Avoiding the Refrigerator

While I’ve been working on story ideas for The Æther Collection, I’ve started thinking a lot about how authors use characters. I obviously wanted each story to seem different and fresh, and so I have tried to keep in mind each plot and character so that I do not repeat myself.

This started me thinking about how I was using female characters. I actually started to worry, as the first three stories I had completed, and also my in progress novella, all had male protagonists. I really didn’t want to only write from the male perspective, but that seemed to be what I was doing. I was forced to take a look at the future stories I had lined up, and reassure myself that I had plenty of good female characters lined up.

But what I really did not want to do,was fall into the trope of “Women in Refrigerators”, or “Fridging” for short.

The basic idea of Fridging is when a poorly written female character is used for the sole purpose of forwarding a male character’s story; usually suffering a terrible fate such as death, torture or rape. If they actually survive the ordeal, she will generally be far weaker than she was before, thus giving the male character a greater need to protect her.

The term ‘Women In Refrigerators’ was coined by writer Gail Simone, and named for a Green Lantern story in which Hal Jordan’s girlfriend was murdered and stuffed into a fridge. Simone noted how in art and literature, yet comics in particular, it was the norm for female characters to be subservient to the male protagonists. In almost all cases they were side characters, or love interests at best.

The idea of Fridging has become somewhat of a rallying point in feminist argument. And – I would like to state – I agree that it is a problem. Growing, as they did, from the culture of the ’30s and ’40s, graphic novels have been hidebound to traditional gender roles for years. Even at the turn of the century they were yet to evolve away from having the most interesting characters being male. Especially the enduring, tentpole titles such as Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Captain America or The Flash. I don’t believe it was intentional, it was simply that this trope grew up in the media and many people simply could’t see it for the trees.

But stepping away from the gender issue for a moment, the concept that Fridging encapsulates is not essentially a bad thing. A story will always have a protagonist, and to a greater or lesser extent the plot has to revolve around them. Therefore, the other characters, their actions and the consequences thereof, will always be filtered through that main character. Sometimes, the whole point of a side character will be to suffer and/or die so that the protagonist’s story can move and develop.

For the sake of example, let us imagine a hypothetical story, a tale we shall entitle; Hypothetical. Let us assume that the writer has no traditional biases towards either sex. Hypothetical has a single main protagonist, who we shall name “Protagonist”. The story follows Protagonist through his adventures; his interactions with his friends, family and enemies.

Now, in Hypothetical, Protagonist is the focus of the plot. The actions of any side characters are going to be filtered through his perception and we are going to be following his reactions and opinions. If one of the other characters – let us call them “Side Character” – dies, we are going to follow this through Protagonist’s eyes. The decision to kill them off will also have been made to forward Protagonist’s story arc.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the above story: both Protagonist and Side Character could be either gender. Side Character was there to further Protagonist’s story. That is all. You can’t have a story where every single character is equal. But you must have a story where every character is interesting.

If Side Character wasn’t a fully developed character, then the audience has no reason to care about them. Oh look, Side Character died and Protagonist is upset. Boo hoo, why should we care? If you stick in a flat, forgettable character – whatever their gender – then you’re being lazy. You might as well just tell the audience “Now Protagonist is upset”. That is bad writing. It’s lazy writing.

Or if they were an interesting character that was suddenly killed off for unrelated and empty reasons, other than to move Protagonist’s story along, then that’s going to anger the reader. We expect more. You can’t simply throw away a character because it was convenient at the time. You’ve got to back it up and make it rewarding for the reader.

But if Side Character had a back story and their own arc, and the death came about for valid reasons, then the audience can be invested in Protagonist’s reaction. It’s part of the story.

I would really like to say that this issue is purely a writing issue, and those who equate it with gender issues are wrong, but I don’t think I can. As much as I would like to separate Fridging and gender equality, the connection between them has become too strong to be ignored. For the longest time, this is how female characters were treated. They were simply triggers for the male characters to respond to; they were there to be rescued, or avenged. It was something many people didn’t even realise they were doing. One of the responses by other comic writers to Simone’s original posts on this topic was that they hadn’t even realised how they were perpetrating this trope.

I have posted about poorly written female characters before. If it’s not actual chauvinism, it’s a breed of pure laziness. If you’ve never written an interesting female character, then you need to think about the way you see the genders in your writing.

There is nothing innately wrong, literary speaking, with a girlfriend/wife/mother dying in order to advance a male protagonist’s story. In the same way, there is nothing wrong with a boyfriend/husband/father dying in order to advance a female protagonist’s story. You simply have to ask yourself; is this action justified?

If you’re not careful, you run the risk of accusing any story where a woman is endangered as sexist. On it’s own, it isn’t. Otherwise we’ll be living in a world where no story will ever put a woman in danger again. But we do have to be aware of the greater picture. I could go into this topic in far greater detail, but that’s not what I’m looking to do today. Plus there is plenty written already. Check the internet.

This topic has been on my mind a lot, as I’ve been worried about straying into Fridging territory myself. The stories in The Æther Collection are going to be, to a greater or less extent, focused around death. This means that – in at least one or two of these stories – I am going to be using the death of a loved one to affect the protagonist. And in the short story format there isn’t often time to fully flesh out an extra character. I need them to serve a purpose, and that purpose is solely to affect the main character.

Does this mean those stories are automatically bad? That the idea is boring and I’m a chauvinist to write them? Would it be OK if it was a female protagonist, rather than a male one? Is it wrong that a character might simply be there to die at a predestined point, if the theme of the collection is death? If I focus on one character for five thousand words, with the others simply floating around them?

Or does it simply come down to how well I write? I want to think so. I believe that as long as my stories are well written and based on an interesting concept, the roles of each character in relation to each other are less important. I might not be able to fully flesh them out with their own arcs and plotlines, but I can still make them well written and realistic.

And if I complete the collection and have not used one female protagonist, or I have made all the female side characters flat and uninteresting, then that’s just bad writing. I’d have made several errors, both from the creative viewpoint and the gender equality viewpoint.

After all, I’m pretty sure that I don’t have a problem with women, or having strong female characters. But I have to be aware of what I’m doing. The problem Gail Simone brought to people’s attention wasn’t that comic book writers were actively promoting sexist views, but that they hadn’t noticed that they were still sticking to the old tropes and not moving beyond them.

So be original, be creative, and most of all be aware that these issues are there, even if we’ve failed to see them.

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