Being a Better Writer: Character Fridging

Welcome back readers! It’s another Monday and that means it’s time for another installment of Being a Better Writer! We’ve got an interesting (and surprisingly volatile) topic for you today, one that very likely may prove quite useful to you, but first, before we get that, two quick news reminders.

First: Life, The Universe, and Everything 2022 is next week! That’s right! It’s nearly here! February 17th-19th! The schedules are up, the panelists and guests are ready, and my last “to-do” item is to go pick up some new Colony and Axtara cards as well as some bookmarks to hand out! It’s almost here, and I hope to see you there! Again, the website is here, and you can look at the full panel schedule and see all the various topics before heading in yourself!

Second: This week emails will be going out to long-time Alpha Readers about the first Starforge Alpha Read. That’s right, it’s happening at last. So if you’re a prior Alpha Reader, keep an eye on your inbox for something with Starforge in the title. It’s coming!

Third: A loose apology, as I realize that this may force some of you to choose between LTUE shenanigans and Alpha Reading Starforge. Sometimes timing works out like that. But those of you who were unable to make it LTUE this year will have a fun alternative.

Okay, that’s the news, so let’s get moving onto today’s post and topic. Which is … Well, this is an interesting one.

“Character Fridging” is a trope I’ve heard of before (after all, if you’re going to write and write a lot, you’re going to hear of a lot of tropes), but it’s also one that’s taken on a fairly negative connotation in pop culture recently. In fact, the reason I put this trope on the list was because of two online locations I frequent using the term as a “dirty phrase” to describe why no one should ever read/watch particular shows. Someone would bring a new show or book up, and someone would immediately ask if it “fridged” anyone, and then go off on a small rant, everyone else digitally nodding, about how awful fridging was and how ‘no good story fridges a character.’

This of course, with a large spoonful of ‘only women can be fridged’ which should be the second bit that raises alarm bells about what was circulating here.

Now look, I’m not saying that there aren’t people that are wary of this trope without reason. Sands, it gets it’s modern name from an infamous scene in a comic series where the protagonist found his new girlfriend had been, literally, fridged.

The problem, however, and why I chose to do a post on the subject, is because the idea itself has become a monster that, like I was seeing in online circles, was less than helpful for anyone who might have been peeking in. Driven in part by the fact that a lot of these people talking so much about fridging didn’t really know what it was, and were keen to throw the term at anything that felt vaguely applicable and then condemn said work for its imagined “sin.”

So then, what is character fridging, actually? What’s it do? How did it become a thing? What’s the goal or purpose. Most importantly, how can we avoid or use it in our work … and should we?

You know the drill. Hit the jump, and let’s get talking.

So then, let’s start at the top: What is character fridging. Note here, firstly, that we’re going to start with the actual definition, not the specific story act that the trope ended up named for. Why? Because that trope name, while useful, doesn’t actually convey what the trope really is. Hence, as some of you may have guess, the confusion.

So, the actual definition? Character fridging is the use of a secondary or tertiary character as a plot device to motivate a primary character by cause of brutally killing, maiming, or otherwise harming said secondary/tertiary character. Usually done by an antagonist, but not always. In other words, dealing serious harm to a background/secondary character as a plot device to drive a protagonist forward in their own story.

Okay, so that’s the definition. And most of you, upon reading that definition, probably thought of a story or plot where it was used in some fashion. Probably—the definition is a little loose, and that’s par for the course with writing, where a lot of tropes can be argued one way or another and tend to have some overlap. Case in point, the TV Tropes page for this very trope lists Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride as an example of this trope plus a revenge plot: Inigo’s father is the tertiary character that was “fridged,” thus driving his whole aim and objective (said page also notes that the character arc also deconstructs the trope, since Inigo is so driven he has almost no skill in any other area and ends up working as hired muscle rather than having a heroic quest, at least initially).

Point being, most of you probably thought of a story that involved something somewhat like this and wondered “Okay, but what does that have to do with a fridge?”

Well … this is where we move into infamy. See, the name “fridging” comes from an infamous comic scene, as I noted above, where a superhero came home to find that their new girlfriend had been brutally murdered and then stuffed inside a refrigerator by a villain, thus motivating him to act and move the plot forward. And that scene has been repeatedly criticized—rightfully so—as being a lazy, cheap attempt to get things rolling for the character … by killing a new girlfriend.

This poor approach to the actual trope is now, unfortunately, what it’s named for. Worse, once this particular instance had caught the public mindset, a lot of online spaces jumped on it, hunting down other instances of the trope being used in similarly poor fashion—almost always against a superhero’s girl of the week—and hammering down how poor of writing it was.

Unfortunately, most of them were spinning it for attention and focusing on a particular poor usage to generate clicks and attention, while not going into full depth on what the actual use of the trope was as a whole … which meant that a lot of people took the wrong impressions as they walked away. Sands, there are a few people I’ve seen discussing character fridging (and how “bad” it is) who believe it can only happen to a female character. Or again, the aforementioned “any story with fridging in it is bad.”

