Category Archives: on writing

The skill in imitation

One somewhat controversial thing I believe about writing is that it’s very good to be able to imitate other writers’ styles. Other writers and scholars thereof might disagree, failing to see any practical application for it, and protesting that it’s more important to refine and develop your own unique voice rather than trying to copy someone else’s. (You often hear that argument when people denigrate the writing of fan fiction.) But I maintain it’s not only good practice, it’s actually a skill worth having for its own sake.

Voice is an important aspect of writing, as it influences mood, feel, tone, and style. But I think an author shouldn’t necessarily be limited, or limit themselves, to only one. As nice and useful as it can be to have a signature style, I think it’s good to be able to adapt your writing to sound different for different pieces, or even for establishing different characters. If you don’t find some way to be flexible that way, you run the risk of making everything sound the same no matter the feel of the piece you may be going for– or worse, you make everything sound like you, which I find to be a sign of immature work. So imitating the sound of other writers’ styles and voices is an exercise in developing your flexibility. It requires you to stretch yourself beyond your natural impulses or current artistics strengths in order to create something that sounds like someone else’s work, which broadens the possibilities for what you’re capable of depicting. It gives you more control over the voice you give any one project, and enables a wider variety of feels and effects you can impart to your work.

This for me ties into the appeal of fan fiction. I know not everybody is this way, but both when I’m reading and writing fan fiction, I’m looking for more of the story I already love, with more of the things I love about it. So I’m drawn to pieces that stylistically capture the soul of the original. That also means that when I’m writing it myself, that’s what I’m shooting for– something that believably feels like it could be part of what’s canon. So I make a special effort to study and emulate the way the original material is written in my fic. The best job I ever did at this was with my piece for the BBC radio comedy Cabin Pressure. I wrote basically a script for an additional episode of the series which, after the fashion of its idiosyncratic episode titling system, I called “San Tropez”. Cabin Pressure has a very specific, British style of humor with characters who have highly distinctive voices, and I worked very hard to capture them. If I may say so, I’m really proud of how good a job I did. I’ve gotten a number of comments from readers saying I nailed the style and voices exactly, and that it’s both funny and extremely in character.

But not only do I think it’s just good practice for increasing flexibility in other projects. I think it’s actually a useful skill in its own right. For collaborative projects, particularly ones that run for a while and have teams of writers, being able to fit in with the “house style” is essential. I have dreams of someday writing for television, and writers’ rooms have to have some degree of cohesion to make all the episodes feel consistent with each other. People tend to notice when the “voice” or “style” of a television show gets inconsistent or deviates from what is established, and reactions are usually disapproving. Sometimes it’s even at fault for what people describe as Seasonal Rot. In that case it would be a necessity for me to be able to adapt to a certain voice that may or may not naturally be mine.

So it’s more than just an amusing little “party trick” for writers of fan fiction. It’s actually a powerful developmental tool for a writer to expand their toolkit, and sometimes even demanded by a collaborative situation to keep the pieces all cohesive. So I like challenging myself to play in someone else’s sandbox every now and then.

“Relating” versus “connecting” to a story

Something I find myself dealing with a lot when examining how people are affected by storytelling, and what powers that storytelling has to affect us, the concept of “relating” to something comes up a lot. Note that by “relating” I specifically mean that identification process– NOT just what I would call the process of “connection,” the larger and more general ability to find some way to emotionally engage with the story. Relating to a story is a way to connect with it, one of many. But a lot of readers’ greatest source of engagement is being able to personally identify in some way. They relate back something in the story to something that is already understood or meaningful to them, which gives it an emotional resonance and a sense of investment. 

Now, it isn’t a bad thing to experience the feeling of relating to something, or enjoy it when you do. But I feel it’s the most basic, even most unsophisticated, level of engagement with the story– “am I able to bring it back to myself?” The real problem is when somebody can’t get into a story because of the absence of that personal identification. It turns what should be an broadening experience into a narcissistic one. Because to me that demonstrates a failure of empathy. True empathy allows for a person to step outside themselves and conceive of feelings and experiences that may have nothing to do with them. If you can’t care about, understand, or get interested in something that doesn’t remind you of you, you are not only seriously limiting yourself, you’re indulging in a gross form of self-centeredness. That’s where we get the dumb ideas like “boys don’t like stories about girls” or “white people won’t watch films about people of color,” which are dangerous and damaging, not to mention reinforcing of white supremacy and patriarchy. 

