I’m really excited to put out this Skill Spotlight because it’s on a topic that I love to talk about: contrasts! I love to discuss contrasts in theme, structure, topic, and especially character. Character contrasts can include a classic match-up between protagonist and antagonist, but can also be found between friends, allies, or even lovers. In the latter case, these are called foils. (There are various interpretations and definitions of foils, but this is my preferred approach.) Strong AP scholars always study the relationship between two characters, their similarities and their contrasts as well. The CED says out that contrasting characters emphasize differences in traits, attributes, or values between both characters being compared.
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Warm-Up Activity: Study Character Contrasts in Movies
An interesting way to study contrasting characters is to consider the differences between protagonists and antagonists versus characters who are peers. I’ve selected three movies with interesting character relationship between protagonist and antagonist versus foils. You and your class could study all of these or jigsaw them to save time. If jigsawing, ask each group to study both clips from their assigned or selected movie. Then, answer these questions below:
- Study the protagonist. What does he/she value?
- Study the antagonist. What does he/she value? How does he or she differ from the protagonist and what he or she values?
- Study the foil. Foils have base similarities but defining differences, which we use to study the protagonist more. What is the main difference between the foil and the protagonist? How can the protagonist learn from the foil?
The Emporer’s New Groove
Meet Kuzco: The Protagonist.
Most students are likely familiar enough with this movie, but online clips are kind of hard to come by, so here’s one of Kuzco relishing the glory of being emperor. It basically sums up his entire character. What does he value?
Meet Yzma: The Antagonist
This is two clips of Yzma spliced together, but they’re only moments apart. Most students will notice that she and Kuzco value a LOT of the same things! What does she value? How does she differ from the protagonist and what he values?
Meet Pacha: The Foil
In this scene, Pacha just risked his life for Kuzco, even after Kuzco promised to evict his family and their home in order to build a new vacation destination for himself. What is the main difference between the foil and the protagonist? How can the protagonist learn from the foil?
Meet Ralph: The Protagonist
We first meet Ralph at a Bad-Anon meeting, where the bad guys in each video game cope with always being the bad guy. What does he value?
Meet Turbo: The Antagonist
In this short clip, Felix summarizes what happened to Turbo when he grew envious of other games. Turbo is causing issues in Vanellope’s game as well, they just don’t realize it yet. What does he value? How does he differ from the protagonist and what he values?
Meet Vanellope: The Foil
When Ralph meets Vanellope, both vie for the medal Ralph has won. However, in this clip they agree to work together to get Vanellope back into her racing game and giving Ralph the trophy he needs to go back to his own game. What is the main difference between the foil and the protagonist? How can the protagonist learn from the foil?
Beauty and the Beast
Meet Belle: The Protagonist
The song “Belle” tells us everything we need to know about our protagonist. She’s beautiful, but a “weirdo” who reads. (She’s my hero.) What does she value?
Meet Gaston: The Antagonist
How convenient, Gaston also has a song that tells us everything we need to know about him! What does he value? How does he differ from the protagonist and what she values?
Meet Beast: The Foil
There are more clips showcasing Beast’s temper and a great backstory on his selfish actions that brought on the curse. However, I like this short clip that shows us Belle and Beast’s first real “conversation.” What is the main difference between the foil and the protagonist? How can the protagonist learn from the foil?
Focus Text: “A & P” by John Updike
Read John Updike’s “A & P” with your students. Pose the following questions to guide them in analysis of contrasting characters:
- Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist?
- Does the protagonist have a foil, a peer or equal with whom we can compare? What similarities do they have?
- How do comparable traits of two or more characters contrast?
- What do the differing traits between characters reveal about the narrator and his relationships?
- How does considering the significance of a contrast between characters contribute to meaning in the text?
- The protagonist is Sammy, a clerk at a small town A & P. His antagonist in this story is Lengel, his manager.
- The protagonist’s foils would be the girls in bathing suits, for which Sammy quits his job. They similar in age and general outlook in life. Teenagers are known for impulsive thinking, which the girls show by wandering in barefoot and swim-suit clad. Sammy shows his impulsivity in quitting his job just because the manager made the girls blush, an action which he knows he will regret.
- While Sammy and the girls are both impulsive teenagers, their most striking difference in this text is the presence of friends. The girls operate as a pack, giving them strength in numbers against the manager. Sammy, however, has no back-up against his manager. When Lengel warns him that “You’ll feel this for the rest of your life,” Sammy already knows that he’s right. Quitting was an impulsive mistake, but he’s had witnesses and can’t back up now.
- Sammy differs from the girls in that he operates alone. He differs from Lengel, another male who operates alone in this situation, in that he is younger and more naive. Lengel gives him advice borne from experience, warning Sammy that quitting the A & P will upset his parents. Lengel’s level-headed response to Sammy’s sudden departure highlights Sammy’s own immaturity. Lengel doesn’t even yell at him–he tries to reason with him, albeit unsuccessfully.
- The character contrasts in this text illuminate it for its true meaning and significance. This story is not an extraordinary one in terms of plot, however, it explores young adulthood and coming of age. Sammy’s impulsivity–followed by immediate but reluctant regret–perfectly encapsulate what it feels like to be a teenager. Standing up for your principles, even grandstanding for them, can feel so important…at the time. Even when a level-headed adult tries to warn us against our actions we can easily spurn them, especially when dealing with conflicts of sexual attraction. The themes and significance of this text could be missed if you don’t pause and study the contrasting characters in the text.
Additional Text Suggestions for Contrasting Characters
Here is a list of additional short stories and novels that you can use to help students study contrasting characters. To work for Short Fiction units, I suggest limiting the novels to excerpts of 1-10 pages. Thank you to the AP Lit Facebook community for help in culminating this list!
- “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway
- “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker
- “Checkouts” by Cynthia Rylant
- “Birthday Party” by Katharine Bush
- “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros
- “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler
- “Why I Live at the P.O.” by Eudora Welty
- “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
- “Ripe Figs” by Kate Chopin
- “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” by Karen Russell
- “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin
- Fences by August Wilson
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
- Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
- As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
- A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
- Any play by Shakespeare
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
- Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
- A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines