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Friday, December 18, 2015

Fridging: Who's Dying for Whom?

One of these things is not like the other.
I’ve seen this macro going around a few times, and I’ve even shared it on Writing About Writing's Facebook Page once or twice. But there’s actually a pretty conspicuous absence on the reasons not to kill a character side.

Let me give you a hint. If you’re a white man, you probably won’t realize what it is. You might not even know what I’m talking about once I tell you. If you’re a person of color or a woman, you may have an idea. If you’re a woman of color, you probably guessed what was going on before this paragraph even started.

Give up? 

It’s called fridging.

Not to be confused with frigging, which could be fun if done with enthusiastic consent. Or alone. Really lots of ways to make that one awesome. But no this is fridging.

Originally “being stuffed into a fridge” is a trope named after an issue of Green Lantern where his girlfriend is stuffed into a fridge for him to find. The woman wasn't even a developed character. It just happened to piss the character off.

Even without any other problematic elements, fridging is a sign of extremely lazy writing since it is a cheap way to motivate the hero, move the heroes quest forward, or to incite their anger. Like if writing were household pets, fridging would be a cat–a cat who sleeps next to his bowl so he doesn't have to get up to eat. If a writer can't portray a situation that enrages a character without just killing off their friends/family/lovers to piss them off that plot is not engaging on its own. If a character is so meaningless that the only thing they're good for is to die and raise the stakes, they're not actually a very good character.

If a writer can't think of any way to raise the emotional stakes than to off a character, they're being a very bad writer.

I can't really remember anything about their goals or interests, but boy AM I MAD NOW.

Bad writer. Bad. No biscuit.

And as usual, it's not that a writer can't earn it when it comes to a fridging, but they should be more careful to know what they're getting into than "have a good narrative reason" for killing a character. Chiefly because every writer always thinks they have a good narrative reason for everything they do, and it helps to know the history of what they're doing and how to subvert expectations or not fall into the same old clichés.

Does this mean a character can never die? Of course not? Does it mean that the character can't be motivated by rage? Absolutely not. Does it mean that the villain can't kill anyone just to piss the hero off or even leave the body right where they can find it that will cause them the most angst? Nope. In fact, some villains do exactly that. What it means is that the character should be fleshed out enough, vibrant enough, interesting enough that their death resonates with the reader on its own.

                                           Second Season Buffy the Vampire Slayer Spoilers
                                                                      Like, big ones.

You can also get the "Uncle Ben/Ben Kenobi" sub-trope (which often ends in a death) where the mentor character is there pretty much not as a fleshed out character, but only to be the mentor to the hero.

If the problem of fridging ended there, it would probably be enough for writers to simply make sure that character deaths happened to interesting and fleshed out characters with their own arc. But there's another pitfall that is so common that it can't go without mentioning.

Fridging goes beyond this one "find your dead body and now I'm upset" trope. That just sucks and is lazy. But fridging gets worse.

The term has broadened when examined through some particular weaknesses in mainstream media. In particular we see that it is very, very, very common that the character is a woman or POC (or especially a woman of color) and is killed in the story chiefly as a plot device, so that the heroes either will or can carry on with the quest. Either the death saves the characters or it gives the characters some kind of emotional gumption to carry forth. Sometimes giving the heroes what they need ends up having a price that the fridged character pays. It also refers to the extremely high mortality rate of women characters who sleep with the protagonists–especially if their death is what prompts the hero to care about something or realize that something is going on. 

Now this is a cultural trope so no ONE show, book, story, whatever should shoulder the sins of all, even if we use it as an example, but let us pause for a moment to think about exactly why it is that it is so fricken common for women and POC to die for the sake of the main character's broader arc. Could it be because so few main characters aren't white men? Or perhaps because so many characters who aren't white men don't have engaging character arcs of their own?

The answer is yes. There's a bit of a chicken and egg situation here. Not only are far too many protagonists cis het white men because that is seen as a sort of "default" position for humanity by much of the world (and if they are not a cis het white man, they are only one characteristic removed), but the most expendable characters also tend to be the ones most marginalized. They aren't deep, fleshed out, engaging characters with their own compelling portrayals, so they tend to be the first ones a writer thinks of (either when they lazily reach for a character to kill off in order to raise the stakes or when they problematically decide that the main character's arc requires sacrifice). If people of color and women characters were getting more important, dynamic, vital, interesting, exciting characters, they would be much less likely to be tossed under a writer's proverbial bus simply to raise the stakes. And if they were more often the main protagonists, the whole dynamic wouldn't have that sick feel of marginalized people always dying so the white guy can win the day.

[If you need an example, randomly select any five episodes of Supernatural and there’s a pretty good chance you will see it more than once. Even though Sam and Dean are effectively immortal, it seems like every season a new group of marginalized people either die to help them, die to make them emotionally invested, or die to show the audience that this is srs bzns.

Or just read some G.R.R. Martin]

And if you want to know just how big this problem is in our media culture, try to come up with a robust list of white men who have died so that the women and/or person of color protagonist can keep going. It's not that there aren't any (Divergent springs to my mind), but it's actually tough to come up with more than a handful of examples.

Fridging sometimes feels like it should be a good thing, and realizing that it’s a powerfully overused and harmful trope is actually a little counter intuitive for writers without the context to realize how overdone it is and how often it targets marginalized groups. After all, if you’ve added a character who isn’t a white male, that's awesome right? And what a better way to honor them than to have them demonstrate their character with a noble sacrifice. Or to set up a power dynamic where the white characters can’t progress without their help or insight. That makes them important right?

And if you were the first writer in the whole damned world to think of that, you might be onto something. But as a cultural trope that is seen over and over and over and over and over and over again in media both popular and high arty, what it ends up portraying is that everyone who isn't an able bodied cis het white male is just DYING to help them succeed.


  1. I also can think of *one* example of gender-reversed fridging in something I've read, but only one: the murder of Paul Tankersley in Field of Dishonor. Honor Harrington collects quite a lot of tropes that most writers reserve for male protagonists, which is a major reason I hope the putative movie franchise based on those books actually happens.

    1. A lot of women and POC authors subvert this trope in one way or another. It's one of the reason a diverse reading list is so awesome.

  2. Your second-to-last paragraph makes me think of other tropes which are at least as common, particularly the Magical Negro ( http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MagicalNegro ).

    In fact, getting lost in the maze of TV Tropes (a la Wikipedia surfing) for several hours every so often might be very good training for would-be authors. They seem to have a good grasp of socio-political trends as seen in media, and even if you're out to subvert the paradigm, it's best to know what the paradigm is first.

    1. I dislike TV Tropes for the fact that they make writers gunshy to write almost anything at all, but you're right about their usefulness.

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