As a teacher, I want to encourage students to be able to find a more sophisticated form of connection– to engage with literature in a way that builds empathy. Asking people how they relate to the tale is perhaps a good basic starter way to get them to extend their emotions, but unless they move past that at some point, they’re missing out on the greatest power that storytelling has– the ability to give understanding about situations outside your own.

Choices of the Author, Death of the Author, and Something in between…

When it comes to literary interpretation, I have a few concepts I use as guides for understanding the meaning of a work. Since I got into some discussions where people didn’t necessarily see the delineations I did, I thought I’d talk about some of the concepts I use to make it clear how I approach things– specifically as regards the impact of design.

By “design” I mean the choices the artist made in putting the piece together that creates some effect on the audience. In writing, the storyteller begins with a theoretical “blank page,” and anything that makes it onto that page had to be put there. The level of thought or intention behind each thing may be variable, but still the writer had to decide to include it or else it wouldn’t be there. That means it had the potential to be done for a particular reason, because of the effect it would create in the audience experiencing it. Authors rarely approach their work with zero intention, so there is almost always at least SOMETHING they included specifically for the effect they hoped it would create.

This makes up the first level I think you can analyze on– taking into account the author’s plans, choices, and efforts. The creator decides they would like to imbue a particular meaning in the work and makes design choices that are designed to achieve that effect. It’s not the be all and end all, of course, but these are important if only because they shape the final product; in their absence, you would not have the work as you know it. Now, jsut because the writer meant to put something into a story doesn’t mean they succeeded. They have have failed, in whatever way for whatever reason. But the intentions still matter, because of how they influence what choices are made in the design.

On the other end of the spectrum is of course Death of the Author– where once an artist has finished a work, they have no further influence over its meaning, and whatever the audience sees in it is legitimately present. Personally I use a limited version of this in interpretation. This is a very necessary perspective, as you cannot influence the way an audience experiences your work, so what it brings out of them in response is always important no matter what the intended effect was. I tell my students that whatever you can justify with a line of reasoning, you can legitimately say you see in the piece. I tend to draw a line, however, when things are so far beyond the scope of the creator’s possible perspective, or when the reading requires so much extrapolation as to be completely removed from the text. For example, I doubt Shakespeare has much to do with ideas on artificial intelligence, given the subject matter of his plays and the period of history he comes from. But still, I believe the way an audience experiences a work is always relevant to examining it.

Most people are familiar with those two lines of thinking. But I also think there’s something in between. Not just things the author intended, nor what rises from the audience’s experience– but also what got in there through the author’s actions but in the absence of intention, or sometimes even awareness. This comes from the idea that no one is one hundred percent self-aware and may do things without realizing, or at least without realizing why. As this is true in our everday lives, so is it true in the making of our creative work. Writers can do this with how they design things and gets results that may not have been intended, but were still demonstrable results form the writer’s choices.

Here’s an example. Say a writer is including a father character in their work. This writer had a dad who was kind of a jerk, but doesn’t realize that this was a quality unique to their father in particular. Unconsciously, the writer has generalized this to all fathers. So, when the writer goes to write a father in their story, he incorporates the jerk qualities without intending to write a jerk, because they don’t see that in their mind, “jerk” and “father” are inextricably bound. This results in a character who is readably a jerk, and whose jerk qualities demonstrably rose from the choices the writer made, but NOT because the writer meant to create a jerk.

This may seem like a pointless distinction, but I think it’s important– because both the writer’s choices AND the audience’s perceptions are important. This extra shade of classification helps for better understanding of how stories are made, and what factors create the meaning and power of a story. The better we understand that, the better we understand how stories affect us, and how to build stories with the power to do so.

