What set your character on their path through the story? Yes, they should have a goal, but why is that goal so important to them? What kind of event is enough to justify telling a whole story about the reaction? A talented author can turn pretty much any event into a justifiable reason to follow a character through to the end, but there are also stock options – easy, tried and tested choices, that have benefits, drawbacks, and perhaps more problems than we realize. One of the most popular of these options is ‘fridging’ a character, but it may be a choice that should be retired from your author’s toolbox.
What is ‘fridging?’
‘Fridging’ is the practice of killing off or hurting a minor character in order to motivate or torture a main character. The term comes from the world of comics, describing an issue of Green Lantern in which the hero’s partner is killed and stuffed in a refrigerator for the protagonist to find. It’s a classic pulp trope, and one that’s incredibly common, as chronicled on Gail Simone’s site Women in Refrigerators, which chronicles its frequency in the media that spawned in.Fridging offers easy character motivation, but it’s a device with a dark history.Click To Tweet
Generally, ‘fridging’ is used in application to the murdered character – they’re ‘fridged’ or ‘stuffed in the refrigerator’. In terms of specific meaning, fridging generally refers to death (or severe harm) that results not in a specific problem to be solved (like saving the character in question), but in creating or intensifying an antagonistic relationship. Basically, it’s an easy way to make the protagonist hate the antagonist, and this is part of why it has such a negative connotation.
Why should I avoid fridging?
In terms of motivating a protagonist, fridging is a blunt tool poorly suited to more complex stories or characters. It creates an intense antagonism (and a particularly relatable one, especially for traditional masculine sensibilities and self-image) but renders the event itself more or less pointless – the protagonist has been wronged, but the exact form of that wrong only influences the intensity of the assumed feeling.
This is comparable to the MacGuffin in being a part of the story that is more or less pointless. It’s writing that takes the easy way out, and while it can be effective, it doesn’t ask anything of the characters. Their conflict revolves around a moment that can easily feel like an excuse to create that conflict, and the opportunity for character development is eschewed. One of the subtler pieces of advice about a protagonist/antagonist relationship is that each is rendered more interesting if their goal isn’t to simply defeat the other character. That is, protagonist and antagonists are more interesting and more complex when they stand in the way of each other’s mutually exclusive goals, but where they have a greater sense of purpose than beating one person.
The simplistic nature of fridging has also led to many identifying it as a sexist trope. When the specifics of the event don’t matter – only that they traumatize or enrage the protagonist – the character who actually gets fridged becomes an object. The precise nature of their suffering stops mattering, stops being about them, so long as it upsets the protagonist. In a landscape where protagonists and antagonists tend to be male, this creates a situation where a woman’s suffering becomes an incidental moment in a conflict between men, even if that’s not the intention of the author – depictions of death, mutilation, and rape accidentally, purposefully, or carelessly position the man as the victim of these acts and the woman as the vessel through which they’re delivered. Given traditional story structure, this arrangement can even end up positioning a male protagonist’s journey as recovering from damage done to his ‘property’ using violence. When the reader gets this impression, it can turn adrenaline-packed stories into uneasy reads, and even alienate large groups of potential fans.
Fridging isn’t always done to women, but for a variety of reasons, it’s definitely a pattern, and one that can lead to your work being tarred with the same brush as some genuinely ugly work. That said, sometimes fridging, in its rawest state – giving the protagonist an easy, compelling, sympathetic reason to hate the antagonist – is just what a story needs. In those cases, what can you do?
Avoiding unintentional prejudice
When I referred to a female character being depicted as a male protagonist’s ‘property’ above, it was for a specific reason. That reason is that, when we look at how contemporary fiction is pulling away from fridging women, we can see that, in terms of narrative mechanics, that’s the role they were fulfilling.
In the movie John Wick, the premise is simple: the title character is the most capable assassin ever, forced out of retirement to right an unforgivable wrong. It’s exactly the type of story that can best utilize something along the lines of a fridging; pulpy action that isn’t that concerned with digging deep and just needs to give the protagonist a kick out the door.
