So, I fridged Greg’s mother.
This is not a spoiler. She dies on page 5 of THE COLD BETWEEN. In the prologue, no less. A bunch of other people die too, and they’re also not insignificant, but for the purposes of THE COLD BETWEEN it’s Greg’s mom that matters.
To be honest, I’m not sure what I did qualifies as a proper fridging. (I’m way more bothered by what I did to Dee in REMNANTS OF TRUST, and he remains perfectly healthy.) We get only a brief glimpse of Kate, and the incident that takes her life is central to a great many things. And let’s face it: Greg was kind of humorless and over-serious even before she died, and his strained relationship with his father has far more to do with their drastically different personalities than the trauma of that loss. She’s not the only thing that drives his behavior in the story.
But I did, indeed, kill off a male character’s female loved one as part of his character development. I may be willing to defend the choice, but that doesn’t change it.
The truth is, death of a loved one is a powerful motivator. The problem with the fridging trope is not so much death, but manipulating the reader’s emotions by making them care for a character who provides only a single, narrow purpose in the narrative. The reader isn’t invited to mourn the dead; instead, the reader is invited to feel sympathy for the one affected by the death. The reader is only invited to empathize with one character—the one who’s less injured by the incident.
As with all tropes, it works, sometimes. As with many tropes, it’s too often cheap, easy, manipulative, and insulting to the reader. That 99% of the time its misuses involve a male character losing his female love interest is eye-rollingly annoying.
(And so often predictable. Netflix’s otherwise interesting IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON opens with our hero and his super-cute pregnant wife, and come on, Netflix.)
But wait. Does this mean we can’t ever kill off anyone the reader cares about? Does this mean the hero can never lose his love? Does this mean we have to keep everybody healthy and tied up in a big happy no-angst bow to write a non-eye-roll-y story?
The answer to that is a big OF COURSE NOT tempered with another big IT’S ALL IN THE EXECUTION (you’ll pardon the expression). I have no qualms about the way I did in Greg’s mom: she was never a major character in which the reader was invested, she wasn’t singled out and killed alone, he doesn’t do what he does later in a single-minded Quest To Avenge His Mother’s Death™. It’s a mystery that’s always plagued him a bit, but he’s actually been shaking it off. It’s a puzzle piece, one among many, and the puzzle isn’t about Greg at all.
If I’m honest, killing off Greg’s mother had more to do with my own feelings about a certain type of cozy mystery. Super-cute cast of characters, lots of witty dialogue, a soupçon of romantic intrigue, and then OH LOOK IT’S OUR CHILDHOOD MATH TEACHER/THE LOCAL LIBRARIAN/KEVIN’S ESTRANGED FIFTH COUSIN MAUDE DEAD IN THE BASEMENT!! And they keep being cute and witty, and nobody seems to do a hell of a lot of mourning for the corpse some of them have known most of their lives. Some of those books are wildly entertaining, but I find that aspect…unrealistic. As someone who’s never found a corpse in my basement, I can say with some confidence I’d find it traumatizing. At the very least, flirting would be the last thing on my mind for a while.
Death has ripples. Ignoring those ripples in a story is just as irritating as having the death be about nothing but.
Greg’s mother dies in an “accident” that remains unsolved. Three hundred other people die with her. They’ve all got family feeling the same way he does: confused, angry, out of balance, wanting answers and knowing they’ll probably never get them. They’ve all got people who’ve had to reconstruct their lives after abrupt and irrevocable loss. There are hundreds of Gregs in my universe, hundreds who’ve had to rebuild on top of an incomprehensible foundation.
Fridging suffers from being a vast oversimplification. It’s an emotional jump-scare. It’s setting up the reader for no other reason than to kick the chair out from under them. That it’s most often executed by reinforcing the idea that women exist (and die) solely to motivate men isn’t even its biggest problem. Narratively, it’s too often a cheat. It’s unearned.
Character death, regardless of the reason, has to be earned. If you don’t give the reader some kind of anchor, some reason it was necessary, they’re going to get angry with you. If you plant a death in a story that didn’t seem to be about death at all, they’re going to get angry with you. If you ignore any feelings of affection and camaraderie the reader has for the fridged character, they’re going to get angry with you.
Of course readers will get angry with you for all kinds of reasons. But I think there’s a solid argument to be made that death of a character needs to be examined very carefully. Books are not the real world. Death needs to work within the narrative structure. Like any shocking plot twist, the reader should be able to go back to an earlier point in the story and say “…yeah, okay, I see. I get it.”
“But Liz,” I hear you say. “Didn’t you just trash Netflix for being predictable?”
Which is where the subjectivity of storytelling comes in. Ultimately, I enjoyed the Netflix film. (It’s not genius, but I’d probably give it 7 or 7.5 out of 10, because even with the predictable bits—and there are a lot—it was engrossing and entertaining and consistent within its universe.) On the other hand, P.D. James’ happy ending for Dalgliesh was just lovely and also unexpected, given how brutal her books frequently were. (You want a master class in how to kill off characters the reader cares about, read James. A gut-punch, every time, and absolutely earned.) And I can’t read Elizabeth George since she (redacted as a spoiler, but y’all who read her stuff know what I’m talking about).
You can do anything in a story. And people can absolutely call you on your shit.
My mother asked me years ago why so many of my characters are motherless. I hadn’t actually realized I wrote them that way, but she’s right. I deliberately gave Elena a living mother with whom she has a good relationship, but Elena’s mother is an oddball (in a very different way from Elena herself). She supports her daughter without any expectation of actually understanding her, and perhaps for me that’s the psychological bit I’m working through. My mother does support me absolutely, but there are a lot of things about me she doesn’t understand. (Or thinks she doesn’t. She thinks I get my epic grudge-holding from my dad. HAHAHAHA c’mon Mom.)
Writing what feels like a realistic mother/daughter relationship would take more novel real estate than I’ve been willing to give it so far, but for sure my feelings about family structure come through loud and clear.
There are, IME, three major stages in a writer’s development:
- What are the rules?
- I must break the rules!
- Eh, they’re really just guidelines.
I hesitate a bit to bundle “don’t fridge your characters” into rules that can be seen as guidelines, just because it’s so often done incredibly badly. But…it’s true. “Don’t fridge” is a guideline. It’s one you are probably never going to want to break, but like all rules, its main utility is making you think. Every narrative choice you make should be, to the best of your ability, conscious and deliberate. Which is a weird thing to say, given how much of creativity is about letting our subconscious fly.
I think I have to go write about somebody’s mom now, just to convince myself I can.