Roberts’s theory of lit crit

In teaching literature classes, I can’t help but approach my lesson planning from my personal theory of how to analyze literature. I go by a few guiding principles, which I will try to articulate here:

1. Intent is not everything

Generally, I believe in the theory of Death of the Author. This is the idea that once a piece of written work has been finished, the author’s intention for what they meant the work doesn’t dictate the meaning. They can’t whisper over the shoulder of the audience member, so whatever the audience finds in the experience of the work is legitimate.

2. Intent is not nothing.

Despite what I just mentioned, I would not go so far as to as to say the author’s intention does not matter. I believe that even though the maker’s intention is not the last word on the matter, the work would not have come out the way it did had the maker approached it with a different intention. So I think their plans must be taken into account, if not take as gospel.

3. The story must be taken as its own serious universe.

Most serious analysis requires at least some level of treating the characters and world in the story as if they were as full and complete as the real world. The discovery of real meaning is cut off if one dismisses aspects of it as “not complete,” “just a story,” that sort of thing. For example, a character may seem inscrutable if you dismiss them as not a complete person, but in that case it’s better to evaluate based on what could possibly be true of a person who evidences those behaviors of traits.

4. Writers are human and make mistakes.

Despite the previous, I also think it’s important to remember that writers make mistakes and have weaknesses. It is possible to decide that something in a work was not well-made and therefore doesn’t accomplish great meaning or art. Writers are human, even the masters are not infallible. This is important because then one can analyze what might have worked better or more effectively in a given example.

5. A work should be taken for what it is.

Each work should be taken on its own terms. What is it trying to be? What are the standards that apply to it? If one does not engage with a piece on the level it’s intended, one invites misinterpretation or intellectually dishonest critique. Ask if a piece is a good example of what it is, not a bad example of something entirely different.

6. No art is exempt from critique.

Again, possibly despite the previous, any work can be judged and examined for quality and significance. It should be taken as the kind of art that it is, but that doesn’t mean you can’t see if it’s a worthy example of whatever it’s trying to be. This should not be dismissed as “taking something too seriously.”


These are kind of contradictory, but it’s in the interest of balance. There are of course other critical approaches, but these are the bones of mine, and it’s a place for my students to start if they’re new to the process.

Murder magnet

As a consumer and producer of adventure and mystery stories, there’s a certain trope that always gets on my nerves. When you’re doing case-based storytelling, when “working a case” provides the climactic structure, there needs to be some mechanism to bring the affair to the detective figure’s attention. There’s a certain way of handling that which really makes me roll my eyes– the one where too many of the mysteries arise because the detective just stumbles over them, usually because someone within their life sphere is the victim.

I know why so many writers use this. By making the victims of the crime at hand have some connection to the detective, the writer is able to crank the stakes up by means of the detective’s personal investment. It’s an easy way to create more interest in the case, by leveraging the interest the audience already has in the leads.

This annoys me for several reasons. First, I think it involves too much coincidence. How many investigation-worthy crimes can one person possibly have happen in their greater circle of acquaintance? It’s just not believable that intriguing mysteries just fall into their laps by happenstance all the time. And when the typical crime the detective tackles is murder, it becomes even more absurd. What is causing this ridiculously high murder rate? Is the detective just a death magnet, with every person even peripherally linked to them suddenly likely to meet a grisly premature end? Nobody would associate with that character or that character’s friends for fear for their life!

In my own work, I try to stay aware of this. The Mrs. Hawking stories work under a case system, but I mostly have clients come to her with their problems for her to solve. She may occasionally stumble over something, or go seeking it out, but it must be used sparingly. And I have to be extra careful if anything happens to people the leads know. That will properly utilize the impact of a case with personal connection to the heroes without wearing out the trope and pushing it past the bounds of believability.

The relative importance of tone

Tone tends to be very important to me when it comes to whether or not I can become absorbed in a given piece of media. By tone, I mean the overall feeling and vibe a piece gives off, plus the attitude they take towards their story or subject matter. Embracing the right tone for the right story is something I care very deeply about, and can make the difference between obtaining my buy-in to the tale you’re telling or shutting out my sympathy completely.