But in truth fridging a character isn’t bad. It can be handled poorly, and certainly there are reams of instances where it is. As with most other tropes. “Character fridging” simply had the unfortunate luck to be named for and become generally known for the times it was handled very badly.

This isn’t meant as, for example, a defense of the poor writing of the “come home to find a new girlfriend dead in a fridge” scene. Poor writing is still poor writing. But as noted above this trope isn’t just limited to the poorly put-together and thought out examples. Few would argue that Inigo Montoya’s character is poorly written or received, for example. Sands, some people list the climactic battle between Inigo and his father’s killer as one of their favorite battles in cinema.

So no, this post isn’t defending poor use of “character fridging.” Yes, the trope is known for being used poorly, but that’s also because so many don’t focus or talk about when it’s done well, or how it is done well, or even how it’s used. Most just talk about it in a negative tone because A) it’s known for it and B) it brings clicks.

However, if you write, and write for long enough, there will come a time when you’re looking at a story and seeing a situation where a character is going to be “fridged” … or to put it more straightforwardly, killed, by an antagonist, probably in ruthless fashion, in order to move things forward. It’s going to happen. And if you don’t understand enough about how to do this well, or only have the common belief held by many fridging is “automatically bad” you’ll very likely end up hamstringing your own story, either by refusing to take the path that would have led to a better story or by taking it but not knowing what makes a good “fridging” vs a poor one.

Okay, first let’s start dismantling these myths by striking out one of the more untrue statements about character fridging that I’ve heard repeated from place to place: that it can only happen to female characters.

This. Is. Untrue. I will repeat it again for emphasis: This is not true in the slightest. Any character can be fridged, regardless of gender.

That isn’t to say that there hasn’t been a trend, at least in one medium—comics—of a lot of characters of one gender getting fridged. After all, the negative belief and view did grow out of repeated bad usage. However, there is nothing in the actual use of the trope that requires a particular gender in any regard. Anyone who says otherwise is quitely plainly wrong.

Okay, with that made clear, let’s talk about some of the other ways “fridging” is used poorly, the first and foremost being that the character who gets fridged only exists as a plot device to do so. This is one of the biggest problems with “fridging” as well as the most obvious. A character in introduced to the audience and the only purpose they serve is to be killed as a motivation plot device.

If this sounds like an old writing sin you’ve heard of before, well … you’re RIGHT! It’s a one-note character, a character who’s purpose is no different or developed from the “mysterious person who tells the protag where to go” or “the one-dimensional Watson.” A lot of the times fridging is thought of in a negative context, people are thinking of instances where a character literally exists only to die, their entire purpose being one-note with that aim in mind. And like any other one-note character, people tend to notice, especially if its used over and over again.

So yes, in a way a character that’s made for fridging catches an audience’s eye the same what any other one-note character does. Characters that appear to provide exposition, characters that appear to be mysterious … and characters that appear to be fridged and little else.

But there’s a second bit that compounds this. If you recall, we’ve spoken before on BaBW (a long time ago) about the tendency of one-note characters to catch reader’s attention and stand out more than expected. The mysterious character, for instance, or the expository character getting a lot of attention because of their sole existence is common. Such characters tend to stand out, either because a flat character is different from a bunch of developed characters or because they invite imagination.

So take that, get the audience invested and wondering and thinking on who this new one-note character can be … now kill them or gravely wound them (since, I will repeat here, a character doesn’t have to die to be fridged, it’s just the easiest outcome). And reveal that nothing about the character really mattered. They were just a vehicle for the plot to make the protagonist do something.

See how that can backfire? A one-note character can catch the audience’s eye … and then just as they start wondering/focusing on them, they ground is ripped out from under them, the magician revealing that the truth is “oh, this character just existed to move the plot forward.”

Worse, the “method” of fridging can seem callous enough that it reminds the reader that they’re in a story, a work of fiction, by drawing attention to the fact that the character was just a plot device, and nothing more. And no one wants to be reminded that the world they’ve lost themselves in is just that: A world. Such an unpleasant reminder isn’t appreciated when our goal is to lose ourselves in said world.

Okay then, so with all this said, how can we fulfill this trope well? Actually, for that matter some might ask why would we want to? Why worry about this trope at all if it’s been done so badly?

Because at it’s core, it’s a useful trope. Villains and antagonists in the real world kill people all the time. It’s usually a mark of “Bad guy here.” Worse, they’ll do it to motivate people. Or to make a statement.

In other words, this is a very real trope. And, as noted earlier, it’s a trope that shows up in a lot of places but done well, bringing depth, aim, and objective to things. Sands, I’ve fridged characters myself. Barnabas, for example, was a character that got “fridged” by a villain right in front of the protagonists in brutal fashion.

