Writing Women Characters

Initially, I wanted to revisit Gail Simone’s Women in Refrigerators, with a specific look at the term “fridging” and how it is used today. The more research I did, however, the more I realized I had more to say on the subject of writing women characters in general.

Another way to put it: look up “breasting boobily.” Whatever you want to call that, I hope to do the opposite. But mostly I want to help other writers make believable characters that have depth and agency.

Part 1 — What is Fridging?

Let’s begin with the thing I wanted to talk about in the first place, which is the term “fridging.” We will start with where the term came from, its original meaning, and how it is being used today.

Gail Simone, an excellent writer and probably not a bear, observed that a number of women characters in comics were being killed or abused in order to advance the plot of their male counterparts. The observation began with Green Lantern #54, in which the Green Lanter of the time, Kyle Rayner, returns to his apartment to find his girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, dead in the refrigerator. The death takes place out of frame, and we witness the revelation of the death through the perspective of Kyle.

There are lots and lots of examples of this in the comics. The term grew out of these observations and is common enough that I probably didn’t need to explain it to you.

To put it another way and give it a plain definition, fridging is another type of objectification, in which the women are denied agency and only used as plot devices for male characters. This happens with people of color and other marginalized folks, but I have only seen the term applied to women characters.

Part 2 — Why Do I Want to Talk About Fridging?

There are two reasons I want to talk about Fridging. First, I believe people are misusing the term and watering it down. I see people using the term whenever a woman character is killed, regardless of the circumstances.

For example, I saw a lot of people say that Black Widow was fridged in Avengers: Endgame. This strikes me as remarkably unfair to Black Widow. The audience knew as soon as the sequence began that someone was going to die, and Black Widow and Hawkeye both tried to throw themselves off the cliff to save the other person. In that sense, it was a heroic death that took place on screen. The character didn’t die because she lacked agency; she died because she chose to and was able to outplay Hawkeye.

Also, fridging usually happens at the hands of a male writer. I might have this wrong, but I believe the decision to kill Black Widow in that scene came from a woman editor.

Misusing the term not only dilutes it. It leads people away from the main issue, which is that women characters exist not merely to act as motivation for men. Women characters are characters and should be allowed to have depth and all of the stories and plot points that male characters enjoy. This includes heroic deaths.

Part 3 — Why Else Do I Want to Talk About Fridging?

The other reason I bring up fridging has to do with The Repossessed Ghost, and a review that made me doubt myself.

I didn’t seek out the review. I don’t believe it’s posted to Amazon or Goodreads. A very nice lady ordered my book after meeting me at a writing event, and she texted me what she thought of the book. She liked it! Gave it 4 stars on Amazon and praised the world building.

Here is what she said that unsettled me: “As a woman reader, it would have been nice to have at least one woman character who isn’t a victim of domestic violence.”


It made me question everything. Do I have some kind of unknown dislike for women? Am I bad person?

Did I fridge Kate?

For those that have not read the book yet (and it’s okay if you haven’t, but I do wish you would), Kate is the ghost that the main character, Mel, meets at the very beginning. As a ghost, Kate shares the adventure with Mel. She is, in fact, the titular character. This is not a spoiler. The repo and introduction literally happens in the first chapter.

Kate dies before the book begins, so did I fridge her?

I would argue that I do not. Kate is not objectified. While her agency is somewhat limited by the predicament of not having a physical body, she still affects the story significantly. There is more I could say about her and her agency (and even her death), but that would get into spoilers.

Part 4 — How to Write Women Characters

To avoid fridging, write a fully realized character.

That’s really all there is to it. Focus on the character and not the gender.

This sounds crazy and reductive, but if you are good at writing a male character, just do whatever you’re doing to make them fleshed out and give them a woman’s name. You may or may not be surprised at how little gender matters for most characters in a story.

If you don’t believe me, look at how the script for Alien was written. All of the characters were created essentially gender neutral, so when casting, they could pick any actor for any of the roles. Ripley being a mother wasn’t added as part of her backstory until the second movie.

What makes a woman character a woman? You can ask the same question about what makes a man character a man. Answer: it’s not their genitals.

When I sit down to write a man, I don’t worry about whether or not they’ll come off as masculine. I determine what they want, what they’re willing to do, and I put them in scenarios that test them. As a man, I feel like I can write another man with authenticity.

When I sit down to write a woman, I treat them exactly like I treat my male characters. I give them wants and needs. I figure out their voice. And I put them in scenarios that test them, too.

If I stop and think of what my women characters have gone through, in isolation, it looks like I’m really mean to them. If you compare them to how my male characters are treated, however, the scales balance.

Are women more sensitive? Some are!

Are men physically stronger? Not always!

It is easy to fall into stereotypes when creating new characters and applying gender. It is also simple to step into cliche. My recommendation is to leave that at the door and make characters that are realistic and exceptional at the same time. Give them a unique voice and your audience will love them, regardless of their gender.

Part 5 — In Summary…

In summary, do not objectify your characters. That is the heart of what it is to fridge them. Make your characters leap off the page. Give them quirks and strengths and weaknesses. Ask them what they want. Spend most of the book denying them, unless giving them what they want would make things worse.

