Monday, 25 February 2013

A Character Needs A MacGuffin

A MacGuffin is the thing a character wants. It’s what he sets out to find, hide, build or destroy. Its existence is what drives a story forward.

It was a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock, and the reason he gave it such a silly name is because he believed it didn’t really matter what it was, just as long as it existed and the need it represented was clear.

The important thing is that it’s tangible.  An object, a person, a place. Some thing. If a character wants to be happy, that isn’t a MacGuffin. If he wants to be happy by stealing the Hope Diamond and becoming rich, then the diamond is the MacGuffin.

But you could replace the diamond with any similar object and it would work just as well. The important thing to remember is that it needs to be a thing, not an idea or an attitude.

Hitchcock’s films demonstrate exactly which parts of MacGuffin are essential and which aren’t. In the movie North By Northwest, the main character, Roger Thornhill (played by Cary Grant), is being chased because of a top secret microfilm. It’s never explained what’s on the microfilm or what the bad guys intend to do with it, but the fact all these shady characters are after it provides enough of a MacGuffin for the audience to buy the events of the story.

It’s not the relevance of the microfilm to world safety that keeps the audience engaged, it’s what Cary Grant does about it. That’s not to say you can’t make the MacGuffin something the audience can care about, but it’s far more important that we are aware that these characters care about it in their world. One of the easiest ways of achieving that is to have more than one person after it.

That’s an extreme example where the actual reason why the MacGuffin is such a big deal is left out of the equation. When the stakes are big enough, the reason tends to be self evident. The Ark of the Covenant in Raiders has to be kept safe form the Nazis. The asteroid in Armageddon has to be destroyed before it hits Earth. You don’t really need to go into great detail to persuade an audience that these are goals worth pursuing.

Once the audience believes the need of the character to obtain their chosen MacGuffin, it can provide purpose for the entire story. You don’t really need to worry about it anymore. People are much more interested in the journey than the destination. You still need a destination, and one worth going to, but it’s the journey, and more importantly, the difficulties overcome on that journey, that interests readers.

It can end up that the MacGuffin wasn’t worth pursuing—In The Maltese Falcon, the falcon statue turns out to be a fake.

Or you can switch MacGuffins—Star wars starts as a search for R2D2, then rescuing a princess, then destroying a moon (hold on, that’s not a moon...)

And in North By Northwest, everyone’s after the microfilm except the main character, who has no idea what’s going on. What he wants is his life back. But the only way to do that is... exactly.

There needs to be this thing people want and you have to be able to name it at any point in the story. It may change, it may never have existed, but no matter where you are in the story, you should be able to say, What’s happening now is because of this.

Not a desire or an emotion or an outcome. If a woman is kept captive and want to escape (not a MacGuffin) and the only way is to kill the captor (he’s the MacGuffin) but she needs a weapon (a more immediate MacGuffin) and she dreams about getting back to her wonderful rich boyfriend (unnecessary backstory) who used to whip her in his private sex dungeon (Bestseller!).

As long as it’s clear what they want to obtain (whether to find it or kill it or rescue it) and the reason carries a believable imperative, the reader will engage with what the characters do about getting there.

You have to be able to believe the MacGuffin is important in the lives of these people you’re reading about. You may need to go to great lengths to establish that, or you may not need to say anything beyond: They have the President’s daughter. But you have to crystallise it into a solid, real world object that the reader can understand and appreciate.
If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think most of what my characters have wanted were intangibles, so not really MacGuffins.

Kay @ Short Story Ideas said...

I love the MacGuffin! Like a lot of things, once you have it it's not that interesting any more and the story is over. The chasing it or searching for it is what counts.
Great post. Re-tweeting now! :-)

Sarah Anne said...

Great post, I'm glad I read this. I'm at the turning point in my story where my narrator realizes what he wants isn't a person, but rather the things and lifestyle that said person can give him. So I guess the MacGuffin starts as one thing and then changes into another.

Gina Gao said...

This is a great post! I enjoyed reading this post very much.

mooderino said...

@Alex - what they do to achieve those intangibles might be though.

@Kay - thanks very much.

@Sarah Anne - the moment of realisation can be a very effective moment in a story.

@Gina - Cheers.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I guess I don't have any McGuffins either. Darn.

Michael Offutt, Speculative Fiction Author said...