Unusually, though, the movie seems aware of the drawbacks of fridging, and it goes in a subtly different direction. Wick’s wife is still dead – recently dead, in fact – but that happened before the events of the film. She did, however, buy him a puppy, and it’s the puppy who gets fridged by gangsters in order to set Wick on a journey of revenge.If a character can be replaced in the narrative by a possession, they’re not a character.Click To Tweet
In the course of their attack, the villains also steal Wick’s car. It’s not the sole motivation for the carnage that follows, but it’s a specific enough act that Wick pursues individual revenge against those who have it, killing multiple people during the opening of John Wick Chapter 2 in a symbolic reclamation. It’s here that the sexism of fridging (seen more starkly in fiction such as Death Wish) is most apparent; when a role traditionally taken by a woman can be filled by a car or pet, that woman wasn’t really being treated as a human (or, at least, her humanity clearly wasn’t relevant).
John Wick doesn’t even stray particularly far from a traditional fridging – the viewer is appalled and sympathetic to the killing of a pet, and even the puppy itself is portrayed as a symbol of Wick’s connection to this wife. There’s even an argument that Wick’s vengeance is his reaction to the larger world killing his wife, though the text of the movie doesn’t explicitly go there.
What John Wick proves is that audiences actively appreciate creators deviating from the fridging norm, and the reasoning is pretty simple; fridging is a great justification for a revenge thriller, it’s an immediate shot of rage and purpose, and if you do it without adding to or drawing from a legacy of sexist decisions, readers get to dodge the attendant guilt and just buy into the thrills. Plus, given the frequency with which women have seen female characters (wives, daughters, sisters, mothers) fridged to give male protagonists some motivation, there’s a genuine sense of gratitude towards writers who deliberately don’t make that choice.There’s a vocal audience who want pulp fiction without harmful clichés.Click To Tweet
It’s worth noting here that there is a deeply unpleasant tradition of using the rape of a woman to motivate a male character in a way that dehumanizes the actual victim and trivializes a serious real-world issue. Sometimes, this is done by careless authors, but it’s also a trap for the well-meaning, who choose to motivate their characters with this because it’s the worst thing they can imagine. This comes with its problems of focus and intent, but it’s also caught up in what’s now a long, long legacy that adds its own context to new works. If a protagonist is hurt or wronged, most writers communicate that hurt or wrong as something that’s happening to that character. It’s harder and less automatic to do this with other characters because the narrative doesn’t follow them, but authors are well-served to look at whose pain they are accidentally presenting as primarily the protagonist’s problem. With traditionally marginalized groups, it can be better to either restructure the moment or else take care to ensure the character appears as an equal.
Alternatives to fridging
If you must fridge a character, it’s worth reflecting that the traditional sexism of fridging is a constant specter. Is it better to fridge a protagonist’s father than their mother? Their brother rather than their wife? Not in a vacuum, but in an environment where there’s a pattern of killing off female character in a way that encompasses existing prejudices, it’s worth considering. Darren Shan’s Killers of the Dawn kills off Larten Crepsley, the protagonist’s mentor, in an incredibly effective moment that also transitions the hero into a new stage of life. The moment works because Mr. Crepsley is an established character there to do more than just die; his death isn’t just a loss to the protagonist and a sympathetic cue to the reader, but a loss to the world and a tragedy in its own right.
Of course, since the thing the antagonist does is there to enrage the protagonist, it can make more sense to just do it to the protagonist. Getting beaten up, betrayed, or otherwise wronged is, in itself, a compelling motive for vengeance. Richard Stark’s The Hunter details the fallout of its protagonist being betrayed and left for dead by his lover and his partner in crime. Not only does it work just as well as a fridging, but it’s even more gripping to see a character return from personal injury, turning the slight into not just motivation but the start of a physical feat.
