The MacGuffin – The Literary Bait and Switch

In order for there to be a story, the protagonists must actively seek to change their situation. However, deep emotional and philosophical struggles are difficult to convey to the audience, so writers use proxies and metaphors to make the abstract goals of our characters tangible. Even still, authors aren’t absolved from the responsibility of being aware of the nuances. Though the surface goals are essential, the deeper details will shape both the story and our characters.

People chase wealth and possessions to fill a variety of physical needs, but are rarely self-aware enough to understand the deeper emotional necessities they are also trying to satisfy. Teenagers who are addicted to their smart phones cherish the device because of the feeling of connection it facilitates. The Fortune 500 CEO stockpiling her wealth could value the security that comes with money rather than the comforts she can buy. An old man saving his social security checks to buy a car may see it as a means of independence. Psychologically speaking, humans seek proxies as a physical sign of progress in their emotional security.

Many authors view subtle metaphors as a mark of skill or artistry. However, when taken to an extreme, the physical object may become so far removed from the metaphorical need that it loses its significance and becomes a MacGuffin. By definition, a MacGuffin is an item that motivates the plot, but does not add to the story in any other significant way.

A classic example of a MacGuffin is the Maltese Falcon. Though the characters in Dashiell Hammett’s book (and the movie with Humphrey Bogart) all seek the bird statuette, there is never any indication of why they lust after it as opposed than any other treasure. The falcon seems to have no other significance to the story than to serve as “the prize.” Instead, this MacGuffin in particular represents the greed of the individuals, and in turn their pursuit of happiness through wealth. The nature of the wealth is less significant than the character’s belief in its power. By removing the metaphor so far from the physical object, Hammett focuses the story on the human emotions, the pursuit of power, and the vile things the characters are willing to do to one another.

As writers, we are used to looking past the physical symbols to the deeper human emotions they represent. Readers, however, might not be so adept at deep thinking in terms of philosophy and psychology. Instead, readers need physical symbols as proxies for the more complicated philosophies. By layering our metaphors with both surface meaning and deeper insight, we are able to create a richer experience for the reader. Subtlety may be highly regarded, but using a MacGuffin well is more difficult than avoiding the trope entirely. It's simply a choice, neither good nor bad.


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