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The Anti-McGuffin (is this already a thing?)

Have you ever considered writing an Anti-McGuffin Plot?


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    6
I submit for your consideration, the concept of the "Anti-McGuffin Plot": 'something' for which the story revolves and creates conflict to drive the narrative, but is also 'something' *nobody* wants.

I'll tell you a true historical story from what I can remember-- with not too many exaggerations or aggregious mistakes-- because it was genuinely that absurd. Not only because I think it's hilarious, but I'm hoping someone might be inspired to adapt this into a fantasy setting. And, if you do, please let me read it.

I was on a road trip in Illinois to go camping for a weekend about 8 years ago. We went through a county where, oddly, everything was suddenly named 'Henry'. Henry County, the Henry River, Henry-everything. Curious, I later went online to see 'who' this Henry person was.

"Henry", historians agreed, was a visionary ...and a beligerant narcissistic jerk and borderline public menace. ( He may have also been a missionary at some point in his life, or a missionary ended up being his biographer?) Everyone despised him. The townspeople had a ethics problem: they couldn't justify killing Henry outright, because while he was a menance... they didn't want to be murderers. He didn't break the law enough to justify long prison sentences or execution. But, he was utterly intolerable. So much so, that in the 17? or 1800whatevers, the government/townspeople finally agreed to fund his crazy idea for a river expedition; because it was the only way they thought they could get rid of him once and for all. They sincerely thought they were sending him on a likely suicide mission, and the people rejoiced.

Most of his enlisted crew men quickly mutinied
(I suspect this was part of the townspeople's plan) and abandoned the expedition because he was bat-shit crazy, and mean as hell. Which left Henry mostly alone within the unknown wilds of Native American territory. He was determined to chart the Des Plaines, (or some such river) back to the headwaters of the Great Lakes and plot a route for man-made shipping cannals to be built for trade and commerce throughout Illinois. (That seemed crazy at the time, to manufacture an artificial river-highway. Expecially to towns that had little to trade or export.)

The natives, seeing this well-to-do european colonist guy basically on his own with a cache of supplies and equipment, decided he must be *really* important. They kidnapped him and took him prisoner, intending to ransom him back.

Except... no one the natives encountered of any authority was willing to pay anything to get him back. Because, Henry was a colossal jerk and nobody liked him. They kept basically telling the Natives to kill him: They said it would be totally cool, and not cause further conflict. They wanted nothing to do with him, and certainly weren't going to spend any more money or goods in exchange for Henry's safe return.

The Natives then realized they had a real problem: Their code of ethics dictated that they keep this ransom-prisoner alive and in good health, because he was kidnapped, and not defeated in battle. Therefore, he wasn't a 'slave' and couldn't be treated as one. They were stuck with what should have been a big-ticket hot-shot, but had no way of knowing just how hated Henry was by his own people when they abducted him.

Turns out, the Natives helped Henry complete his mission of charting the waters of the river whatever to the Great Lakes... but only because they themselves kept paddling Henry upstream trying to find government officials-- anybody really-- to take him back. They even gave up on the idea of ransom, just someone take Henry back so they could finally be rid of him, too.

Now, I can't remember if the Natives actually tried setting him free several times; and/ or tried pawning him off to a different population of natives to extort ransom...who quickly returned him back to the original tribe because they couldn't stand him... and then Henry refused to actually leave the native territory, and kept repeatively tracking down the original tribe to re-join them after being repeatively ditched in the wilderness. It was something genuinely amusing where Henry became a 'What About Bob?' Bill Murray character tormenting Richard Dryfuss in that he. just. wouldn't. leave. And they couldn't get rid of him.

Henry did complete his very important crazy- obsessive mission. Eventually, the natives found a section of the human population that had never heard of Henry, who we relieved these 'savages' kept him in such good health and were returning him unharmed, not knowing of the original ransom plot. Henry, being an insufferable jerk, eventually pissed off those unwitting townspeople who eventually 'helped' him return to his own original civilization... much to their total horror and dismay.