That’s not to say that you need to kill or injure someone for this type of effect. You can replace fridging with pretty much any slight, and as an author who can control the entire universe, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Getting a character arrested or fired – even just leaving them to face the music on their own – can have a similar effect. V from V for Vendetta was imprisoned and experimented on, Miss Havisham was jilted at the altar, David Balfour from Kidnapped was cheated out of his inheritance. All of these motivations tie into who the characters are and how they react – fridging may have a dark history, but it’s also the laziest way to set your hero on their journey. Choosing to dig deeper, to do more with the source of their motivations, will usually leave you with a stronger story.Fridging is a lazy device – digging deeper will usually leave you with a stronger story.Click To Tweet
Keep out of the fridge
Like any literary convention, fridging has absorbed context with its use, and it’s now a more complex and potentially damaging device than it might appear. Thankfully, it was always a blunt instrument, and authors are free to take the opportunity to explore more integrated and expressive forms of motivation for their characters.
Do you enjoy the simplicity of a quick fridging? Do you have a suggestion for another form of quick but compelling motivation for revenge? Let me know in the comments, and check out How To Avoid Writing A Redshirt Character, Why Writers Like You Need To Know Their Key Event From Their First Plot Point, and Do You Need To Rewrite Your Inciting Incident? for more on this topic.
20 thoughts on “What Is ‘Fridging’, And How Can You Avoid It?”
I guess I’m going to be one of those that Fridge my protagonist’s love interest. My twist, though, is he only thinks she is dead. Her “death” spurs him into a frenzy which propels him through the next 3 books. I’m writing a high fantasy/hero quest series. I think it needs this push to get my MC where he needs to be.
I’m at about 85,000 words into my first book.
Great fiction is built on authors going against general advice. The golden rule is that, as long as it’s a conscious decision, it can work.
Thanks for the response.
This is exactly why I don’t like James Bond films.
Absolutely – it’s a particular problem when, in a franchise like Bond, it becomes a recurring device that’s part of the recipe. There are now Bond stories, and stories that homage/parody Bond, that use fridging not even because it’s effective but because it’s expected.
However, I do think that genre fiction often requires simple and easy to understand motivations for characters. Fridging is the most simplistic, yes, and I don’t like the sexist shadows it has acquired through constant use. It would be nice to see different motivations, even more complex ones, but there is a danger in reaching a point of complexity that pushes the character and the story out of genre channels.
Readers are repelled by fiction that is too far different from the stories they’re used to.
Where that point of no return lies is open to argument. Also, whether being nudged out of genre is good or bad is also a personal choice.
But it’s worthwhile being aware of the border.
You’re quite right – I think the most apt metaphor is grazing land. If it feeds what you need it to feed, use it, but if you overuse it, it’ll run dry and you’ll extend the time before you can fruitfully return.
The more authors overuse fridging, the less versatility it has left for those authors who want to use it in a considered and effective way.
Just to clarify: is the fridging the inciting event? Does it have to lead to a protagonist’s rage?
Generally, ‘fridging’ refers to killing off a female character not because of anything to do with them, but because of how it will affect other (typically male) characters. So, it doesn’t necessarily have to lead to the protagonist’s rage, but it’s primarily a spur for another character’s reaction. If the writer’s intent is to kill off a character as part of their own journey but they fail to evoke emotion, that would be poor writing, but it wouldn’t be fridging.
My issue with the term “fridging” is that almost everyone uses it for the death of a female character regardless of how it happened and MOST of the time it is used incorrectly. And of course, if a male character is killed the exact same way then no one bats an eye.
Thanks for commenting. I haven’t seen this misuse of the term myself, but as ever, any artistic term is vulnerable to creeping meaning. Many argue that ‘Deus ex Machina’ has lost all distinction in popular usage, since its definition has widened so liberally.
The reason the device is treated differently for men and women is that there’s a long history of it being used to sideline women and little to no history of it being used to sideline men. Over time, individual authors treating women as objects to motivate men feeds into a larger societal narrative of men as dominant, active people and women as passive, reactive objects. As with racism, the problem isn’t merely the one occasion of harm, but how that harm feeds on and into more widely damaging societal norms. The fridging of women has, for generations, propped up a certain type of misogyny (one of many, many such props, of course,) while the fridging of men has never been common enough to have such a cumulative effect.
