as Charlie in the event I need to mention him again.

Akari’s not the only assistant, as there’s a total of four others, half of which aren’t likable, but we’ll save that complaint (among others) for act II. He establishes a rivalry between one of the assistants, a girl named Suzuko Kizuna, and I know they’re rivals because Circle Nine goes out of its way during numerous instances to remind me so, in case I’d forgotten the first seventeen times it told me.

What’s intriguing about their rivalry is the dynamic of it, of its framework—the duel between talent and hard work.

The debate on which trumps which, talent or hard work, is as old as when man first realized that tree bark doesn’t make for appetizing suppers.

“Hard wins because talented people sit back on their talent.”

“Talent wins because talented individuals have a headstart.”

“Both win because a talented person who works to further their abilities becomes, like, God or something.”

Whatever avenue you’re steering down, there’s plenty of road to explore when you’ve got just a match like this selling.

With the relatively low status position that Akari starts off at, you’d think he’d be the one who has to work hard to get where he wants to be, but he’s actually in the talented corner. That’s not to say that he’s not a hard worker, as he pulls frequent all-nighters, but he’s stupidly good to the point where he can zone out while counting the dots on the ceiling and when he comes to, he realizes he’s recreated the Mona Lisa in stunning detail on a piece of toast.

That makes the contestant in the hard work corner the assistant Suzuko. Whereas Akari acquired his drawing abilities via superior breeding, Suzuko, so far as we know, developed her skills through the old-fashioned method of drawing until you wind up in the hospital with wanker’s cramp. She’s not leaps and bounds ahead of the average Rufus like Akari is, and within ten minutes of meeting each other, Akari takes it upon himself to correct a background she was working on behind her back, a gesture she takes about as well as him washing out the urn containing her dead mother’s ashes and calling it clean.

With Akari fighting with talent and Suzuko standing up for hard work, the diametrical nature of these elements makes the both of them foils. A foil isn’t just a fancy literary term your high school English teacher made you memorize for a test that you’ve literally forgotten about up until you read that word six seconds ago. It’s a powerful tool for assembling your characters and revealing or emphasizing parts of them that wouldn’t otherwise have come as easily, if at all.

For example, the Zaregoto series, which is being translated into English at a criminally leaden-footed rate, is narrated by lazy protagonist Mr. No Name. In the first book, Mr. No Name is just your typical average protagonist with no noteworthy knacks or traits. In the sequel, Strangulation, he meets a bloke named Zerozaki, whose hobbies include murder and slicing people up while murdering them. Incidentally, Zerozaki and Mr. No Name are doppelgängers, which is the author’s fun way of calling them foils. To explain in a spoiler-free manner why Zerozaki’s inclusion is important, he’s what Mr. No Name could’ve become had he made different decisions in his life and given in to different urges, and vice versa, and it’s this reflection of Mr. No Name’s character that drives home his attitude of the murders that take place throughout the sequel, because without Zerozaki there to compare and contrast, the rationale for his perspective wouldn’t have been as strong or would’ve been lost entirely.

There’s more than just whatever abstraction the foil represents, there’s the foils themselves. Akari and Suzuko are, get this, people. Fictional people, technically, but point being that they have personalities that will shift how the notions of hard work and talent are explored. Suzuko is a brash, no-nonsense type of gal, while Akari is your typical air-headed nice-guy protagonist. She’s got the grit and the fire to go ham on her projects, but she’s also easy to anger, and she does get angry in the novel when Akari’s talent outperforms her hard work, at multiple points, because while she’s working and sweating and slaving just to make incremental improvements to her skill level, Akari creates something that’s much, much better without even trying.

