The MacGuffin: Apparently It’s Not a Breakfast Pastry

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I’ll admit that I never really knew what a MacGuffin was.  I’d heard the term, but always managed to stay in the conversation without revealing my ignorance.  Honestly, I kept thinking of food and puffins whenever I heard the term.  Even now I’m hungry thinking of whatever a MacGuffin would be in the culinary world.  I assume it’s covered in syrup and can bestow clairvoyance on whoever eats it.  Now Misha Burnett asked me to talk about them, so I had to look them up.  Here is what I found on Wikipedia:

“In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so important. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot. The most common type of MacGuffin is an object, place or person. However, a MacGuffin can sometimes take a more abstract form, such as money, victory, glory, survival, power, love, or even something that is entirely unexplained, as long as it strongly motivates key characters within the structure of the plot.”

Basically, this is the goal of your hero or heroes that moves the plot.  It doesn’t matter what it is, so much that it drives the hero.  For example, Frodo destroying the ring, Spider-Man relieving his guilt from letting Uncle Ben die, or Will Treaty making his teacher Halt proud of him.  That last one is Ranger’s Apprentice, which I recommend people read.  The point here is that you can use nearly anything as a MacGuffin.  It simply has to be the driving force behind the character even if it isn’t part of the overall plot.

How do you use them?  Well, you might find that you’re using them without realizing it since a MacGuffin isn’t a specific item.  Not unless the character is driven to discover the Golden MacGuffin, which will bring wealth to his starving village.  Anyway, being that there this thing isn’t a specific, unchangeable item, you have everything in existence and beyond to choose from.  So, I can’t really tell you what to pick because it’s whatever works for the character and plot.  It can even change during a series.  Luke Callindor sets out to prove he’s a hero in Legends of Windemere: Beginning of a Hero.  That desire is the MacGuffin that pits him against the Lich and puts him in that school.  I’m at the sixth book and his MacGuffin has turned into protecting his friends and stopping the rise of an ancient evil who is currently protected by spoilers.  Though this evil is turning out to be oddly likeable, but that’s not my point here.

Here are a few tips to using MacGuffins:

  1. Turn over halfway through baking to get both sides golden brown.  Seriously, this term makes me constantly think about cinnamon buns or warm danishes.
  2. Don’t make the character entirely about the MacGuffin.  It can be part of the character’s personality and goal, but they need more than that.  Use it as a jumping point instead of a sticking point.
  3. Avoid MacGuffin overload.  One main and 1-2 minor MacGuffins can work, but loading a bunch of goals on a character will bog them down.  Think of how people are in the real world.  Most have that central goal/quest and several secondary ones that may change throughout their life.
  4. Have MacGuffin with Dunkin Donuts hot cocoa.
  5. Most of MacGuffins have already been done in some form.  For example, saving a princess.  You can put a twist on this like the hero wants to save a princess, but he can’t find one to save.  Maybe the princess is evil.  Another way to work around this is to use a common MacGuffin and have the character grow out of it swiftly.  Maybe they head out to save a princess, but halfway through the book they end up going on the path to becoming a pirate.
  6. Give your villains MacGuffins too.  These might be the big ones that influence the plot, so I would put more into this than the hero.  Eventually, the villains MacGuffin will become the heroes ‘anti-MacGuffin’.  I think.  I’m starting to lose myself here.
  7. The MacGuffin should match the character.  It really needs to make sense and appear to be a reachable goal.
  8. If the original MacGuffin is removed then acknowledge that in some way.  A goal has been reached or forever denied, so a character will be affected by this.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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36 Responses to The MacGuffin: Apparently It’s Not a Breakfast Pastry

  1. Claire Duffy says:

    Thank you! I have to confess, I tend to nod and try to look as though I know what people are talking about with most of those terms… I only learned what ‘Mary Sue’ meant recently!

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    • I always forget about that one and I can never think of examples. I’m starting to see that terms like ‘Mary Sue’, ‘MacGuffin’, and ‘cliche’ get misused a lot. Sometimes they’re merely used on something that a person doesn’t like.

