The stormtroopers of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope seem to vary between extremes in their competence and lethality. When boarding the rebel ship, the stormtroopers slaughter the defenders. In addition, Obi-Wan deduces that the Jawa Sandcrawler was attacked by the Empire based on the accuracy of the shots. And yet, Han Solo escapes unharmed from a squadron of these “elite” soldiers by running down the clear, mostly straight hallways of the Death Star. Though fans have justified this discrepancy, I think it is more clearly understood as a case of Bad Guy Aim: a trope in which the antagonist and their otherwise competent minions miss major characters by the narrowest of margins for the sake of managing tension.
The Bad Guy Aim trope hinges on a series of near misses believable enough to pose a threat to the protagonist without ending the story prematurely. Despite being easiest to see during combat, Bad Guy Aim is not limited to direct man-vs-man conflict. Instead, I see the trope as an aspect of the antagonist’s try-fail cycles. The defining line between the antagonists and protagonists is the point of view presented. As such, each side is trying to foil the other and must fail to do so at least once for there to be a story.
The trick to doing Bad Guy Aim well is to disguise it as something else. I have seen chance and circumstance work if used sparingly, but that strategy taxes the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Instead, consider the protagonist’s agency in the story. Attributing the near misses to the protagonist’s skill or cleverness rather than antagonist incompetence is both more believable and a better source of tension. For example, if Luke had R2D2 install a virus into the Death Star’s systems that interfered with the Storm Trooper’s targeting algorithm, no one would question their sudden inaccuracy.
Subverting the Bad Guy Aim trope is also effective, such as in the case of the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Through his casual use of the power of the Force, Kenobi overshadows Luke. By killing him, Lucas forces Luke Skywalker to become more active. Additionally, Kenobi’s show of power provides scale to Darth Vader’s abilities, and grants the antagonist additional menace when he kills the wise mentor figure. Finally, when he is killed, Kenobi was acting as the vanguard to the other character’s escape. This grants nobility to the gesture. Even in death, Kenobi doesn’t lose his agency entirely as he continues to mentor Luke from beyond the grave. By allowing Kenobi’s death, Lucas accomplishes many goals simultaneously while sacrificing little.
Ultimately, the Bad Guy Aim trope is a choice on the storyteller’s part as to when to let the lethal blows fall. Near misses and direct hits are both valid choices, and in the case of A New Hope, I believe that Lucas repeatedly chose well.Tags: Sequence 05: Tropes and Archetypes