This can have an even more significant effect when I’m already invested in a property. For example, contributing to my notorious pickiness about fan fiction is that if I feel a fic has a tone that doesn’t fit properly with the original, I usually cannot get into it at all. I guess it doesn’t necessarily have to reproduce the same tone exactly, but unless it feels compatible, it just doesn’t work for me. Similarly, in a series, if later installments go too far off the tone, or embrace a tone that doesn’t gel with earlier ones, I get skeptical and put off.

Recently I experienced this most strongly (at least in the anticipation) of Guardians of the Galaxy. The Marvel movies have generally had a light tone that was not SO frivolous as to cut off drama, which I’ve always thought worked for them. When Guardians was announced, I was seriously doubting that it was going to work in context with the rest of the series. It pushed the boundaries of the silliness and weirdness allowed by the series, and I thought it was going to be really ATONAL, disrupting the vibe the world had established. I was surprised to find that Guardians worked, even with the tone shift, probably mostly because it wasn’t quite as exaggerated as I thought it would be, and because it existed at such a remove from the other stories, a literal galaxy away.

I am still doubtful of when the Guardians stuff bleeds into the already-established-on-Earth stuff. I still don’t quite buy the notion of Rocket Raccoon existing in the same universe as Jessica Jones. Though to be honest, Daredevil and Jessica Jones are a fair bit darker than the films ever got, which is a tone shift of another kind. I guess when I get dramatically invested, I’m more likely to buy things getting a bit darker than getting sillier. That may just be my personal bias.

But it’s something to think about in my own work. It occurred me to that maybe my silly Woodhouse parody larp Woodplum House could be part of the Breaking History universe, except that it’s REALLY out there tonally from the rest, and that gave me pause. Again, it was weird thinking of that and Mrs. Hawking existing in the same world and theoretically being able to meet. Okay, I think she’s dead by the 1920s, but that’s beside the point. Hell, I’m even slightly worried about how the Hawking stories are going to take a slightly darker turn with the second trilogy. I don’t want to go all grimdark even so, and I don’t want to alienated people who liked the tone of the first set. I have to tell the story I have to tell– just as any writer does –but it’s one more of the many things to take into consideration when you’re taking on the challenge of serializing.

A work by any other name

I’ve always struggled with choosing titles for my written work. A lot rides on a title, so I have have standards for them that I’ve never been that good at meeting. They are the symbol of and the reference by which the work is known, so it should appropriate and worth to represent piece’s soul and quality.

A title needs many things. It must be easy to say and remember. It needs to sound good, with the right ring to be appealing. It can’t be too generic, or it won’t seem special to that story or stick in people’s minds. And it needs to really sum up the work it stands for, in a quick, catchy way. That’s a pretty tall order! Which is why I find it so challenging to come up with titles I’m satisfied with.

I tend to default to naming my stories after their protagonist. It’s often the easiest way to come up with a short, punchy, indicative title that sounds okay. I do choose pretty good character names, so at least they have a ring to them. “Mrs. Hawking,” for example. But they’re definitely on the obvious rather than the clever end of things.

The sort of titles that impress me most are those that use a non-literal idea that somehow represents the spirit of the story. Like, if you know what idea the title represents, you can see how that idea represents something important to the piece. The closest I’ve ever come to that sort of memetic title is “Base Instruments,” the name of Mrs. Hawking part three. A major theme of that story is people whose grandest ambitions and purposes demand perfection, but they are forced to confront the fact that human imperfections will always limit them. But, as Mrs. Hawking says, “Our instruments are base ones, but they are all God gives us for the task.”

Generally I’m not a fan of the “title drop” in the dialogue. It was supposedly a feature of the traditional “well-made” plays, like “Sometimes I feel like a cat on a hot tin roof!” But I usually find it so awkward and self-conscious, like it grinds the story’s momentum to a halt as it takes you out of the flow. But I included that because most of my early readers didn’t see the title’s relevance without it, and I think that phrasing keeps it a bit more of a natural piece of dialogue than if I just reproduced the actual construction in the name.