But like with Inogo Montoya, I doubt most readers immediately saw it for what it was, for several reasons. Reasons that made Barnabas’ death an example of a fridging done well, rather than done poorly. What’s the difference? Well, you guessed it, we’re going to talk about it.

First of all, if we look at good examples of fridging, such as one’s we’ve mentioned so far, they all do more than just serve as a plot device. Barnabas, for example, was a fully fleshed out character who many assumed was a temporary if not permanent member of the main characters. He’d had interactions, discussions, and was given depth and development past that of simply arriving to be a plot device. He had aims, goals, and even worked with other characters on their goals.

In addition, his death wasn’t the sole motivating factor with the protagonists, but yet one more “brick on the pile” so to speak. A common thread binding poorly done fridgings is that they’re the only thing motivating the character meant to be motivated by them. Again, superhero comes home, finds girlfriend in fridge, now has a reason to go after supervillain. Lacking any reason before, apparently.

That’s fridging done badly. Good fridges, however, are one more piece of motivation. They may introduce new aspects, from guilt at not being able to save someone or prevent the tragedy, or encourage a sense of desperation that was already there, but they’re not the sole logic of it.

In other words, they’re not a tool just to motivate a character. The character will already have motivation. They may add a new direction, or a new emphasis, but they won’t be the sole cause of a character doing something.

So, the character that is fridged exists outside of simply existing to be fridged, and their fridging isn’t the only motivation we’re given for the story happening. Though … not always. Remember that Inigo Montoya’s father was a fridging? Him we never met—this whole incident takes place off-screen, before we ever knew the character. However, in both the book and the film, Inigo’s character does provide the context we need. And while his motivation is solely driven by the fridge, part of Inigo’s journey in The Princess Bride is getting swept up in the other character’s adventures.

In other words, Inigo’s “fridge” is one we never see save as aftereffects and underpinnings of who he is. His character, meanwhile, honors his father as a real character but stays a true character to himself as well.

Basically, it comes back to the rules of character once more: If we write a character poorly, or make it obvious that they’re just a plot device, whether or not they’re fridged doesn’t really matter as the poor writing will still be on display, and it’s that poor writing that people tend to remember. The fridging just makes it stand out.

Sands, I’d venture that a number of people would be surprised to see how many characters have been “fridged” in stories they’ve experienced that they didn’t think of as being such due to the fact that it was handled well. In fact, thinking on such, there’s another element to fridging done well that stands apart from done poorly: the characters don’t forget it.

See, all to often when a fridge is done poorly, as soon as the revenge is taken or the protag beats the antag and says a few words to or in memory of the one who was fridged … that’s it. The story moves on, and those beats are forgotten.

But a story where a character is fridged well doesn’t do this. Take, for example, Hiccup’s father in the How to Train Your Dragon sequel. Yes, his death is a fridge, but one that’s done well and quite shocking (though it does draw some ire for the standard Hollywood “one parent intertia” it enforces). However, even as the story moves on, the characters never forget Hiccup’s father, speaking of him and letting his loss be remembered well into the third film.

If you’re going to fridge someone, do not forget about it. Make it have meaning, meaning that stays. If a character close to our protagonist is severely fridged (remember, it can be terrible injury, not just death) then don’t let the character act as though they’re gone and “out of sight out of mind.” A common complain of poor fridging is that it’s done just to “remove” a character from the plot and everyone swiftly forgets about them outside of the immediate motivation.

Yeah, don’t do that. That’s like throwing a rock into a pond and then putting a box around the ripples, or worse just expecting those ripples to stop. Let them spread out and cover the water’s surface. They won’t overwhelm the other story ripples you’ve already got—or should have—but they will and should interact with them.

Here’s the thing: Done well, most people aren’t even going to realize that what you did was technically, by the trope, a fridge. An oddity of the trope being so overwhelmingly connected to the negative is that when it’s done well, a lot of people don’t even realize that it’s still the trope.

But it can be done well, and in fact like any other trope, it’s not something we should eschew simply because it is a trope. We should aspire to use it where it fits, and then use it well.

We shouldn’t avoid fridging our characters. However, this doesn’t mean we should fridge them without cause, reason, or some thought. And we shouldn’t create characters whose only purpose to be fridged for the sole cause of motivation. We should still make them characters with their own aims, purpose, and depth. Their fridging should have ramifications, ripples up and down the story, small or large. But most of all, I repeat that they shouldn’t be a sole cause for plot device or movement. A part, yes. But not the whole thing, not unless like, with Inigo, it’s not going to be the whole plot.

Now this doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. There are so many examples of this done poorly out there that it’s clear that it’s something that can be done poorly quite easily. However, this doesn’t mean that we should give up, or avoid the trope.

Just that we should work to make it a good instance of the trope, one so well done that those focused on the bad examples don’t even realize we’ve carried out a proper use of it.

So good luck. Now get writing.

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