Switch around which teams they’re batting for and suddenly things get a little dicey. If Akari suddenly has no talent and has to give himself hunchback from all the drawing he has to do to be as good as a talented Suzuko, I don’t think a single thing would change, because he doesn’t have enough of a personality to warrant interesting character development. Suzuko, on the other hand, she’s the fascinating one here. Given her personality and given raw talent, I’m 87.6% positive that Suzuko would let her abilities blow up her head. When you’re so good at something, it’s easy to become arrogant, and you’ll feel rightly so. Suzuko being talented would also change the story, as there’d be no reason for her to be in the assistant’s program. In all likelihood, she’d be a published author already, and if she big-notes her talent enough, she’d be the villain you love to hate.

The catch about Akari and Suzuko being friends on top of rivals is that their foil representations are going to impact their relationship, and most likely not for the better. If Akari enters 129 manga competitions and wins 153 of them but Suzuko is lucky to get an honorable mention in 3, that’s certain to sour her view of Akari. One or two or four losses is no big deal at first, but while some people have grit, the average person can’t fail more than a few times before throwing in the towel. And if Suzuko calls it quits because of Akari’s constant success, how do you think that’s gonna impact their relationship?

In the early days of their rivalry, Akari may invigorate and push Suzuko to do her best so that they can someday become true rivals on equal footing. But if that someday never arrives, if Akari wins competitions and gets published and makes oodles and oodles of sweet, sweet dough, and gets himself a harem, if Suzuko’s still struggling to improve and find a publisher to take her and build a surrounding of fans, it’s a longshot to say that she’ll look to him and think, “I’ll someday reach his level.” Most likely, loss after loss after loss after loss after loss, she’ll come to view Akari not as a rival, but as an enemy.

Akari might someday reach the top of the manga world, his sales numbers and accolades and fanbase propping him up, but if his success results in his friend abandoning him, growing to hate him, he’ll grow confused and distraught that she came to see him in such a light, and he’ll find that the top of a mountain can be a frigid place.

It’s at this point where Akari will find himself at a crossroad where he has to decide between continuing his career as a mangaka or patching up his broken friendship. Granted, this is just one branch stemming from a bud of talent vs. hard work. Not every ending needs to come to this split, and this crossroad itself doesn’t need to result in Ending A or Ending B. By choosing to rekindle his friendship with Suzuko, she might realize she was mistaken and give Akari her backing, or they may have one final encounter where they lay out all their feelings before rethinking what it is they want out of their lives.

Foils don’t have to be relegated to being characters. Plots can have subplots that act as foils. If the message of Akari and Suzuko’s foilship in the main plot is “Hard work trumps talent,” the message of a subplot might be “Hard work doesn’t always win.”

Let’s say Suzuko enters a manga contest on her own some way into the story. She’s built up her skills over the course of the plot, and an editor was the one who recommended that she enter. Her competition’s fierce, but she’s confident in her abilities and outscores her opponents throughout the brackets. But then she comes head-to-head in the finals with an up-and-coming mangaka named Bob. He’s got a dedicated fanbase already, and he’s a favorite of the judges to boot. Still, that doesn’t intimidate her, and she gives this battle for the gold her all. In the end, though, she loses. Her hard work wasn’t enough to beat this individual’s talent.

Inserting a subplot like this will put cracks in the absoluteness of the main plot’s core message and sow seeds of doubt as to whether Suzuko will be able to win against Akari. If she couldn’t defeat this Bob fellow, what hope does she have against her rival?

There’s so much Trapezoid Thirty-One could’ve done with this simple foilship of hard work vs. talent. So, so much it’s a shame that it didn’t. The highlights of Akari and Suzuko’s foilship in the book come during their moments of contention, when the differences in their abilities start manifesting. From there, Pentagon Eighty-Five has the potential to see how the two characters grow in relation to each other and how they impact one another.

But it doesn’t do this. Instead, every time it comes moderately close to these proclaimed rivals actually doing rivalry things, Diamond One Hundred Eleven backs away like an ophidiophobe stumbling upon a garter snake mating ball and goes, “Woah! Hold up! That was close! Almost had an interesting plot development. Don’t wanna have to write an engaging interpersonal conflict…Oh! I know just what this scene needs! The power of friendship!!

It’s this irrational fear of breaking apart its characters where Quadrilateral Two Hundred Sixteen falls flat on its face when it comes to its foils, and if you want my highly humble opinion, Akari and Suzuko’s relationship should’ve been the sole focus of the book. Not unlikable d-bags breaking and entering into apartments to yell at the main cast or a little girl running away from home in a character arc that was done better in Bakuman, anyway. A battle between two very real, very differing types of skillsets to see which comes out on top, if there’s a victor to be had—this is what Square One should’ve been about.

Speaking of the excellent Bakuman, it’s a series that also happens to be about making it big in the manga world, with a central conflict between hard work and talent. Its two primary differences are that Bakuman is 1.) a manga and 2.) not the literal worst thing I’ve ever read. Bakuman in this regard is almost like the anti-Square One. Although it came out first, so I guess that makes Square One the anti-Bakuman.

In case you haven’t read it (you should), Bakuman pits its hard work vs. talent conflict between Muto Ashirogi, the artist-writer duo of Moritaka Mashiro and Akito Takagi, and Niizuma, a manga prodigy who does nothing but draw manga, draw more manga, draw even more manga, and sleep (possibly), and is such an authority on manga that he’s practically psychic as far as being able to tell what will be a success, what will flop, and when some guy late in the series is pulling the wool over everybody’s eyes. He’s the talented one.

Which means Ashirogi are taking up the hard work banner in this fight, but again, that’s not to say that the talented competitor isn’t a hard worker. However, when you consider where each side starts, with Niizuma’s abilities to create a hit by drawing what he wants, draft up a 45 page storyboard in 30-90 minutes, and become such a quick illustrator that he’s able to work on two manga series simultaneously by the series’s halfway point, and Ashirogi failing to impress on their first meeting with an editor, you can see that Niizuma is Sirius, while Mashiro and Takagi are a damp campfire.

But the pair work hard, long hours, sometimes pulling multiple all-nighters in a row, and study the works of other mangaka to better their own, and as the series goes on, they begin giving Niizuma a run for his money. Their battle against their rival isn’t always the focus of the story, as the series is primarily a commentary on and educational look at the manga industry, albeit a romanticized one, but it’s the driving engine behind Ashirogi’s powerful desire to improve, and the series ends not with a message of whether hard work wins in the end or talent is still supreme, but that a rival can propel you to heights you never would have reached without one.

Cone Six Hundred Sixty-Two’s rivalry between Akari and Suzuko is a rivalry in name only. It’s quick to remind us that they’re rivals, but they never directly compete against each other, they enter a competition together at one point, and anytime conflict does sprout due to their skill gap, the book rips those stems out the ground and lights them on fire with a molotov. So by the final pages, we’re left with two characters with an unchanged relationship that gives the reader nothing to sleep on. It’s a huge disappointment and a complete waste.

I’ve gone on and on about the foilship of talent vs. hard work, but any two things or ideas can be foils. A warrior and a scholar can be foils, as can a poor man and a wealthy one. They don’t necessarily need to be opposites, and there’s no rule stating that they can’t share traits. But the important thing about foils to remember is that they’re there to tell the story that the protagonist alone can’t. So if the tree metaphor I’ve been making since the twenty-second paragraph isn’t spelling it out for you, decide on your foilship, dig a hole in the soil for it, water it, and watch and see all the branches that grow from that single seed. (Disclaimer: this metaphor can apply to storytelling in general, but I started it with foils in mind, so I’m going to continue using it exclusively for that.) You might start cultivating this tree for that scrumptious hard-work-always-wins fruit, but continuing nurturing it and you might find a nice, juicy success-is-about-the-people-you-know fruit growing on the other side. It’s up to you as the author to decide which fruit you pluck. Just do yourself a favor and don’t keep shaving off the tree the way Cylinder Nine Hundred Ninety-Nine does, to the point where the tree is nothing but a stump that withers and dies.

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