There are a million and one things I love about the musical Hamilton, but Aaron Burr is near the top of the list. I love his two main songs (“Wait for It” and “Room Where It Happens”), I love how unique of a character he is, and I love what a contrast he is to Hamilton.
(Warning: song lyrics are used. Anyone who doesn’t want to have Hamilton stuck in their heads should stop reading. But really, who doesn’t want Hamilton in their heads?)
Aaron Burr is the perfect foil for Hamilton. For those of you who have to look up the exact definition of a foil (like me), it’s “a character who contrasts with another character (usually the protagonist) in order to highlight particular qualities of the other character.” (Thanks, Google!)
While Hamilton works “non-stop,” Burr is “willing to wait for it.” In “Your Obedient Servant,” their different personalities are nicely contrasted. Hamilton says to Burr, “I am not the reason no one trusts you/No one knows what you believe” while he reminds, “I will not equivocate on my opinion/I have always worn it on my sleeve.” While Burr is overly cautious, Hamilton is overly reckless.
(Fun fact: their personalities are actually historically accurate- Hamilton couldn’t shut up, publishing an insane amount of newspaper articles, essays, and political plans, while Burr “produced no major papers on policy matters, constitutional issues, or government institutions.” [Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, pg. 192] Chernow also says, “Throughout his career, Hamilton was outspoken to a fault, while Burr was a man of ingrained secrecy.”)
In “Wait for It,” Burr says, “Hamilton doesn’t hesitate/He exhibits no restraint/He takes and he takes and he takes/…/And if there’s a reason/He seems to thrive when so few survive, then… I’m willing to wait for it.” He wants what Hamilton wants: success- that’s why he’s waiting to find the reason behind his success. The audience, more objective than the character, sees it’s Hamilton’s refusal to wait, his lack of restraint, that works so well for him. So we see the irony of Burr’s attempt to find Hamilton’s secret by waiting.
One thing that makes the Burr and Hamilton relationship so interesting is Burr’s acknowledgment of their differences. He doesn’t fully understand them, but he realizes they are there.
Although prose has less freedom to explicitly monologue about feelings and desires than musicals, this would be an interesting technique to implement. Often in ‘real life,’ people recognize where they’re similar and where they’re different with others. This makes the irony greater when they still misunderstand each other, which could be fun to play with in a story.
In another stroke of irony, at their final duel it is Hamilton who waits, who restrains himself and fires his gun in the air, while Burr impulsively shoots to kill (I wish I noticed that- credit to a random tumblr user). When they act according to the other’s characteristics, it really highlights that scene.
This technique can be an excellent way to empower a scene- but be careful to save it for when you really need it. I doubt it would carry such power more than once, and if used too early in the story it could just confuse the readers on how they’re supposed to view the characters.
A foil is a great character to have in your story. Just as Burr does to Hamilton, they highlight a set of characteristics you want to emphasize. Even though Burr and Hamilton are excellent characters in their own right, when contrasted against each other they become better. That’s something readers will love.