Writing an Effective Foil: "Hamilton's" Aaron Burr
Updated: Jul 31
When Sir Isaac Newton stated that, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” I don’t think he was offering character advice to writers or a proposed line to Lin-Manuel Miranda the second act of Hamilton, at least not intentionally. He probably wasn’t even commenting on the state of politics either, though an argument for the application can be made.
Newton’s Third Law was an observation of the physical properties of matter. And yet, most writers know that in order to create an effective protagonist, you often need to introduce an equally powerful, motivated, and persistent antagonist to stand in their way or provide push back.
No one likes conflict or struggle in their own life, but the ability to overcome struggle and manage conflict is what ultimately leads to growth and change. The same is true for story.
Resistance to a character achieving their goal isn’t futile. It’s essential to creating a believable character arc and a sustainable plot that ends in a satisfying conclusion.
Resistance can come from your character’s own inner demons, but more often than not, conflict comes when one character’s goals directly collide with someone else’s.
Two characters may want the exact same thing (who wants it more?) or one character getting what they want means someone else doesn’t get what they want (who will get their first?).
And when one character begins to gain some traction or ground in their goals, their opposition will likely strike back and present new challenges that need to be overcome. This is the story version of Newton’s Third Law reaction.
Heck, it was even the premise and title of one of the best reaction sequels ever written, The Empire Strikes Back.
In story, like physics, nothing happens in a bubble. Every action has consequences.
This is probably why so many people have latched onto George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones. In Westeros, even the good guys make mistakes, and sometimes it’s the tiniest mistakes that prove costly. In fact, we can trace some of the greatest catastrophes and most devastating turning points of Game of Thrones back to simple choices made in previous chapters.
Choices have consequences; actions have reactions.
There’s a back and forth action and reaction between characters and those who oppose them.
Jumping to a completely different cultural phenomenon, the arrival of Gotham’s brazen dark knight (Batman) proved to be the catalyst for society’s most unpredictable and effective anarchist (The Joker) to burn a city to the ground.
Wasn’t it also the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Vision who argued that “our (the Avengers) very strength invites challenge; challenge incites conflict; and conflict breed catastrophe”?
Vision may have been foreshadowing the looming Avengers Civil War, but he was also acknowledging the causality between the rise of the Avengers and the exponential increase in potentially world-ending events and enhanced individuals who’d emerged from the shadows.
Evil doesn’t easily or willingly surrender its territory; neither does good. They are in a constant battle for position. This is nothing new, nor is it unique to story.
In any case, in order to make it difficult for a hero to reach their goal, conflict must be introduced, and sometimes, the most effective conflict and pushback come in the form of a villain or series of antagonists.
Is there a difference? There can be.
While few characters see themselves as the outright villain of their own story, a traditional villain will directly oppose the hero and their goal with a motivation or series of actions that we, the audience, would collectively regard as evil or malicious.
· The T-1000 and Skynet (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) just wants to seek and destroy John and Connor and the rest of humanity.
· Sauron (The Lord of the Rings) wants to regain his power, enslave the free peoples of Middle Earth, and cover the land in darkness.
· Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs) wants to kill and consume those he deems are a nuisance to society… with some fava beans and a nice Chianti of course.
· Nurse Ratchet (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and Dolores Umbridge (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) delight in making other people miserable.
· Emperor Palpatine (Star Wars) is the ultimate, unredeemable evil who craves power and want to remain the supreme authority in the galaxy.
Even more frightening, to borrow from Robert McKee, is a villain who masquerades as good and convinces others in the story that they are actually the good guy. Watch out for those!
An antagonist, on the other hand, doesn’t have to be motivated by evil or selfish intentions. They don’t even have to be a traditional “big bad.”. They just need to stand in way of the protagonist achieving their goals.
They can be a temporary nuisance or recurring headache for your protagonist.
Antagonists can be persistent, clever, and even likeable, and their goal can be legitimate or even sympathetic to the reader. We root against them because we have chosen to root for their rival (the hero) more. If we were to tell the story from their perspective, we may root for them instead.
