If you’ve been paying attention to the superhero stories swinging into our cinema screens and comic books, you’ve probably heard the term “fridging” before. If not, you’ve definitely seen it in action—it’s one of the most pervasive and unfortunate tropes to barrel through 20th-century literature and film.
Also known as the “women in refrigerators” syndrome, fridging can be found in stories across all genres… and if you’re not careful, it can find its way into your own story without you even realizing.
So how do we sidestep this controversial plot device and create nuanced, complex stories instead? Read on for everything you need to know about what it means to fridge a character, some examples from popular culture, and tips for avoiding it in your own writing.
What is fridging?
Fridging is a literary trope in which a character exists for the sole purpose of being killed, assaulted, or otherwise harmed in order to serve as an inciting incident that motivates another character’s journey. Fridging is most common with female characters, but male characters can be “fridged” too. Fridging is also known as “women in refrigerators.”
For example, if a mild-mannered man sees his wife get murdered at the beginning of a book, and her death sets him on a journey of vengeance and self-discovery, we would say that the wife has been “fridged.” That’s because in this example, the only reason for including the wife character in the first place is to create an inciting incident for the husband protagonist’s story.
While fridging can apply to any secondary character, it’s most often applied to girlfriends and wives of leading male heroes.
Where does the term “fridging” come from?
The term “fridging” originates from a now-infamous issue of the comic book Green Lantern in which the hero returns home to his apartment and finds that his nemesis has swung by, killed his girlfriend, and… stuffed her body into his refrigerator!
The pages of a comic book are not a safe place to be if you’re a woman. Examples of the disposability of female characters can be found all over pop culture, and the superhero genre in particular. This ghastly image inspired comic book writer Gail Simone to set up a website—which, unbeknownst to her, would become a literary movement—called “Women in Refrigerators.” Here she put together an archive of instances in which other female characters were killed off, sexually assaulted, or kidnapped in order to move the plot forward.
Fridging is problematic because it renders women to nothing more than accessories to the strapping male protagonists. As writers, we should always strive to make our supporting characters are real and human as possible. Fridging means these characters haven’t been developed enough, and they’re only included as set pieces in service to the plot.
Examples of fridging from popular culture
Pop culture is overflowing with examples of fridging. While it’s most commonly associated with superhero movies and the action/adventure genre, you can find this literary trope across all kinds of stories. Here are a few examples of notorious fridging .
Jenny Calendar from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Jenny Calendar was a short lived yet beloved character on the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She was introduced as a love interest for the show’s endearing father figure and intended to be a sort of bridge between the up-to-date teens and the hopelessly old fashioned adults. Her death was tragic and used as a device to motivate the heroes in a new direction.
Rumor has it that this death scene was originally intended for Seth Green’s character. However, due to the overwhelmingly positive reaction to his role, the refrigeration was pushed on to poor Jenny.
Gwen Stacy from The Amazing Spiderman
Superhero comics are brimming with instances of fridging female characters. To some degree, this makes sense from a storytelling perspective—after all, what better to motivate a main character to action than lost love? Unfortunately, these love interests often lack character development and are only used as stepping stones for the heroic male characters.
One notorious death in comic book history is of Spiderman’s first serious girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. From a business perspective, her death was intended to pave the way for a romance between Spiderman and his more famous love interest, Mary Jane Watson, as she had become more popular with readers. In the literary world, the death of Gwen Stacy was considered a shifting point in the comic book medium as a whole because it was the first truly great, cataclysmic failure that had been seen on the page.
Gregor from The School for Good and Evil
Here’s a twist—a male character gets fridged off in order to motivate the heroine into action. In this fantasy film, Gregor isn’t a love interest; he’s just a nice guy who wants a safe, peaceful life and isn’t cut out for hero-ing.
He experiences first a metaphorical death and then a literal death (the poor guy gets stuffed inside a fridge twice), which illustrate how things are not as they seem at magic fairy tale school. His removal from the story prompts the protagonist to start taking a stand against the injustices around her.