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      • Claire Duffy says:

        Yep, though that can go for actual criticism words too. I once had a producer (I’m a screenwriter) comment on an early draft that the opening scenes needed more ‘conflict’. I asked him to clarify as his comment didn’t really make sense in the light of the scenes in question… his baffled look led me to wonder whether he knew what conflict meant. I think sometimes people hide behind buzz words when they know there’s ‘something’ about some pages or whatever that they don’t like, but they don’t know what…

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      • I’ve run into that a few times. I try my best to be nice and go along with it. Ever figure out what he meant by conflict? I’m guessing action or yelling.

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  2. I’ve never even heard the term. Glad that you shared. I like the tips. I had a good laugh over that.

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  3. tjtherien says:

    I’ve never heard the term and I’m not too sure I use the device… I try to leave out information I don’t feel is directly relevant to the telling of a story so unless something ties in it’s unlikely I will mention it…

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    • It isn’t so much that the information is unimportant, but that it’s the driving force of a character. Many times the driving force is closer to a subplot. For example, Luke Callindor’s MacGuffin is to prove he has what it takes to be a hero. This leads him into the main plot of protecting the heir at the school, but it is more of a character development item.

      MacGuffn = Driving Force is a way to look at it.

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      • tjtherien says:

        ahhh… I got it… sort of like Rianon’s ambition though not directly stated is to become the living embodiment of Lolth…

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      • Exactly. I believe it was traditionally an object, but it’s evolved to include non-physical yearnings.

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      • tjtherien says:

        perhaps a better example is although she can see just as well without light she choses to illuminate her room with a soft red light…

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      • Makes sense. Kind of like character ambiance. It’s amazing how often we over look these things though. I can’t think of a single protagonist that didn’t have a MacGuffin of some kind. This is just begging for people to prove me wrong.

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      • tjtherien says:

        I think I’ve got two actually in my stone age romance… everything they use is essential to survival…opps sorry the female lead puts flowers in her hair… the male however doesn’t have anything other than the juvenile wolf who plays a part in the plot…and is actually a minor character….

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      • I’ve begun to think that every character needs a MacGuffin. At least to have any depth. That reason for them to be in the story and to do more than ‘hi/bye/die’.

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  4. Well done Charles. Now the Mystery Writers of American can finally quit trying to own the MacGuffin exclusively.

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  5. sknicholls says:

    I like the reminder to give your villains MacGuffins too. I have read so many books where the protagonist had great goals, but the villain was just sort of there because he had to be.

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    • Me too. Some people think that bad guy is good enough simply being evil. Makes for such a bland conflict. I remember one person I went to school with thought a detailed villain would detract from the hero. Silly people.

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      • sknicholls says:

        It makes the story and fleshes out the characters when they all have goals. Regardless of the genre, it is a much better read when all of the characters have real personality and are striving to accomplish something. They don’t have to take over the story, but at least let them do more than run and get caught.

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      • I think a villain who connects to the readers is a stronger villain too. That small flicker of ‘maybe I want him to win’ can do a lot.

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  6. I learned something new with this post, I had never heard of this before, at least I never knew it had a name. Interesting.

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  7. ioniamartin says:

    I would have guessed
    A.) A breakfast sanfwich
    B.) A type of mitten
    C.) a muffin that has gone stale
    D.) a dog of some type (The hairy kind that looks like a mop.)

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  8. For the longest time, I had been confused between a red herring and a macguffin. I was convinced that the latter was actually the former (a flawed Wikipedia page was probably to blame), and thus got into a huge argument with my visual studies professor. Needless to say, I had to later eat my words. Though the professor did screen The Maltese Falcon for us to explain the concept, so some good did happen there, if only by letting us get lost in Humphrey Bogart’s dreaminess :). Oh, and great post. It explains the concept very well. Now, if only I had read this post before opening my mouth in class.

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    • I was learning as I went with this post. I kind of knew what it was, but I didn’t really connect the term to the idea. I’m sure most authors know what a MacGuffin is even if they don’t realize it’s a MacGuffin.

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  9. I’m going to order one of these from McDonald’s today. 🙂

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