They are often wrong (though not always), but they have convinced themselves that they are actually right in their pursuits and justified in their actions.
So while a villain will always be an antagonist; an antagonist doesn’t always have to be a villain.
Neville Longbottom is one of the most beloved heroes of the Harry Potter series, however, in the first book, he stands up to Harry, Ron, and Hermione when they attempt to sneak out of the common room after hours. He has the right heart, and is even rewarded in the end for standing up to his friends, but in the moment, he is an obstacle to them completing their mission.
Villain? Definitely not. Obstacle? To Harry and his friends recovering the Sorcerer's Stone? Yes!
In The Lord of the Rings Boromir is one of the most noble and courageous members of the Fellowship. However, when overcome by the ring’s seductive power, he becomes a threat and momentary antagonist to Frodo Baggins.
Villain? No. Antagonist? Unfortunately, yes, as long he’s near the ring. And the longer he’s tempted by the ring, the closer he gets to becoming an outright villain.
It’s the same thing with Hamilton’s Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who stand in direct opposition to Hamilton getting his debt plan approved by Congress.
Villains? Not really. But definitely obstacles to Hamilton achieving specific goals.
However, there’s a third type of character, who can be just as important and effective at showcasing a hero’s strengths and weaknesses by virtue of contrast.
I’m talking about a character foil.
To quote James Patterson in his Master Class, a foil, “exists simply to shine the spotlight on certain traits of another character, without necessarily creating opposition or conflict. A foil can even be a friend of the character they are supposed to draw attention to.”
The term itself comes from an old jeweler’s trick of placing a gem against a foil base to bring out its shine.
Patterson refers to Dr. Watson as a foil to Sherlock Holmes. This is a great example.
We could also look at:
· Romeo and Mercutio (Romeo and Juliet)
· Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
· Lightning McQueen and Tow Mater (Cars)
· Steve Rogers and Tony Stark (The Avengers)
Giving a character a foil helps accentuate certain qualities we may not recognize or appreciate on their own.
Your hero may be focused and driven, but these qualities will become more prominent next to another character who is more apathetic or lazy.
Your hero may be humble and selfless. These qualities stand out next to a character who is entitled and greedy.
A character may have courage, but we will appreciate that courage even more when we meet someone who is timid, cowardly, or shy.
Character foils serve as the base coat to the accent wall that is the character they are meant to highlight.
Consider then, as a case study, Hamilton’s Aaron Burr, who exists as the perfect foil to Alexander Hamilton.
Now there are a couple ways we can view Burr in the context of Hamilton.
As the narrator of the story, he could be seen as the hero, or at the very least, a secondary protagonist. I won’t go so far as to call him “the” hero of Hamilton, but his self-perceived rivalry with Hamilton illustrates how a character like Burr views himself and those who stand in his way.
Aaron Burr should see himself as the hero of his own story. We all do. And this is evident in the way he describes Hamilton and even seems baffled by Hamilton’s triumph in spite of his inherent “disadvantages.”
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman,
dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean
by Providence impoverished in squalor
grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
Burr’s assessment of Hamilton reveals his sense of entitlement. How could someone of Hamilton’s background and disposition rise to the top and even outdo me in the political arena?
He continues in “Your Obedient Servant”,
How does Hamilton An arrogant Immigrant, orphan Bastard, whoreson Somehow endorse Thomas Jefferson, his enemy A man he’s despised since the beginning Just to keep me from winning?
Burr highlights attributes of Hamilton that stand in direct contrast to his own upbringing, personality, and expectations and tries to make sense of the disparities.
Comparison leads to defined contrast which becomes the seed for Burr’s envy.
And it is Burr’s envy of Hamilton that slowly builds into resentment which leads to blame, hatred, and eventually violence.
Instead of accepting that Hamilton is more skilled, has better ideas, or is more assertive in some areas than he is or acknowledging the fact he himself chose to wait to take his shots whereas Hamilton didn’t, Burr begins to sees himself as the victim of the story, making Hamilton the villain.