Future generations benefitted from Henry and his crazy ordeal-- and the cannals he mapped/built are still around today and are amazing to kayak or canoe by the way -- but in his lifetime, he brought a lot of misery to a lot of people.

Modern historians had a heck of a time trying to paint this Henry figure in a flattering light, so they didn't. I may have not remembered everything correctly (it was probably even more ridiculous) but it certainly left an impression on me all these years later.

Have any of you fellow Scribes ever utilized an 'Anti-McGuffin' plot? Maybe as a 'cursed object' instead of a person? While this historical account lends itself to comedy (well, I laughed because imagine *that* whole story on some historical marker) have you ever considered an Anti-McGuffin as a plot device?
 
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Laurence

Inkling
I think you just wrote a fine piece of fiction and are trying to pull a fast one on the fine folks of Mythic Scribes...

So, if the story centres around Henry and he's a human jerk, what made you think of using him as an anti mcguffin rather than an anti hero?
 
I think you just wrote a fine piece of fiction and are trying to pull a fast one on the fine folks of Mythic Scribes...

So, if the story centres around Henry and he's a human jerk, what made you think of using him as an anti mcguffin rather than an anti hero?

Thank you for the compliment Laurence, but I can't take the credit... And if I had invented this whole story, I would have written it so that the Natives quickly capitalized on a completely different extortion racket:

"Pay Up and meet our demands, or we will *give* Henry back to you." Evidently, they could have made a fortune threatening populations with that guy's return.

To answer your question, it never really occurred to me that Henry should be considered an anti-hero in this scenario. I'm not sure he should be cast as a villain, either. He just "is". In my mind, this guy is so out-there he's like a rabid dog terrorizing people, some other woe-inducing force of nature or an almost supernatural specter tormenting anyone who he has contact with. Nothing that I read suggested that Henry was straight up legit evil (by 17/1800s standards of conduct) but today he would be somewhere in the pages of the DSM V or the very least, regarded as a unmitigated a%#hole dumpster fire today.

That's what got me thinking about Henry as the 'unwanted' "thing" propelling the narrative, the anti-McGuffin. In the film 'Romancing the Stone' [spoiler alert] the characters were all eventually enveloped in the plot to possess a giant emerald, and they all desperately wanted it. It was a classic McGuffin, in that it was an object of intrinsic value to all the competing characters, drove the plot and was desired. In that movie's sequel 'Jewel of the Nile' [spoiler alert] the jewel wasn't a gemstone at all. The 'Jewel' was a messianic human male describe in Suffi prophecy to perform miracles and bring different warring tribes together. Not an object, but a character was the McGuffin, as everyone of conflicting agenda wanted to capture, influence or rescue this poor man.

There's a few other films where a person/character fits the description of the McGuffin, wherein something about them has intrinsic value, is desired, and the plot revolves around them.

I just wondered if the inverse of the McGuffin parameters made sense, and were true: an object, thing (or person) that was desperately unwanted, nobody wanted to posess 'it', and 'it' drove the plot should be considered....what? And did said inverse have a name? And lo, I could think of a decent historic example that perfectly illustrates that plot device.
 

Ireth

Myth Weaver
It's still a McGuffin, even if the story centers around, say, a plot to destroy it. The One Ring is a perfect example of such, at least from the heroes' perspective.
 
"an object or device in a movie or a book that serves merely as a trigger for the plot"

If trying to get rid of a thing is the trigger for the plot, then it's still a McGuffin?

But then, Wikipedia says it's "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."

I think, if we require the desire to pursue in the definition, then I understand Night Gardener's question.

Either definition, it seems, also turns on the idea that the McGuffin isn't particularly important other than as a plot device? So would an Anti-McGuffin be...something important to the narrative that everyone wants to get rid of? Or would it be something narratively important that all the characters ignore altogether?

Heh, I don't know.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Night Gardener, do you have a citation for the story? I'd like to learn more. If the time period really was late 1700s-early 1800s, that was the prime canal-building era, so it wouldn't have been at all crazy to go exploring to map out potential canal routes.