Is fridging female characters ever okay in writing?
For a long time, fridging was so pervasive in storytelling that writers absorbed it and regurgitated it into their own work without even noticing. Now, this literary trope has developed such a strong negative connotation that writers have become scared to kill off any of their female characters… ever.
But does it have to be this way? Can killing off an established character ever be a strong narrative choice?
Because these characters have historically so often been women, it created a message that women were most impactful and emotionally resonant in a story when they were dying or being brought down in some way. All of your characters deserve better than this.
The contention around fridging comes not from the fact that there’s a dead body in your story, but from the fact that these characters exist only as plot devices—their sole purpose in the whole story is to support another character. They lack goals, agency, and driving forces of their own. If you’re going to kill off a character—male, female, or otherwise—their death should be a natural progression of these characterizations.
Sometimes, a character’s death is the right choice. Just make sure that their death (or assault, or exile, or whatever their experience is) comes from that character’s unique personal journey. We’ll look at how to do this next.
How to avoid the fridging trope in your story
Here are a few things to keep in mind when deciding a character’s number is up.
Give secondary characters rich backstories
Complex and nuanced character development is key to avoiding flat, empty fridging tropes in a story. If your dead character goes up to heaven (or wherever they go) and someone asks what their life was like, they should be able to say something other than “I was the hero’s girlfriend.”
Ask yourself where this person came from, what formative elements shaped them into the person they went on to become, and what they were truly passionate about.
Give them a driving force outside your hero
Character Development 101: All characters need to want things—not just the protagonist. While this person may have a close relationship with your hero, they should also have goals and objectives independent of them.
For example, maybe your superhero’s girlfriend is passionate about charity work, and sets up a foundation for those who have lost their homes due to supervillains causing havoc and breaking down everything in their path. Your hero might defeat the bad guy, but what about the collateral damage? There are plenty of opportunities to give your secondary character their own agency and narrative trajectory.
What’s even better is if this driving force is the thing that leads to their undoing. Which brings us to…
Make their death a natural progression
Pro tip: shock value is a cheap trick, and often a mark of poor writing.
If you kill off a character or subject them to a horrible experience, it should feel like the inevitable next stage of their journey. How do their actions and choices lead to this moment? Why were they in this dangerous situation in the first place? Were they being punished for something they had done, or were they heroically trying to defend someone else? Or perhaps they went looking for something they shouldn’t have.
You can avoid fridging by making their downfall specifically about them and their story—rather than about the other characters around them.
Keep your character present in the story
One of the biggest problems with fridging is that once a character has been literally or figuratively killed off, they tend to disappear from the story—in other words, they’ve lived out their usefulness. This is one of the defining factors of these cardboard-cutout characters.
See if you can find ways to keep your character present and impactful throughout the plot. If they face an experience like sexual assault, that shouldn’t be the end of their journey. How do they deal with the repercussions of this event? How do they heal? How do they take the experience and use it to become stronger?
In some genres, you can keep a dead character present by continuing their story, too. A good example of this is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The book opens with the hero learning that his wife has recently died, which changes everything for him—an example of textbook fridging. Except, the wife doesn’t disappear into the mists of memory; she goes on a new undead journey trying to find a way to reclaim her life, or a version of it (Gaiman does this in Anansi Boys too—when a woman is killed off to further the villain’s story, she becomes a ghost attempting to navigate her new state of being and what she needs to process before she can move on).
In a good story, death—or a metaphorical death—doesn’t need to be the end. Sometimes, it’s the start of the next stage of the journey.
Let’s shove this outdated plot device in the fridge
Fridging is a popular narrative device for a reason—it’s an effective way to get your main characters moving. But, it has a tendency to cheapen a story because the characters don’t feel real and alive on the page.
You can avoid the fridging trope by crafting complex, nuanced characters that feel like real people and not like set decorations. This will make your writing feel more powerful, and your story will have more of an emotional impact on your readers.