Which MacGuffin are you?
My novel, Beyond the Autumn, explores an array of themes and subjects, some of them more obvious than others. In my last blog, I said I’d talk about two topics: the role of women in the novel, and mental health. It may come as no surprise that these are both huge (and hugely important) topics, and can’t be covered adequately in one short blog. So, this time around, I’m going to focus on the role of women in Beyond the Autumn.
In a previous video, I looked at my novel’s focus on the plight of overseas foreign workers (OFWs) in the Persian Gulf. It’s a journalist’s dogged determination to uncover this story that leads to her disappearance, and which in turns drives the story forward. Her disappearance is the reason for the story being told at all; but, you might ask – and I’m going to be vague here to avoid revealing any spoilers – how big a role can a character play if they’re not really in the story?
You could argue that in a murder mystery, the most central character is the deceased. They may not have many (or any) lines, but they’re the engine of the story, the reason it’s being told at all. And, in Beyond the Autumn, you could argue there aren’t many female characters or voices, save for the absent Charlotte, and auntie Garcia early on. Well, you’d be right. But that doesn’t mean that women aren’t important characters in the book, and that their actions, their strength and determination, aren’t vital to the story.
The Bechdel Test is often applied to movies. It’s a simple test of whether a story features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. A story’s failure to pass the test often serves to highlight how peripherally women are portrayed in fiction. However, the fact that Beyond the Autumn only features two main female characters was intentional, as I wanted to make Charlotte the MacGuffin of my story.
The MacGuffin might be a term you’ve heard before, or you might think I’ve had a boozy lunch before writing this and I'm not making much sense. (You might be half right with the latter, but I’m going to assume for the purposes of this blog that you’d like a quick explanation anyway.) In short, the MacGuffin of a story is an object, device or thing necessary to the plot and the motivation of the story’s characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself.
Now, my character of Charlotte is absolutely significant, important and relevant to the story. Her disappearance sets everything in motion, and it’s the reason Chris embarks on his ‘quest’. Her whereabouts and safety are the mystery that Chris wants to solve, but our attention is focused on Chris, meaning she is more important to him than to us, the reader.
I found out recently that the MacGuffin of a story is actually more complex and debated a concept than I’d previously thought. There are, I discovered two schools of thought on it.
The first, and probably most famous, is the Alfred Hitchcock school. In his thrillers The 39 Steps (adapted from the John Buchan novel of the same name), North by Northwest, and The Birds, it is almost irrelevant to the action of the story a) what the 39 Steps are, b) why Cary Grant’s character is being pursued, and c) why the birds are attacking people. The fact is, we don’t really need to know in order for the action to be compelling – although we do want to know the answers to all these questions.
The other school of thought is the George Lucas one. He feels the MacGuffin should absolutely be something the audience cares about as much as the duelling characters of the story. The Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark; the battle between good and evil in the Star Wars movies; the fate of R2-D2.
If I was being grand, I could equate my character of Charlotte in Beyond the Autumn to ‘Rosebud’ in Citizen Kane. She’s a mystery that needs to be solved, and the need to solve it is what sets the characters in motion. Furthermore, my intention is that, in the course of unravelling the mystery, we uncover the much bigger issues that she herself wants to be uncovered, that she wants us to see.
In some ways, therefore, you can view Charlotte as both the Hitchcock and the Lucas MacGuffin of Beyond the Autumn. In the first, her disappearance catalyses Chris and Alex to find her – they care about her perhaps more than we do, and it’s the action that arises from this that takes us on the journey through the story. In the second, after witnessing the cruelty of the man in the first chapter, we want to find her, protect her, and make sure she wins. In addition, the more we learn about her and her cause as the story progresses, the more central – if still absent from the action – she becomes. More and more, she becomes a symbol and embodiment of the good that Chris is, almost unconsciously, pursuing in himself.
Ultimately, it’s her determination to do the right thing by uncovering the story that powers the story. Everything that occurs does so because of her actions, because of her strength and refusal to be intimidated by strong, powerful men. Her presence is felt in every page, and she is, by her absence and her actions, a larger character than any of the male ones.
And, as you’ll find out only on the very last page of the novel, although there may be only two main female roles in the story, you mess with either of them at your peril.
Buy your copy of Beyond the Autumn on Amazon.