Part of the reason behind this is that a fridged character is, by definition, there to influence the protagonist. Since protagonists in general fiction (and especially the pulpy, action fiction where fridging is most commonly used,) are so often straight men, women are often the most obvious ‘tool’ for cheap motivation. As more parity is reached in terms of women and gay protagonists, it may be that fridging loses its current connotations.
I’m currently writing a book in which the MC’s wife dies 2/3’s into the story. This act is not meant as a way to spur the MC on a revenge rampage, but as a plot point that leaves the MC with a child, and an aimless future. The love interest who dies has her own story, motivations, likes, dislikes, etc. And while I admit, the love interest dying is definitely a huge plot motivation for the MC moving out of town and eventually meeting the second MC, She is not just a card-board-cut-out only there to die. I have looked at my story’s plot over and over and after informing myself of the ‘fridging’ trope, I am scared that is what people will think of if they see my book. If there’s any advice you can give, I would thoroughly appreciate it.
Great question, thanks for asking. First, I’ll say that like most considerations of this type, fridging is something writers should be aware of so they can make informed decisions, but it’s not the death knell for a book. This means that for the vast majority of readers, your story will get to make its own case, and they’ll decide on the basis of the narrative – rather than just the presence of a death – whether or not they consider this plot point a fridging and whether that hampers their engagement. If you’ve interrogated your own work and believe you’re justified in your choices, that’s really all that can be asked of any artist (with the understanding that readers then get to feel however the resultant art makes them feel.)
In terms of further checks, the first thing I’d suggest doing is gender-swapping some key chapters and reading them through. The issue with something like fridging is that it plays off assumptions that are normalized in everyday society – most authors who use fridging don’t hate women, they’ve just absorbed the sense that killing a female character is a perfectly fine way to motivate a male character – so reading through with these societal pressures reversed can help things stand out. Where does the male character feel thin, how quickly does the narrative stop mentioning them, etc. Again, I’m not suggesting this will reveal any huge personal biases, it’s just a good way of checking with fresh eyes.
The next thing to do is to imagine replacing the character who’ll die with another person. Someone with different preferences and beliefs. Then, ask what about their death would have to change if you used this character instead. This will help reveal those areas where you can make the story more ‘about’ who your original character is. Again, I’m sure you’ve covered this already, but one of the things that makes readers suspect a fridging is that the details about a character only matter until they’re gone, at which point they become a plot point. It’s the difference between valuing a character’s presence in the story and just ensuring they’re unique while they act as a plot point.
Finally, a little lampshading might be useful. I talk about that more in ‘Improve Your Story By Hanging A Lampshade On It,’ but the basic idea is that you call something out so you can discuss it a little bit with the reader. A very simple version would be Character A reading a book, Character B asking if they’re enjoying it, and Character A saying they think the author is going to kill someone off for cheap tension. As long as the discussion can also be plot or character relevant, you can justify a few lines detailing this idea – how losing a partner really is one of the biggest things that can happen to you, etc. Don’t go too far with this – sounding too defensive won’t help, and it’s easy to go too far – but if you have a clear point to make, this can be a good way to signal to the reader that you’ve thought about what you’re doing and they can trust your judgment. Character A could try reading a favorite book and balk that the hero loses a loved one and doesn’t lose a step (which now seems unrealistic to them) – something to signal to doubtful readers that you’ve anticipated their concerns.
Again, though, the idea of recognizing trends like fridging is to allow authors to make informed choices, and it sounds like that’s exactly what you’ve done.
Thank you for the advice! I’ll be sure to go through all the points you made 🙂
Hello! I wanted to ask if I’m fridging.
This is more of a side character, but I’m still developing his own story. I also highly developed his wife’s personality.
The thing is, of course, she died in the past.
However, her husband keeps a necklace around his neck, and the inside locket on it holds her wedding ring inside.
He was also left to raise their son. However, a wish that she told him after birthing their son was that she wants for him to be treated like a little prince.
Of course, his wife meant she wants for him to be spoiled. However, not too extremely. Their son should be properly disciplined and taught right from wrong.
But considering she never made it clear like that, and her husband was raised by an immensely wealthy family, he unintentionally overly spoiled their son. His son grew up to be a huge brat, and throws tantrums even as a teenager whenever he doesn’t get whatever he desires, or, when nothing goes his way.