I also tend to like titles with a slight note of irony, I find. It’s usually not obvious, but I like knowing that the ones I pick both represent the story and yet also hint at an important conflict in their inaccuracy, if you know what I mean. All the Mrs. Hawking titles have this. “Mrs. Hawking” is the protagonist’s name, but identifying her in terms of her marriage is in no way accurate to the person that she is. “Vivat Regina” is a patriotic expression means “Long live the queen,” but the hero of that story strongly disapproves of the queen and all she stands for. And as I said, “Base Instruments,” refers to human limitations compromising the perfection of enterprise, but still the people confronting this truth possess truly exquisite instruments nonetheless.

The best one I’ve ever come up with— as is often the case with this piece, I find —is in my opinion “Adonis.” Punchy, evocative, representative, mellifluous, recognizable, and with that delicious undertone of irony. Adonis refers to our protagonist Aidan, and yet it doesn’t— it refers to an artificial personality that was forced on him, one that he resents, and stands for the major problem of his life. That’s a lot to ask from a single word, and yet it achieves all that. It’s good enough that I have no idea what to call the subsequent installments of the story, because I don’t know what else could ever be as good.

Bernie also recently brought up the issue of titles not just for individual works but for series. They present an additional level of challenge, because they have to sum up an entire collection of stories. With my own, I tend to default to the title of the first work, referring to them as “the Mrs. Hawking series” or “the Adonis trilogy.” The only good one I’ve ever devised is “Breaking History,” the collective name I gave to everything within my greater historical fiction universe, which includes the Hawking stories, the collection around The Stand, and the greater Fairfield family.

Some random titles I admire, ignoring those named explicitly for their protagonist or for the obvious setting. Game of Thrones is excellent, definitely better than the series name, so I’m not surprised that the TV adaptation chose to go with that rather than A Song of Ice and Fire. Halo, for the video game, is one of the most exquisite titles I’ve ever encountered for any creative work ever. I do not like puns, however, which cuts out a huge chunk of possibilities. I haven’t watched Orphan Black, so I don’t know if it’s representative, but just on ring alone that’s fantastic. Boardwalk Empire is great. Lost is super punchy. I rarely like long titles, except as a joke about how long they are. Hark, a Vagrant!, the comic by Kate Beaton, I always loved for its specific bizarre awkwardness. So I can appreciate things outside my box. But I’m so particular about it, and the way they strike my ear can really influence my impression of the work.

How Bojack Horseman is revolutionizing the Unlikeable Tortured Protagonist

You may have heard me talk of a weird little Netflix show about anthropomorphic animals that’s been getting a bit of press lately by the name of “Bojack Horseman.” More than once I’ve heard people express bewilderment at the appeal of an odd little work like this cartoon, and I confess I was there myself when I first heard of it. But after sticking it out to the end, (and several more times through after that) I am not only a convert, I am here to evangelize on its behalf. “Bojack Horseman” is my vote for most compelling show currently on television, and that’s because of how it portrays the “unlikeable tortured protagonist” in a way that no previous example has ever managed.

Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the show is on the surface a cartoon critique of the celebrity world and culture using anthropomorphic animals, centering around a washed-up Bob Saget-style sitcom actor who happens to be a horse. From that description it hardly seems a fresh setup, but its true magic is within the story that setting is used to tell. The show juxtaposes extreme cartoon absurdity for the sake of humor with dark, character-driven storytelling that studies a fascinating anti-heroic character that you both judge and sympathize with, to a level you wouldn’t have believed possible.

On the surface, particularly in the first few episodes before the plot arc kicks in, Bojack appears to be not much different from your typical Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist. He seems characterized by qualities that at this point have been played out as comedic flaws— crass, drunk, and morbidly self-absorbed. On top of that, he is massively privileged, a mega-rich Hollywood actor who, despite being a horse, is of a background that implies being White and Upperclass. And, as we did with fellows like Don Draper, we soon find out that Bojack hates himself.

