I was working on “Book Five” this week, and there was a section that was bothering me – I needed a character to be kidnapped, but couldn’t figure out a logical way of doing it. After I solved the problem (That’s the great thing about writing – I get to kidnap people and no one calls the cops!), it occurred to me that the character is a McGuffin.
A wha? What’s a McGuffin? You might ask.
A McGuffin is something in a story that is important to the characters, but is otherwise irrelevant to the plot, and is (In most cases) completely interchangeable with something else.
You with me? No? Okay.
Here’s an example. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Ark of the Covenant is a McGuffin. Change it from “The Ark” to “The Necklace”, and the plot of the film doesn’t change. Change it a “The Crystal Skull” and the plot is the same. Change it to “The Sandwich” and the plot is the same.
Bear in mind, a McGuffin can also be something abstract, like power or money – it doesn’t have to be a physical object.
The McGuffin drives the story forward, but its nature isn’t important. Alfred Hitchcock was a master of these. He said, “In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.”
George Lucas thinks the McGuffin should be something the reader-viewer cares about. Sometimes it’s not obvious what the McGuffin is either; Lucas says the McGuffin in Star Wars is R2-D2 – the thing that all the characters are chasing or protecting, in other words.
If anyone out there has read my own book Taken, the McGuffin is the character Sacmis – Amon, my main character, spends most of the book trying to find out who she is, and by the time he finds out, it’s irrelevant; he’s discovered other things about his world that means he doesn’t need to know. But his need to discover who she is what drives him forward.
The McGuffin also ties into something fundamental about characters in stories: They have to want something – a character who doesn’t want something shouldn’t be there. A sandwich, a crystal skull, a necklace. Or a Lost Ark of the Covenant. That will be your McGuffin.
In other words, at the centre of your story is an object, or an idea, something that everything else spins around, but is almost completely interchangeable. The man who craves power could as easily be the man who craves money.
Now, if you don’t mind, I’m off to make myself a sandwich.
Does your story have a good McGuffin? Comments below!