The Villain Wants the McGuffin

“McGuffin” is a term primarily associated with movies (Alfred Hitchcock is usually credited with inventing—or naming—it), but the concept applies with equal effectiveness to prose fiction and even nonfiction.

Edward G. Robinson tells Bogey what he wants in “Key Largo”

The McGuffin is what the villain wants.

The granddaddy of McGuffins is the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend. Closer to home it’s the letters of transit in Casablanca, the suitcase in Pulp Fiction, the Maltese Falcon, the Ark of the Covenant. R2D2 is the McGuffin in Star Wars, according to George Lucas.

Here’s the McGuffin’s origin story from a 1966 interview with Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut (also explained by Hitch in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University):

“It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers, ‘Oh that’s a McGuffin.’ The first one asks ‘What’s a McGuffin?’ ‘Well’ the other man says, ‘It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers ‘Well, then that’s no McGuffin!’ So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.”

Let’s dig a little deeper into this device and see what light it can shed on the nature of villainy in any story.

We said in several earlier posts that

The villain never changes.

Only the hero changes. We quoted a wise old Hollywood producer:

“If the villain could change, he’d be the hero.”

This idea takes us straight back to the nature of the McGuffin. Remember Hitchcock’s final thought in his definition:

“So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.”

Put another way,

It doesn’t matter what the McGuffin is. All that matters is that the villain wants it.

Or another, possibly deeper way:

The ideal McGuffin is one that is deliberately meaningless or even silly. Because this makes the point that the villain’s greed and covetousness is everything.

Did you ever see Key Largo, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (directed by John Huston and written by Huston and Richard Brooks) with a great Edward G. Robinson as the gangster “Johnnie Rocco?” Rocco is on the run with his gang of cutthroats, hiding out while he waits for a contact from Miami and a boat to Cuba. An approaching hurricane maroons the bad guys in the Hotel Largo (an ideal confined space for a drama), where they live out a long, fraught night with several denizens of the establishment including Ms. Bacall and Bogey as Frank McCloud, a recently discharged WWII major who chances to be in Key Largo visiting the family of a comrade killed in the war.

In the movie’s most memorable scene, one of the captives, in distress at the seeming senselessness of Rocco’s greed and villainy, demands of the gangster, “What is it you want?”

For a moment Rocco is non-plussed. He can’t come up with an answer.

Bogey as Maj. McCloud offers to supply it.

 

MCCLOUD

I’ll tell you what he wants.

 

ROCCO

Go ahead, soldier. Tell him.

 

MCCLOUD

He wants “more.”

 

For a moment the gangster seems almost insulted by this. Then he slaps his thigh and laughs.

 

ROCCO

That’s it, soldier! More! I want more!

 

The villain, in other words, barely even knows what he wants.

“What” means nothing.

“Wants” is everything.

The Alien wants to feed and kill. So does the shark in Jaws or the Thing in The Thing. Or the pods from space in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Zombies want to eat your brain. Viruses want to contaminate you. The creature in the Species series wants to mate with you and mutate.

The point of Hitchcock’s McGuffin—that its content is essentially meaningless, that all that matters is that it be an object of desire—is to illustrate the nature of villainy and evil itself.

Villainy’s object is molecular, cellular, visceral. It seeks only to dominate and to self-perpetuate. Nothing grander. Nothing more meaningful.

The villain wants the McGuffin.

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15 Comments

  1. Renita on May 22, 2019 at 5:01 am

    “More” is the basis of the horror movie or the abuser in a domestic situation or a dictator or any addiction.
    I’ve been investigating the role of catharsis in coming free of addictions. The moderate approach to treatment of heroin addiction is the management of withdrawal by methadone, a similar drug. Methadone has no high and it’s guesswork to get the right dosage to assuage withdrawal symptoms. It’s a long process. It’s basically “less.”
    Another approach is use of psychedelics. A heroin addict takes the psychedelic and rests under supervision. They report a catharsis in which they see things differently. There are few withdrawal symptoms and few cravings reported. The person has been taken above the wanting state into another conscious state.
    It appears that spiritual catharsis is the way through. The brain has been reset.
    It seems to me that when we write we are providing a vehicle for catharsis as Aristotle had said. Catharsis is psychologically necessary. Writers create a container for catharsis or purification.

    • Gigi Blackshear on May 22, 2019 at 6:14 am

      Renita,

      Your surmise of writing as a vehicle for catharsis is dead on. It is the thing that brought healing and saved my life. As I believe Steven said in War of Art, my first book was a “bloodletting” of sorts, but it worked. It opened the flood gates and freed my breath and my creativity.

      • Kyle Westerman on May 22, 2019 at 7:05 am

        If I can stay in trenches for my first novel long enough to actually publish this novel… I would be immensely thankful if it opened me in that way

  2. Mary Doyle on May 22, 2019 at 7:02 am

    Happy to have this reminder, and even happier for the realization that I know exactly what my villain wants. As always, thanks!

  3. Joe Jansen on May 22, 2019 at 8:23 am

    I’d concur with Dr. Wellman (hat-tip to “Catch Me If You Can”). When I read the exchange between McCloud and Rocco, my mind went to a lyric in the Kenny Chesney song, “You and Tequila”: “One is one too many, one more is never enough.”

