Ask me what my favorite Pixar movie is, I’d say The Incredibles. Twist my nipples really, really hard and I’ll tell you it’s Ratatouille. Hey, I like food movies.
But Ratatouille really is a grand film, and one of the reasons is the way it sets up, and knocks down, its opponents. I thought of making a standard article about how to write good villains, but you know what? Writing rule number one: Show, don’t tell.
To recap, Remy is a rat who wants to be a chef at Gusteau’s, a Parisian restaurant founded by his idol. He’s able to get over the size problems with his human friend Linguini, but the film still puts forth three opponents who attack him from three different angles.
Keys to a Good Opponent
First off, we have to define a good enemy. Entire books could be written on this topic, and probably have been, so I’ll keep it to a few, non-exhaustive things, then dive right into the examples.
- Focus on “Opponent,” not “Villain.” Your bad guy need not be bad. And even if they are, focusing on villainy is a quick way to make them generically evil and uninteresting. This character must stand in the hero’s way somehow. They may or may not be evil, but they must be an obstacle.
- Give them identical/similar goals as the hero. If they don’t want the same thing, why fight over it?
- Wrap them around an ideal. What do they stand for? What do they represent that the hero must overcome? Think beyond might and power. What thematic flag does the opponent fly?
- Make them oppose each other. They need not fight, but if each opponent stands for something different, they’ll each attack the hero in a different way, making each challenge unique. Make them as different as possible by pitting them against each other.
- Make them a threat. Opponents who don’t challenge the hero don’t last long. A strong opponent is able to expose and attack your hero’s weaknesses. This can take a thousand forms, so be creative. SIDE NOTE, this is the reason Remy’s dad doesn’t appear in this article. He scolds Remy, but never actually stands in his way.
- Make them close and personal. The more the protagonist and opponent know each other, the more exciting their clash is. Even if they’re opposite forces who never meet until the end, you can still build tension by making them aware of each other, constantly anticipating the final showdown.
- Make each stronger than the last. This one’s a bit obvious; build tension by scaling the fight so that the toughest battle is at the end.
Now let’s see how all this plays out.
Colette: The Training Wheels
The Shared Goal: To be a chef at Gusteau’s. Colette is assigned to train Linguini, and therefore Remy, in how Gusteau’s kitchen works. While this seems benign, it threaten’s Colette’s position as a chef. If Linguini and Remy fail, she looks bad. So to ensure her victory, Colette terrorizes the boys into obeying her. They’ll succeed or she’ll kill them. Probably literally.
The Theme: Feminism. Colette is the only female cook in the kitchen, and that it’s because the industry favors men. She has done well so far, but one slip is all it could take to ruin her. Remy and Linguini are males. If they’re going to study under Colette, they’re going to suffer as she has.
The Threat/Closeness: While she has little power over them, Colette scares the saffron out of the boys. What’s more, she knows the kitchen. Remy’s a great cook, but he’s never had to face the speed, cleanliness, or know-how of a professional kitchen. Without that, he’s toast.
The Battle: Remy wins by not fighting at all. He submits to Colette’s training, and both he and Linguini prove their worth. What’s more, by accepting her authority, they give Colette the respect she seeks. When she sees that both she and the boys can have their dreams in tandem, the opposition ends and Colette becomes and ally.
Skinner: The Mad Middleman
The Shared Goal: To see Gusteau’s name thrive. Remy was inspired by the great chef, but Skinner wants to milk the man’s name by slapping it all over mass-marketed food that’ll make Skinner rich.
The Theme: Passion versus Greed. Remy loves good food, and wants to make it for the food’s own sake, but Skinner wants to make cheap, frozen food because it makes him more money. Skinner is not shown to be any great cook. When a customer wants something new, he digs up an old Gusteau recipe and plays it as new. Remy turns it into his own masterpiece. One’s an artist, one’s a cold businessman.
Opposition to Colette: She believes in Gusteau’s motto that “Anyone can cook,” while Skinner thinks Linguini is just a nobody. For her part, Skinner is a jerk, one who endangers her career by giving her a newbie to train.