I think Macguffins are easy to insert into a story. They almost do so on their own.

mooderino said...

@Patricia - never too late.

@Michael - As long as you see the need, shouldn't be too difficult.

Carissa Taylor said...

I think this is one of the most important (and sometimes hardest) things to do.

As authors, I think it's easy to get so caught up in writing complex characters and storylines that we forget that our audience needs to come away with something tangible.

Sure, as real people we don't always understand what we ourselves want. Sure, sometimes we change our mind, and realize what we truly want has shifted. But part of storytelling is to help provide insight and clarity to the complexity of real life. And that's what the MacGuffin helps us do.

Thanks for reminding me of that!

Donna Hole said...

Hmm, I'm thinking that's why literary writings and women's fiction may not be as popular as other genre's. The prize is an ideal (yes, I meant ideal) and not necessarily an object. Romance tends to be a little light on the MacGuffin too; a husband may be a person, but its still more the perfect idea and an emotional satisfaction more than a specific man.

And, your bestseller has piqued my interest; when will it be available to read :)


Lydia Kang said...

Is that the Hope Diamond?

It's fun when there are MacGuffins in stories. It's nice to focus on something tangible like that.

LD Masterson said...

So if my protag is a cop chasing a serial killer, is the killer my MacGuffin or are the clues and such that will lead him to the killer?

mooderino said...

@Carissa - it can be hard to remember (especially if you've gone down a different, more internalised road) but once you become aware of it, should be quite straightforward to sort it out.

@Donna - I think even an ideal has to be reached through interactions with solid objects.

@Lydia - I believe so.

@LD - the thing that is preoccupies the character is the MacGuffin. Could be the killer, could be the victim he's kidnapped, could be the van used. It's what drives the character's journey, but it can be whatever you choose.

Rusty Webb said...

For some reason, Pulp Fiction came to mind during this McGuffin talk. Remember the briefcase? We were even teased by having someone open it and a green light came pouring out of it... never explained though.

Of course, I cut my teeth on reading science fiction novels that always centered around what eventually came to be known as a BDO (Big Dumb Object). Clarke's Rama books (or his 2001 series of novels), Niven's Ringworld books. Even Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space books started out with a chase for a BDO. As a result, almost everything I've ever written either involves a giant, space-based object of mystery, or an artifact that's fallen into the hands of people ill equipped to handle it.

Basically, McGuffin's are pretty much all I do.

Michael Di Gesu said...

They are certainly VERY useful. Look what the Sorcerer's Stone did for JK ROWLING ... LOL.

They are especially useful in fantasy and paranormal stories. As always a well thought out post Mood. Thanks.

Jay Noel said...

I use a MacGuffin big time in my current project. Although the prize isn't what he thought it was going to be. At all.

mooderino said...

@Rusty - I'm not a big fan of the completely unexplained MacGuffin, seems a little too self-conscious at this point.

@Michael - Cheers.

@Jay - Not giving characters (and readers) what the expect is generally a good thing, in my experience.

Matthew MacNish said...

There's a great quote about MacGuffins, from Hitchcock:

"In crook stories it is almost always the necklace,
and in spy stories it is most always the papers."

Anonymous said...

The Holy Grail, The Golden Fleece, Helen of Troy (maybe), Golden Apples of the Hesperides, Killing Grendel, The fire which Prometheus steals from the gods, are all MacGuffins from classical literature while Moby Dick and The Ring in both the Ring of the Nibelung and Lord of the Rings are more recent examples.

But in modern literature has the MacGuffin become the sole preserve of 'YA/adventure/thriller' fiction? In real life someone who chases 'MacGuffins' might seem shallow and materialistic whereas more noble desires are usually abstract and ill-defined. In Catch 22, for example, there is no MacGuffin for Yossarian to pursue but his desires are so reasonable and ‘human’ that we identify with them.


LD Masterson said...

Got it. Thanks.

nutschell said...

Thanks for this post, Mood! Now I finally know the correct term for the character's driving goal. I love that term Macguffin!

Vanessa Morgan said...

So true and it's usually the hardest for writers who start with plot and action.

mooderino said...

@Colin - I'd say Yossarian was chasing a discharge for mental health issues. If you look close enough there's usually something that the character wants.

@LD - Cool.

@nutschell - YVW

@Vanessa - I don't think it makes a difference. Plot usually has a goal.

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