Monday, September 21, 2015

McGuffins and sexy lamps - Lessons from Mad Max: Fury Road part 3

Yes, I am still on about Mad Max: Fury Road! This time we're talking about ancillary characters. Before we really get started, let's define two concepts:

MacGuffin (a.k.a. McGuffin or maguffin) is a term for a motivating element in a story that is used to drive the plot. It serves no further purpose. It won't pop up again later, it won't explain the ending, it won't do anything except possibly distract you while you try to figure out its significance. In some cases, it won't even be shown. It is usually a mysterious package/artifact/superweapon that everyone in the story is chasing.

- Read more:
If you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.

- Kelly Sue Deconnick
Which means that it's time to talk about The Wives!

The Wives are a fairly traditional McGuffin. Everyone is after them. For Immortan Joe they're a precious commodity, for the Warboys they are a way vehicle into Immortan Joe's good graces and for Furiosa they're a way to hurt Joe in a way he'll remember being hurt. Many storytellers, I would go as far as to say most Hollywood storytellers, would be content at that. In other words they would be happy writing sexy lamps.

What makes Fury Road unique is that the Wives all have their own opinions, wants and needs. They effect the events of the story by their actions which are based on their own motivations. They use what little power they have to cause changes in the world around them.
So how can you do this in your own story? First of all

Know what your characters want

It always seems to come down to that, doesn't it? Have your characters want something and want it badly. Even if it is for their lives to remain the same, the kind of thing they're comfortable with. Everyone wants something and everyone considers themselves to be the main character in their own lives. On Fury Road the Wives want to live free, and they're willing to die for that.

Make them unique

Let's start with the notion that McGuffins are people too. On Fury Road, the Wives form one huge McGuffin with many limbs in terms of plot. But each of them has something they're good at, something the others don't have. Toast is good with guns, Capable is good at listening, Cheedo has an actual arc that goes from being afraid to being brave while The Dag is all about the future.

Give them agency

This is a seriously hard thing to do. Characters with agency cause disruptions. They make your neat and tidy plot into a rambling mess. They also breathe life into the story. They create conflict when what they want collides with what the main character wants. This can cause problems if you're not careful since the ancillary characters can easily take over the entire story. But that might also be a sign that your main character is not interesting enough. On the Fury Road the Wives' agency shows up in Cheedo distracting Rictus so she can help Furiosa, in Angharad's lean out of the cab to mess up Joe's shot, in Capable harboring Nux and many other small ways. They don't steal the show because Furiosa and Max are much more interesting than anyone else on the screen.


You knew this was coming too. Take whatever thing you're working on. Grab one of the peripheral characters you (meaning not the main character or the antagonist), preferably one that has some dialog lines. Grab whatever scene they're in and rewrite it from the point of view of that ancillary character.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful homework assignment. This is a great way to create a fully developed story. I look forward to doing this myself.


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