And while it’s true that Hamilton does vote against Burr in “The Election of 1800” and was chosen over Burr on multiple occasions, Aaron Burr had several opportunities to step forward and shine! He didn’t always take them.
We could therefore argue that Hamilton is an antagonist to Aaron Burr even if Aaron Burr isn’t very much of an antagonist to Hamilton, at least, not until the final duel.
Hamilton has more battles with Jefferson, Madison, and his own legacy than Aaron Burr.
So what is at about Aaron Burr that serves as a foil to Alexander Hamilton?
Both men both grow to prominence as leaders in the founding of America. Both men are patriots who care about the future of the country they are tasked with building. They’ve both love parents and loved ones. They both fight in the war and become national heroes. They practice law together and rise to political power as elected officials at the same time. But in the end, one man rises and the other falls in the telling of American history.
Why is that?
They may have a lot in common, and their destinies are very much intertwined. However, both men are uniquely different in their attitudes and approach.
Hamilton is an orphaned immigrant who has learned to write himself out of trouble, both literally and figuratively. He has incredible agency, sometimes even to a fault. He is bold, assertive, and unapologetic. He fights for what he believes in, doesn’t hesitate, and isn’t afraid to step on toes or get his hands dirty. He identifies obstacles and takes action to overcome them. He makes plenty of mistakes (and enemies), but he also doesn’t wait for opportunities to come to him; he goes out and gets them.
Burr, on the other hand, is much more pragmatic, poised, and patient. The son of a prominent colonial family, he expects opportunities to come to him and doesn’t stick his neck out for anyone or anything if he doesn’t have to. He doesn’t make many enemies, but he also doesn’t have too many allies or friends either. Burr “stands for nothing”, and to Hamilton, this means he’ll fall for anything. Burr waits to see “where the wind will blow” before making a decision or committing to a cause. And because he is so careful to avoid making a mistake or “backing the wrong horse”, he stays out of most fights. Sadly, this also means he misses most shots he isn’t willing to take.
Hamilton refuses to throw away any shot to rise above his station and cement his legacy in American history.
Burr would rather “talk less and smile more” and “wait for it.” He doesn’t believe that he’s “falling behind or running late,” even as Hamilton continues to rise. He’s content to sit back and wait for the perfect shot that may never come.
Ironically, as Hamilton begins to adopt some of Burr’s qualities in the art of political compromise, Burr decides to adopt Hamilton’s sense of agency, urgency, and enterprise. Unfortunately for Burr, by that point, it’s too late. He’s waited too long to take his shot, and by the time he finally decides to pull the trigger (no pun intended), he’s already laps behind.
New obstacles provide new insult that Burr isn’t prepared to overcome because he’s out of practice.
So in contrasting Burr’s restraint to Hamilton’s assertiveness, Lin-Manuel Miranda showcases and spotlights Hamilton’s inimitable passion and tenacity.
And by the end, Hamilton and Burr, once friends, become enemies.
Oil and water collide.
The foil becomes the antagonist.
The man who thought he was the hero becomes the villain.
Two men from completely different backgrounds arrive on the scene of American history with completely different perspectives and approaches, and both end up bringing out the best and worst in each other. Their contrasts showcase their unique personalities, and their differences prove to be the starting point for two of America’s Founding Fathers to diverge down two completely different paths that lead to two radically different legacies.
Thankfully, these differences and the way they are juxtaposed in Hamilton, establish two incredibly well-defined characters who are both equally interesting and sympathetic from act one to curtain call.
This is a feat worth emulating. Pay attention, writers!
A well-written foil can be just as effective at accentuating your character’s strengths or exposing their weaknesses as any villain or adversary.
So if you’ve found that your hero is starting to blend in or sound too much like other characters in your story, consider introducing a foil that can provide contrast to the character qualities you want to showcase in your hero. It may mean the difference between writing a story with too many similar characters that no one remembers or shaping the legacy of a hero we’re still talking about and want to read more about.
It’s worth a shot. Take it. What are you waiting for?
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Until Today, Storytellers.