Also, the story definitely reminds me of "The Ransom of Red Chief" by O. Henry, one of the great American short stories.
The Ransom of Red Chief--O. Henry (1862-1910)

I'm not sure anti-McGuffin is quite the right term--it may bring out the Hitchcock aficiandos--but I get what you mean. And I definitely can see such an object or person working in a fantasy setting.

Edited to add this:
Once I found it, I had to read it again. What mastery of language! Not to mention brilliance of concept. Between that and the Civil War short stories by Ambrose Bierce I'm reading just now, I'm properly humbled.
 
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Night Gardener, do you have a citation for the story? I'd like to learn more. If the time period really was late 1700s-early 1800s, that was the prime canal-building era, so it wouldn't have been at all crazy to go exploring to map out potential canal routes.

Also, the story definitely reminds me of "The Ransom of Red Chief" by O. Henry, one of the great American short stories.
The Ransom of Red Chief--O. Henry (1862-1910)

I'm not sure anti-McGuffin is quite the right term--it may bring out the Hitchcock aficiandos--but I get what you mean. And I definitely can see such an object or person working in a fantasy setting.

Edited to add this:
Once I found it, I had to read it again. What mastery of language! Not to mention brilliance of concept. Between that and the Civil War short stories by Ambrose Bierce I'm reading just now, I'm properly humbled.

skip.knox I tried looking for the original webpage I stumbled upon 8 years ago and can't find it (that was 3 phones ago, so no scrolling for saved bookmarks either). This kind of history sleuthing requires an actual computer to go back and find webpages published pre-2010... But, if I can find the accounts of that individual's experience, I will PM you the details. If anything, I'm curious to see how accurate my memory is after 8 years from some one-off reading of historical web articles.

I'll have to look into that short story you mentioned. It sounds like something I'd enjoy! Thanks!
 
I wonder if an Anti-McGuffin plot should be renamed The Hot Potato Plot, heh.

I seem to vaguely recall some story or three that followed that kind of plot, but I can't remember any details. Something like the Cursed Item Plot, with a cursed item that keeps returning, no matter what you do, even if you MUST get rid of it, maybe going from person to person. Dunno.
 

pmmg

Vala
Yeah, I think I might be on a quest for a definition for this when none can really exist. It would seem an anti-McGuffin, as described above, would also be a McGuffin. An anti-McGuffin would seem to me to be something that removed or destroyed the McGuffin. And perhaps the choice is not McGuffin or anti-McGuffin, but McGuffin or no McGuffin at all.

This would be some kind of negative McGuffin, undesired and not desired. I've think that has been around in a number of stories. The one ring comes to mind. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction and you cannot make up a story like the one above. I hope that really happened. Its a good story if its not, but more fun if its actual.

I could see a story with a false McGuffin, or one where the McGuffin turned out to be something else entirely than people thought, but an anti McGuffin. I think the best I can do is a resolution being that something people sought turned out to be something they never really needed, and at the end, decided to go without. That is probably also a McGuffin, so...what can you do?
 

DylanRS

Dreamer
Interestingly enough, while the original story probably had more details, you never quite explained why Henry was so reviled. And yet I was intrigued. So Henry's disrepute was a catalyst that the reader didn't necessarily have to be in on.

McGuffin's are something that seems to have two definitions depending on context, and the fact that there are implicitly two definitions causes confusion sometimes. It's like how I'm still not convinced whether TVTropes is about cliche's or innocent devices. They say they're about devices, but then blatantly treat some subjects like cliche's without differentiating them, so "trope" seems to mean both device and cliche. McGuffin can be used in a criticism to mean poorly thought out plot-catalyst and it can be used innocuously to mean the "why" of the plot. One of the most famous examples for a McGuffin, that ring, has a clearly defined and understandable import. Then again, how many of us read about the ring and suddenly get a look in our eye? I don't personally hear that sinister, seductive song from the movies. I don't know. I personally feel that the McGuffin should be embraced. Fundamentally, every story, fictional or otherwise, is rooted in some desire. Or maybe a McGuffin is specifically a less vague form of that desire.
 
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