MacGuffin's are everywhere and can be easily confused. So, if you want to learn about MacGuffins, you’ve come to the right place. Here I offer a lot of discussion on them in this post of Trope Review. Here I break down fantasy tropes and see what works, what doesn’t, and what we can do about it.
The term ‘MacGuffin’ was first popularised in Hitchcock, and since then has dominated literature and film. Though as of a few minutes ago I believed the One Ring to be a MacGuffin, it is not so. The criteria for MacGuffin is laid out below from TV Tropes.
Firstly, a MacGuffin could be valuable because it is valuable in essence, ‘circular value.’ For example, there is no real difference whether it is a legendary axe or sword – it’s kept the same way, and is still a sharp object designed to cut people. The question to ask is this: could you Ctrl + F, change the word to something else and not break the plot?
Secondly, does it matter to the plot? If it contributes something to the plot because of its properties, rather than being a plot device to move things forward, then it is not a MacGuffin.
So, what are some good examples of MacGuffins?
The Silmarils of Feanor in JRR Tolkien’s Silmarillion are great examples of MacGuffins. Though they carried the light of the Two Trees and as such had extraordinary power, such as being able to push through protective glamours, these powers were rarely used. They were prized solely for their beauty. Never mind the fact they could have healed the Two Trees and restored light to the world.
Elves waged wars against Morgoth and each other for these Silmarils. The Sons of Feanor were driven by their oath to reclaim the Silmarils, but it was not because the Silmarils were valuable. It was their oath which led to so much tragedy.
In the love story of Beren and Luthien. Luthien’s father set Beren to reclaim a Silmaril from Morgoth’s Iron Crown. Again, the Silmaril was only a plot device, not an object to reclaim in itself. On the upside, it led to Beren’s most badass moment: “I succeeded in my quest. Even now, a Silmaril is in my hand. Unfortunately, my hand is in a giant wolf’s stomach.”
Another great example of a MacGuffin is in John Flanagan’s Brotherband. The Andomal is jealously guarded by the Skandians, yet nobody really knows what it is. The pirate Zavac stealing it sets the plots of the books The Invaders and The Hunters in motion.
However, having a MacGuffin may not be a terrible issue. Simply having a trope in your writing isn’t the worst. It depends how you use it. After all, why can’t your MacGuffin serve the plot and be unique in itself? If it makes a difference somehow, then it isn’t as bad. For example, the Shardblades were extremely coveted and the desire to win them moved the plot forward in Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance. However, the Shardblades also have extremely powerful properties: they can cut through anything. Sanderson reminds us of this when Renarin’s Shardblade opens up Urithuru and saves thousands.
As I mentioned earlier, Tolkien’s One Ring is commonly misidentified as a MacGuffin, but it is not. The Ring has a will of its own, and actively contributes to the plot. It corrupts anyone without unbreakable will, and even then it wears Frodo down over time. Even then, it was a nice flip on the trope in that Frodo wanted to destroy it, not claim it.
In summary, I think the best way to make a MacGuffin effective is to give it something to contribute to the plot as part of its properties. Make it valuable because it is useful, not because people want it. Secondly, you could give it a theme outside of its value. Finally, see if you can make it unique enough so that it couldn’t be Ctrl + F’d out of existence.
That’s all for today! If you enjoyed this, sign up below to stay up to date with my content! If you want to chat about writing or anything at all, feel free to tweet me at @sr_thiele. And if you’d like to get a review of the MacGuffin trope from a sci-fi perspective, check out https://melanierousselfiction.com/macguffins-tropes-translated/