Image: Matthew Loffhagen
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.