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.
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