Finally, go read The Repossessed Ghost and tell me what I got wrong and what I got right when crafting my women characters.


Somewhere On The Writer’s Journey

One of the things I love about the Writing Excuses Retreat is that the stratification between guest and host is not severe. There is some separation, but the hosts do an excellent job making us feel like we are all writers on the same journey; some are just further along the path than others.

I have found that I get the most out of these retreats by volunteering. It makes me feel like a more active participant, and in some small way, I feel like I’m giving back to this community that has already given me so much.

This year and last, I volunteered to help with Office Hours, which is just a time in the morning when some of the hosts go to a designated area and give one-on-one advice to people in 15 minute chunks. For anyone taking advantage of these times, it is invaluable, and it can be a real highlight of the entire trip. Volunteers help set up the space and manage the sign-up sheet, basically just doing their best to make sure that chaos doesn’t overtake the space.

This morning, thanks to the time change and the earlier start time, we only had one host available to offer their advice. One host and a shorted time meant only 3 time slots available, and they filled up fast, leaving a small number of writers looking to talk to somebody. I wound up sitting with someone and talking with them for 15 minutes about my experiences working with a small publisher, and some of the things I’ve learned over the last decade in the querying trenches. I wasn’t trying to pretend to be something I’m not. Regardless, it felt really good to give something back, and my conversation partner told me that I really helped her find some direction with the book she’s trying to publish.

I’m somewhere on the path. I have a long ways to go, but I’m not at the beginning anymore. I’ve made some progress, and I can share that progress with others. I’m happy to do so! With humility, though I have to admit I am quite proud of what I’ve accomplished so far.

This time on the cruise, I’ve been motivated to look at where I am on the path. I’m surrounded by other writers. Many, if not most, want what I have, which is a published novel. I’m not asking questions about how to write the story as much as what to do with it once it’s done.

Speaking of my book, I’ve made a conscious effort to talk about my book on this trip, but not shill it. This is a wonderful, welcoming community, and they’re happy to celebrate my success with me. With that in mind, I feel like it would be wrong to push my book here. There is a subtle difference, and this isn’t the time or place for certain types of self-promotion, and I feel like I’ve done a decent job of it.

It is Saturday. The end of the cruise and the retreat is in sight, and I’m sad to see it go. Time becomes elastic in this kind of environment, and sometimes the only way a person knows what day it is is by reading it off the tile in the elevators, changed nightly. This time, I can feel the end approaching, and I wish I had more time to write and relax. I’ve done a bad job at both this trip.

If you ever get a chance to go on one of these retreats, I highly recommend it! Wherever you are on your writer’s journey, you will find something here that helps you see the way more clearly.


Post Publishing Funk

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about being in a bit of a funk, and attributed it to the kind of work I’m doing with my Day Job. It’s all true, but there is more to it. I’ve been putting off talking about it, but since I’m just a couple of days from Writing Excuses Retreat 2023, I might as well get into it now.

Part of being a writer is selecting and striving towards bigger and bigger goals. Mine went something like:

  • I want to write a real story
  • I want to write a story I can enjoy
  • I want to write a story my friends can enjoy
  • I want to finish my first novel
  • I want to finish another novel
  • I want to finish another novel, this time in a different style
  • I want to publish one of my stories
  • I want to publish one of my novels

At first, I described these as dreams, but the difference between a dream and a goal is how much effort you put into achieving it. I still have untouched dreams, such as:

  • I want to write fulltime and survive
  • I want to win a prestigious award for my writing
  • I want to make the New York Time’s best seller list

There’s nothing wrong with wanting these things. I have no expectations on these dreams. I believe I’m talented, and I can work towards some of these dreams, but most of these are outside my control.

This ties back into that funk I was talking about before. As long as I’m alive, I’ll be writing. But I need a new goal. I need something to aim for, that is more than just write and pray. I don’t know what that is.

Publishing The Repossessed Ghost achieved one of my dreams, and it still brings me joy to look at this physical copy of a book that has my name on it. Nothing is going to take that away from me.

More people than I expected have read it and they seemed to genuinely like it. I’m surprised at how many people have talked about starting it, and then finishing it within a day or two.

I kept my expectations relatively low, and The Repossessed Ghost has done better than my expectations. It’s not going to win any awards. It’s not going to climb up any lists. It delighted a few friends and friends of friends, and it sets the stage for more books and stories.

I’m working on a short story in which Mel is selected to be on a jury. It’s fun, and it’s possible I’ll finish it this next week. I’m planning a direct sequel to The Repossessed Ghost. I still have more outlining to do for it. Perhaps that will be my NaNoWroMo project this year. I’m not sure.

After that, I don’t know. I’m greedy. I want more. I want The Writer’s Life, whatever that means.

This week, I hope to find some kind of answer to the question, “Okay, what do I do now?” It’s probably something along the lines of “keep writing” and “find an agent.” I’m going to get a chance to talk to Dongwon Song, and I expect he’s going to tell me to define what kind of writing career I want to have.

That’s all I have for this topic at the moment. I may post a follow-up later this week, based on the conversations I have while on the ship. Also, I’m planning on writing something about agency and fridging, as coined by Gail Simone. I have some thoughts, but I have to do some more reading first.