• Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us!

Can someone help me understand Macguffins with examples?

The best explanation I've heard of a macguffin is a thing that the characters care about very much but the audience does not. I've always heard to avoid macguffins but I can't seem to get a good grasp on what they are and why they are not liked.


Myth Weaver
I like this description of a Macguffin better...
"In fiction, a MacGuffin is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or another motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The MacGuffin's importance to the plot is not the object itself, but rather its effect on the characters and their motivations." Wikipedia
So if you have an estranged father and daughter teaming up to plan a Jewellery heist to get the money for their sick wife/mother's operation... the Macguffin is the sick person [and the heist]. The story the reader is probably interested in is about the father and daughter working together and how their relationship grows.
I don't mind a Macguffin as long as they are not just throw aways - making characters do stupid things for the demands of the plot.
Maybe they are not liked because they can lead to expectations... You see something Cool in Act 1 and it's never mentioned again...
Or that they lead to "with a bound our hero was free"... the right thing appearing to the hero exactly when they need it to...


Fiery Keeper of the Hat
So.... a MacGuffin is just the thing everyone is after, and in a real-world setting, it's often the crown jewels, a painting, bags of money, the computer password, or even a hostage. Infinity War has six MacGuffins, Titanic has the "jewel of the ocean," and Avatar has "Unobtainium." Maybe a really bad MacGuffin is one that the readers just don't care about, but lots of great stories are MacGuffin-driven, including the entire heist genre, so avoiding it completely is just bad or lazy advice.

I would say that for a good MacGuffin, it should matter who gets it, and it should feel like that moment changes everything. "The hostages have escaped, now blow up the building." Something like that.

I've tried to use non-fantasy examples because the MacGuffin gets a bad rap for its use in fantasy, particularly those which are bad copycats of the "One Ring," which is the classic example of the fantasy MacGuffin. But then again, one of the most popular books in the world ended with a slew of MacGuffins, as Harry Potter had not just Voldemort's horcruxes to deal with, but the Deathly Hallows as well.


Myth Weaver
When I think MacGuffin, I think the Maltese Falcon. But, different people think of MacGuffin in different ways. Some seem to define the notion down into something that is almost by definition, bad. So by this defintion, avoid it. But if your definition is more like the One Ring, the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, or maybe even Wally’s World in National Lampoon’s Vacation... then by all means, use a MacGuffin, LOL.

People get too hung up on definitions. If it works, use it.