The TV landscape recently has been saturated with these kinds of protagonists— privileged white men whose pain adds fascinating dimension to their otherwise fairly exciting lives. Don Draper was a miserable unwanted child trying to hide his true self, but damn if he didn’t look sexy kicking down doors in impeccable suits while women threw themselves at him. Walter White was a bitterly disappointed man cruelly used by fate, but his adventures in the meth game sure gave him a lot of adventure and control back. I think as a culture we’ve become a little bored with this, as we’ve burned out on feeling sorry for sad dudes who can’t get it together when so many of us have fewer advantages and significantly less sexy lives.

The difference, however, is in how the facts of Bojack’s condition are presented to us. Bojack’s behavior whips across the punish-lavish axis in a sick cycle, from self-flagellating when he hates himself to self-indulging from when he feels sorry for himself. While one of the most accurate depictions of a certain kind of depression ever committed to TV, it also comes off as more than a little gross. But this very quality is what saves the show from being just a portrait of an unlikeable, over-privileged sad sack unable to appreciate what he has. Rather than trying to depict this as sympathetic in any way, on the contrary, the narrative never stops judging him.

There’s an old chestnut that says a writer should never judge their characters, but this story is richer for the creators ignoring that. When Bojack screws up, when he makes a truly destructive or even deplorable choice, the writing never asks you to see those actions as anything other than what they are. The results is it gives the viewer the breathing room to both castigate Bojack and find some understanding for him. He is obsessed with the notion that he’s broken somehow, that his inherent badness can never be changed or overcome, so why not do bad things if he’s bad anyway? But even as this provides a reason we are able to understand for why Bojack makes terrible choices again and again, it never asks us to find that an acceptable excuse.

What this gives us is a notion of accountability for Bojack. Despite the brilliance of both their shows, Don Draper and Walter White were not allowed a lot of room for any real growth or change. That’s partially the nature of the serial storytelling form, where you cannot drift too far from your premise without losing your audience. But it gets tiresome after a while watching these guys make the same mistakes over and over again. On top of that, Don and Walter very rarely ever saw real, true consequences for their actions. The important people in their lives put up with their antics, eventually forgave and came back to them, or at least came to a place of peace with them.

Bojack, however, is subjected to the consequences of being a massive self-centered dick. He is not granted forgiveness every time he asks for it, his bridges do get burned, and he has to live with the repercussions of the stupid choices he makes. Not only does this feel more real, it also has an effect on his character, driving him to try new things if he ever wants to change his life. Though he fails and regresses, through it all, there’s a sense of two steps forward, one step back, that makes him a little less contemptible. Bojack is not strong, so he breaks in the face of great adversity. But the fact that he pits himself against that adversity despite his weakness makes him more interesting to watch.

Finally, the show strikes the right balance between keeping his life interesting without excessively glamorizing it. When we watch Don and Walter, there is always a sense of envy at how cool Don is, or the excitement of Walter’s life, which undermines the message that these men are truly suffering. But you never for a moment wish you were Bojack, not for all the Secretariat movies, houses in the hills, or impulse-buy restaurants in the world. From his abusive childhood, to the hollowness of his accomplishments, to the way he’s so widely regarded as a joke even at the height of his career, there’s a genuineness to his misery that makes the notion of his self-loathing believable. It’s made even more poignant when we see flashes of the character in his youth, before the real grossness set in.

This is perhaps the great tragedy, and the great brilliance, of the show—once, Bojack was a genuinely nice guy, trying to do his best, who cared about other people and was working VERY hard to escape being the kind of bad person he felt like he was doomed to be. It makes seeing him lose that battle actually rather heartbreaking, and you find yourself actually holding out hope that he will find some way to get better. Because you know he did once put in that effort, you are driven to pity this man, even as you never want to absolve him. And if there’s not one moment a season— usually in the end of the eleventh episode —where you find yourself yelling at the screen, begging Bojack to not to shipwreck himself on the rocks of his own self-loathing, well, I don’t know what kind of person you are.

