Even if you’ve never heard the term, I’m prepared to bet you’ve encountered a McGuffin. The screenwriter Angus MacPhail originated the term to refer to any item which drives the plot of a film despite having little importance in itself, a technique he refined in his work with Hitchcock. These days, the term is used to refer to any rare quest object, so long as the characters spend the whole story chasing after it – especially if its actual purpose hardly comes up.
The quest object has a substantial pedigree. The Holy Grail of the Arthurian mythos is a good example – this phantom of an object which promises extraordinary grace but fades and vanishes at the slightest provocation. But the McGuffin features in nearly every genre – the missing will, the data drive of spy secrets, the Infinity Stones, the treasure map, the gold bullion in The Italian Job – but it’s especially prevalent in fantasy. We can’t move over here for sacred swords and stones of power. And let’s be honest, one of the pleasures of the genre is getting to hear about treasure. There is some of that museum-visiting pleasure in getting to learn about a gorgeous artefact. The classic children’s novel The Box Of Delights by John Masefield sums up all that promise in its title alone.
In videogames, a minor McGuffin is the subject of a widely-disliked species of minor mission: the fetch quest. Oh brave warrior, please retrieve my treasured heirloom which has mysteriously fallen into a crevasse at the edge of the world! We all hate them because they feel so much like padding; an excuse to make the player ramble from one side of the map to the other.
At its worst, obviously, a fetch quest is dull. God knows when I set out writing as a teenager I came up with endless fantasy plots about “we have to find the 12 shards of Flimflam in order to recover the eight enchanted pendants of Bizwax” and they were all dire. In my defence, I had spent a long time thinking of a richly detailed magical kingdom and had to find some way to make the characters traipse all around it.
When the McGuffin is used badly it’s a lazy replacement for coming up with other more interesting ways to get the characters moving. When it’s used well, though, a McGuffin is crystallised motivation, a powerful engine to get the story up and running. Even if the object itself is not especially interesting, the characters will have their own reasons for going after it, and in the pursuit of that desire they’ll cross swords and forge relationships and get on with what the story is really about – in Raiders Of The Lost Ark it’s sort of incidental what the Ark of the Covenant actually is, even if it does turn out to have some delightful Nazi-melting powers. Likewise, the sword in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is just a cool sword – its power is in what it means to the characters and what they’re prepared to do to get it.
The greatest, or at least the best-known, McGuffin in fantasy fiction is of course the One Ring. It’s perfectly deployed because the central theme of The Lord Of The Rings is destructive greed and obsession. The Ring is a McGuffin’s McGuffin: its very nature is that anyone who crosses paths with it becomes obsessed with acquiring it, and the only way to be free is to destroy it. At its best, the McGuffin is a pure embodiment of desire. What is it about human nature that makes us want things so badly, even when it hurts us?
The plot of my debut novel The Unspoken Name revolves around an undeniable McGuffin, a magic box with mysterious contents – but the protagonist really doesn’t care what’s inside it. Csorwe just wants to do a good job for her boss, and does her best not to think too much about what his real motivations might be, or what her commitment to the quest might ultimately cost her.
The Unspoken Name by AK Larkwood is out now from Tor Books.