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.