However, the husband has moved on. He wears her ring as a necklace, but, he has donated all of her belongings to charities and to people that needed them. He has also given a lot of her clothing to a person who was a parental figure to his wife in the past, since she was a child.
He still happily talks about her if people ask. He tells them about the happiest moments the two have gone through together, and how she was as a person. Overall, however, he focuses on the present. His only goal is to keep his family name alive, and to properly raise his three children.
(The family name is huge, and has this certain business I won’t get into as I’m not comfortable with sharing all of my ideas. Just because I’m still immensely insecure and private with my writing.
I say three children now other than one, because the two others aren’t his by blood.
He was put into an arranged marriage by his parents after the wife I talked about died, but even though he doesn’t love the woman in the slightest, he loves the two
children as his own and treats them as such.
The only reasons as to why he doesn’t love the woman in the slightest is due to the fact that he was forced to marry. His parents didn’t even give him time to breathe after losing the wife he loved. Of course, he still attends therapy for his grief, but he didn’t get it immediately after his past wife died. Hence, his parents didn’t give him time to at least get therapy before forcing an arranged marriage onto his shoulders. Despite being an adult by that time, his parents are still immensely higher than him in the family name wise. They still held high power over him. Therefor, despite being in his twenties back then, they were still able to force him to marry somebody else.
He tried to give this woman a chance, but didn’t feel a connection at all. Which, is valid. He isn’t ready to fall in love again, he isn’t ready to even sleep with anyone again, but he’s moving at his own pace. I don’t believe he’ll ever be ready, but he doesn’t have to be. It’s okay to not be ready.
I’m proud of how I created him. He isn’t even violent at all and never has been. In fact, when he first fell in love with his past wife, he was a stumbling idiot who couldn’t put a proper sentence together near her. He didn’t know how to ask her out either, and whenever he got the slightest bit of courage to, he immediately backed out.
It was the wife who asked him out in the end.
Also, going back to the child who turned out to be bratty topic, the husband is still trying to learn how to properly handle the, practically, monster he created.
He realizes his errors now, and is trying his best to fix them. To make sure this child ends up developing as a person, and out of that – “buy me this entire mall” mindset. You know, to actually end up growing into a kind adult who appreciates the privileges’ he has.
Hopefully I did okay. I’m sorry for my mediocre grammar in this comment, and if everything seemed too confusing. I’m a sixteen year old writer, who doesn’t have a professor in the writing style I want yet. I self taught myself since fourth grade, and am waiting for my caretaker (I was raised by my grandma) to get me a professor. As if I want to improve, I can’t keep trying to teach myself, or else I’ll be stuck in the same place.
I also know that many, if not all, of your comments are from 2018. I hope you’re still active, or that somebody else sees my comment and lends some advice, as I really want to know if I’m not “fridging.” And that if I am, not too badly.
Kill Bill is another example of effective fridging, but it kinda subverts your seismic narrative.
I do have a question, well is more if this is fridging. The main character sees his loved ones being hurt and then he rages and almost kills the villain when he relies he stops by her love one. But she told him him he’s not a killer. In conclusion, she’ s is dying from the incident from the villain but the main character gave up his life to her so she can live (from a power he has) and then the main character dies but his special lives. So?
It seems like the Fridging trope and the Disposable Male trope are working at both ends of this – either you do one or you do the other. At the risk of saying something unfashionable, the death of a woman to motivate a male protagonist only works because it doesn’t work the other way around – in the same way that most slasher movie protagonists are females – because the reader/viewer cares far more for a woman’s safety than a man’s. The men in these stories are wholly replaceable and their deaths have to work a lot harder to motivate the protagonists. Stories about men losing the women in their lives are about their world being shattered and seeking revenge with nothing to lose. Stories about women losing men in their lives are about grief and moving on. Men in adventure stories regularly sacrifice their lives to either save the world, the group or just give the protagonist a head start. They are as disposable and objectified as the women getting fridged. I would say its not the trope in this case its how you use it that makes it work or not.