    Thinking about how alcohol (or any of the many things to which we can become addicted) embodies all the characteristics of a villain. It’s relentless. Crafty. It’ll lie to you, making promises of contentment or glory or power, but will eventually destroy you. It wants more, and compels you to want more. You can try to reason, bargain, plead, threaten: Han Solo trying bring back to the light his son Kylo Ren, or later Rey trying the same; Frodo giving Smeagol a chance for redemption from the corruption of his avarice. But in the end, darkness turns back on itself. Kylo doesn’t change. Smeagol doesn’t change. The villain doesn’t change. Of course, some people can dance with this bear without being mauled. But for some of us, the bottle is a villain that doesn’t change.

    I’d suppose that if we were looking for a depth to plumb, something that would give us personal insight to the inner workings of the villain in one of our stories, this could be fresh meat.

  4. Cathy Ryan on May 22, 2019 at 8:57 am

    So clear and simple. Thank you.

  5. Clay on May 22, 2019 at 8:59 am

    It’s actually past addiction; the “more” mantra as it relates to addiction won’t be solved through catharsis delivered by an act of reading of a work that fulfils Aristotle’s Poetics, as pretty a claim as we would like to think so. If so, treatment pharmacies would stock books, not pharmaceuticals. Renita approaches the solution with her remark suggesting spiritual catharsis as the lever that arrests addiction. Another approach, far more common in the rooms of addiction recovery, is psychic change—often from spiritual experience, certainly, but not always.

    Too, many villains don’t crave “more” as much as they covet something that, in recovery parlance, “fills the hole in their souls.” And one doesn’t have to be a villain, either, to want. Just a human being. As Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King says, “There was a disturbance in my heart, a voice that spoke there and said, I want, I want, I want! It happened every afternoon, and when I tried to suppress it got even stronger.”

    • Jill on May 22, 2019 at 10:46 am

      Too, many villains don’t crave “more” as much as they covet something that, in recovery parlance, “fills the hole in their souls.” And one doesn’t have to be a villain, either, to want. Just a human being. > spot on

    • Erik Dolson on June 2, 2019 at 2:49 am

      I’m not seeing the difference between “spiritual catharsis” and “psychic change” in this discussion. Two labels for the same process? Likewise, the difference between “more” and that which “fills the holes in their souls.” Isn’t that what the major was saying? That Rocco had a hole in his soul into which he poured “more” without ever filling it up?

  6. Jill on May 22, 2019 at 10:54 am

    Just thinking about how popular it is these days to have “good villains” or “neutral” characters who aren’t 100% bad or good and people like them just as much as the heroes. So everyone is a hero these days? While doing whatever it is they want anyway / wanting their McGuffins? Kind of like “I want my McGuffin and I will do anything to get it even if I have to kill everybody / destroy everything ~ BUT, see I had a difficult childhood so you have to feel sorry for me anyway and anyway once I get my McGuffin I will give the proceeds to the poor.” ^o^;

    I guess maybe it’s because deep deep down nobody -really- wants to be a bad guy (or wants to believe anybody is a 100% bad guy even if they are the worst of the worst).

    I totally agree with and enjoyed this post although I think there are some villains who do know what their McGuffins are and why they want it (which is worse, I think). Although it is true they don’t have to know these things really for the story to be a good one ^^

  7. Julie M Curwin on May 22, 2019 at 8:00 pm

    I can’t remember who said it, but one of my all-time favorite sayings is this: “You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.” Which implies (to me at least) that villainy is related to a profound lack of self-awareness….a sort of willful blindness about what one really needs. Thanks again, Steve, for inspiring me and making me think. Keep up the good work.

  8. Stefan on May 22, 2019 at 8:50 pm

    It helps to distinguish between the villain’s Want and the McGuffin. The McGuffin is the means by which the villain hopes to obtain his Want. For example, in Mission Impossible, the nuke is the McGuffin and means to reduce the human population on Planet Earth. Actually, reducing the human population is also a means – to save Planet Earth. I believe that it is important that writers employ ‘meaningful’ McGuffin’s. This opens up opportunities to show fresh perspectives on common sense fallacies, like seeing people as liabilities instead of assets. Or trying to repeat ancient history by building another Great Wall of China but this time in America.

  9. David McWilliams on May 24, 2019 at 8:14 am

    Is there a MacGuffin in Killing Rommel?

  10. Madalena Penny on May 26, 2019 at 8:49 pm

    I feel that writing has evolved from the usual protagonist and antagonist script. I find myself these days disappointed in popular fiction and that our audience are looking for something else. Readers only get emotionally involved in a book if the characters resonate and appeal to them. So much fiction now is akin to dolly the sheep – as though it’s cloned and there’s a factory somewhere manufacturing plots that they think the masses will want. It’s in my experience that writers these days have a duty to take a risk and give readers something different – something that adds something new they haven’t emotionally experienced before. It’s long overdue – Give me a good novel where I can come away richer for the experience.

  11. Sean Crawford on June 7, 2019 at 9:06 pm

    To respond to Jill above: Sure, lots of people are good, such as good ex-convicts.I believe in such. Louis L’Amour often wrote of good outlaws who would, say, risk themselves to fight hostiles, as in Last Stand at Papago Wells. But L’Amour also mentioned outlaws who were “poison.” I believe in such folks too.

    As a young man I would safely enter dens of iniquity because the poison types were outnumbered by the good-bad types. Was I flouting the Gods? No, the odds were always in my favour.

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