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:
- Turn over halfway through baking to get both sides golden brown. Seriously, this term makes me constantly think about cinnamon buns or warm danishes.
- 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.
- 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.
- Have MacGuffin with Dunkin Donuts hot cocoa.
- 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.
- 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.
- The MacGuffin should match the character. It really needs to make sense and appear to be a reachable goal.
- 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.