That’s a hell of a lot more than you ever expected from a thirty-minute cartoon about a horse.

The proper application of the literary critique “fridging”

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve decided to take a break from Tumblr. The negativity has started to actively stress me out, and it troubles me how hard it is to talk about anything nuanced on there. The phenomenon of backlash exists in response to actual problems in additions to attempts to deal with those problems. Because of this, in an environment like Tumblr responses tend to get extreme, and it’s hard to critique those responses without sounding like you’re just trying to dismantle or silence the greivance behind them.

So here on my own blog, I want to talk about the literary concept of “fridging.” This is an extremely useful idea for critiquing the way certain characters are killed in a dehumanizing way. But recently it seems that the use of the term has crept outward to be applied to any instance of “problematic character death” in a given piece of media. Its actual definition is narrower than that, and while I definitely think it’s worthwhile to discuss all problematic killings of characters, I don’t think it’s a good idea to dilute the meaning of a useful term to make it less precise.

The term “fridging” comes from a concept coined by Gail Simone called “Women in Refrigerators” Syndrome, drawn from when Green Lantern’s girlfriend Alex Curran was murdered and her body stuffed in to a refrigerator. Simone argued that in having Alex be horribly victimized totally without agency of her own for no other reason order to motivate Green Lantern to act and grow emotionally, the character was dehumanized and objectified. It’s especially problematic because the most frequent instance of this was a female victim motivating a male hero, which means that the female character is always the one dehumanized and devalued.

But just because a death is problematic, that does not mean that it is necessarily an instance of fridging. The key factors are, in my opinion, the objectification coming from the lack of personal agency in whatever lead to the character’s death, and the subjugation of her personal significance in using the death purely as a motivating force for another, usually male, character.

That is the precise definition of fridging. It is NOT necessarily fridging, for example, to kill a woman, a gender-variant character, a member of a racial, sexual, or religious minority, or any other marginalized group. The term is not meant to address issues of “reduction or compromise of representation.” That is a totally worthy and important thing to talk about, but I think it needs its own term for precision’s sake. I believe that it’s important to identify the exact nature of problems because each one may require a different solution.

Personally, I believe there IS a problem in media with racial and sexual minority characters having a disproportionately high death rate. I think at its base it’s another stemming from the Problem of the Protagonist, which is my personal critical theory (someday dissertations will be written on it 😝) that because we tend so strongly to have White Straight Men as our protagonists, all supporting and peripheral characters are designed with and given narrative trajectory in relation to his White Straight Manness, which boxes them into certain limitations.

For example, if our hero is a WSM, by definition our only options for non-white, non-straight, and non-male characters are in the supporting cast. Our hero is usually not an option for killing off, so we have to turn to the supporting cast to find somebody to die, which means that if we increase the likelihood of picking one of our non-white, non-straight, non-male people. Because a straight male protagonist’s love interest must be a woman, high stakes may demand that as the most important person to him she must be at risk– which suggests that the woman has to die. Or maybe we can’t kill someone as important as his love interest, who is often of the same race as the protagonist, so if we have any non-white characters they’re usually not her– so it becomes more likely that we’ll kill one of them. And of course both of these lovers are likely straight, which makes it more likely to push one of the queer supporting characters into the line of fire.

Do you see where I’m going with this? It’s not necessarily that we think our non-majority characters are less human than our white straight dudes. It’s that because we’ve placed white straight dude at the center of the story, the more closely entwined a character is with our planned trajectory for him, the harder it becomes for our narrative to function without them. Because the more unlike him a character becomes, the farther away they usually get positioned, which makes them more expendable to kill. This is a real problem, and objectifying in its own way. The problem is not that they are without agency, the problem is that they’re considered expendable to the narrative.

It needs its own term, though I’m not sure what. I want to say “Peripheral Expendability,” but that puts the emphasis on their Supporting Character status more than their non-majority status. “Minority Expendability”? I don’t know, something like that.