The Threat/Closeness: Skinner is the boss. He can fire Linguini the instant he ceases to be useful. Worse, he knows that Remy the rat is the real chef. He can’t prove it, but knowledge is powerful. Speaking of knowledge, Skinner discovers that Linguini is Gustaeu’s son, and the rightful heir to the restaurant, which threatens his plans. He keeps this information a secret, rendering Remy and Linguini powerless to overthrow him.
The Battle: While Remy shows up Skinner as a cook, this opponent takes him out of the kitchen entirely. Remy is able to use his diminutive size to steal Skinner’s documents and escape. This is harder than proving his ability with Colette, and more dangerous, but that’s escalation. What’s more, he uses his new ally Colette to help stand up to Skinner and end his reign. Skinner continues to attack the heroes, but he’s quickly overshadowed by a much greater opponent.
Anton Ego, the Final Boss
The Shared Goal: To eat and endorse great food. Ego says, “I don’t like food, I love food. If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.” Remy has the exact same mindset. He refuses to eat the literal garbage his rat family horks down, even risking his life for good taste. The difference comes in the things they stand for.
The Themes: The elitist and the commoner. Gusteau famously believed “Anyone can cook.” Remy took this to heart, and wants to prove he’s talented, despite being an unknown and a rat. Ego hates this idea, believing only a few gifted people can cook, and that only they should be celebrated. What’s more, Remy’s scheme with Linguini is exposed. The commoner must rise or fall on his own.
Opposition to Others: Skinner and Colette work at Gusteau’s, and Ego would happily shut the place down.
The Threat: Ego is THE food critic. One bad review from him shattered Gusteau’s reputation, and left him so brokenhearted that he soon died. Ego is just as powerful now as he was then, and because he hates Gusteau’s ideals, he’s eager to tear apart this new chef. It doesn’t matter how good Remy is; if Ego gives a bad review, Remy’s dream will die.
The Closeness: Ego doesn’t really appear until the last half of the movie, but his presence is felt earlier on, when a TV special explains how Ego’s scathing review destroyed Remy’s idol. His name is also whispered in fear when someone first tries Remy’s cooking. While they don’t meet until late in the game, Ego is a known name in the story. He also makes sure to appear before the boys to threaten them first, and even appears in Linguini’s nightmares.
The Battle: In a way, this battle is super simple: Remy serves a good meal, Ego loves it. But the method is the key. Remy serves ratatouille, which Colette says is a peasant’s dish. A peasant dish for the elitist food critic. And it knocks Ego to his knees. Remy can’t know that this is the same dish Ego’s mother fed him when he was a boy, but by serving this dish with his own flair, Remy sends a message that a commoner can be truly amazing, and it rocks Ego to his core. He not only loves the meal, but joyfully supports Remy’s own restaurant dreams.
Now You Try
To give even one opponent this much depth enriches any story. How much more so to do it with three? Three opponents hitting the hero from three different sides, challenging Remy at every angle. Even his father, who’s more of a naysayer than an opponent, presents Remy with a challenge: life is hard, stop pretending it’s not. Remy replies that he wants to change the world, not just live in it. Another angle.
That’s one of the many things that make Ratatouille so rich. The hero is constantly challenged, constantly modifying his methods, and these challenges not only make him a stronger hero, but they make the story more interesting and engaging.
So if you have even an inkling of desire to write a story, remember these techniques for writing your opponent, whether they’re the dark lord who wants to destroy the world or a lover in a rom-com who wants the relationship to go their own way.
- Think “opponent” before “villain.”
- Give them a goal that clashes with the hero’s.
- Give them a theme, an ideal, something to represent that clashes with what the hero represents.
- Make them a real threat. What power, authority, knowledge, or ability do they have and how can they exploit the hero’s weaknesses with it?
- Make them a close as you can, by actual nearness or foreshadowing.
And if you have multiple opponents…
- Make them oppose each other, in mind or deed, for a richer cast and more varied attacks on the hero.
- Make them successively harder.
Finally, keep learning. This is only a handful of tricks to enrich your story. Try them out, try others out, and get creative with what you find.
Also, ask questions. That’s what comment sections are for, wink.