But back to fridging, which is SPECIFICALLY about lack of agency. The reason this blurring of the definition of fridging annoys me is because it denies the agency of characters who die because they made active choices. I think it’s MUCH more humanizing to write diverse characters who can take actions that have terrible personal consequences than it is to never allow them to make the same dramatic choices as their mainstream fellows. Yes, if you’re developing a pattern of only having your racial and sexual minorities make the ultimate heroic sacrifice, you’ve got a problem. But you’re not solving the problem of fridging just by keeping those characters from dying. You’re solving the problem when you allow them to have agency and examine their struggles for their own sake, not just for how they affect other characters whose journeys you’ve decided are more important.

So, the murder of a superhero’s helpless mother to motivate him to take on the mask and cape? “Women in Refrigerators.” The black guy or lesbian who choses to heroically sacrifice themself to save the group, instead of any one of the likely more numerous white and/or straight characters? “Minority Expendability” or whatever. I think it’s an important distinction, because each issue is solved differently.

A side note– a contributing dimension I would identify, even though I’m not sure if it was part of Simone’s original definition, is when there is a dearth of onscreen presence of the killed character before death, preventing her from speaking for or representing herself in any way, contributing to the functional lack of agency. I don’t think that’s a NECESSARY factor of whether or not a character is fridged, but when it happens I think it definitely intensifies the problem. Honestly, even if we’re informed they actively made a choice that brought about their death, I think the fact that they get zero screen time to speak for themselves makes it still count as a Fridging.

Bechdel-ing my work

I made myself a promise that anything I wrote longer than than ten minutes was going to pass the Bechdel Test. It is not a very high bar to include at least two female characters who talk to each other about the point of the story/something besides a man, so I am determined to do it. I have succeeded since I instituted this rule, which includes all Mrs. Hawking stories, Mrs. Loring, The Tailor at Loring’s End, Puzzle House Blues, and Adonis. Heh, Adonis only has one speaking male character period, a fact with which I am extremely pleased.

For the record, I do not believe that the presence/lack thereof of female characters in storytelling is a reliable indicator of whether the piece evidences a feminist or sexist worldview. I think you can usually tell through observation whether a story exists in a universe where women are viewed as complete people. I have seen plenty of stories with female characters that do not meet that metric, and even some with all male characters that do. I’ve written some of the latter, specifically in the standalone scene or ten-minute form, so I seriously hope that comes through.

But do not mistake me. There are ENOUGH all-male, or too-many-male, casts out there at this point that I think it’s almost uniformly preferable to make an effort to include more women. I know sometimes you imagine a piece a certain way and it needs to be that way; I’ve been there, I get it. I respect authorial vision probably more than most other Angry Media Critic Feminists. But I also believe that so-called “authorial vision” is sometimes influenced by our prejudices more than we realize. We are all socialized to see Straight White Men as our default center of the story, and sometimes the stories for other people don’t spring to our minds because we just don’t see them as having stories worth telling. That is something all artists need to make an effort to GET OVER. And sometimes getting over it means consciously deciding to make a character a woman (or some other figure underrepresented in fiction) in order to start changing our ingrained assumptions.

I thought of this because it occurred to me that my Cabin Pressure fan ficton that I’ve been noodling on may technically pass, but only on a technicality. It’s challenging in this case because what of what I’ve chosen to write about– someone else’s cast of four main characters, only one of whom is a woman, those characters specifically talking about romance, the setting is self-contained where the only other characters present are a horrible nasty couple that is fighting with each other. Even if those two female characters talk to each other, it’s tough to not make the subject in that context a man. So I do understand that sometimes it’s not as easy as it should be. But I don’t want this to be my first piece of substantial length (a runtime of about thirty minutes) to fail since I made my vow. So I am going to make sure it passes legitimately before it’s finished.

As we write the Adonis sequels, I figure we’ll probably EVENTUALLY have to include another speaking male character. If we do, I kind of want to make them fail the reverse Bechdel Test. If there has to be more than one male character, they won’t talk to each other, and if they do, it won’t be about something besides a woman. 😝