Fight, make up, make out, repeat. Such are the beats of Tessa Young and Hardin Scott's all-consuming relationship, carried out over Anna Todd's enormously popular five-book After series.
Hardin is exactly the kind of guy you're supposed to stay away from. He's gruff; he's rude; he's controlling. But Tessa, a freshman at college, can't stay away – and neither can Todd's enormous fan-base of primarily teenage girls.
After, which began as Harry Styles fan-fiction on Wattpad, became the site's most-viewed story of 2018 over 1.5 billion hits. All together, the books sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. Now, the movie adaptation starring Josephine Langford and Hero Fiennes Tiffin is poised to launch careers and achieve a spot in the teen romance pantheon. "It's all surreal," Todd told Refinery29.
As much as After is beloved by enamored fans who write odes to Hardin Scott, the books' central relationship has been criticized by everyone from the Styles fandom to Refinery29 itself. Hardin is one big warning sign: He's prone to exerting his physicality, bouts of simmering anger, and cajoling Tessa into sex.
In After, critics see the glamorization of an emotionally abusive relationship, whereas Todd sees a depiction of real life. In her mind, she wrote a book — not a relationship how-to guide. In a now-deleted tweet from 2013, Todd said, "I never said it was healthy. I’ve never read a story where the relationship is healthy, that’s the point of entertainment.’" Nonetheless, fans are now yearning to date men like Hardin — so does Todd now have a responsibility to delineate between entertainment and examples?
We spoke to Todd about what she really thinks about her book's reputation and the series' controversial leading man.
Refinery29: To put it simply, people have opinions on your books. How do you respond to criticism about Tessa and Hardin's relationship?
Anna Todd: "I'm not writing books to be a good example. People can think that Hardin’s a bad example – but he’s not supposed to be a good example for a boyfriend. If you read the book you know that. Anna and Hardin talk about how their relationship is bad. It’s very clear that they’re both unhappy most of the time. It’s not like Tessa’s like, ‘This is the best relationship I’ve ever had!’
"I’m writing books to tell stories. I know a lot more people like Hardin and Tessa than I do perfect people who don't make any mistakes. I don’t really write to send any kind of messages. It’s just the story that I’m telling. There’s a big difference between having a book that has a messy relationship and writing a dating guide that says, ‘This is exactly how your life should be.’"
If your friend was dating Hardin, what would you do?
"I would be like, 'What are you doing?' I’d be like [Tessa's friend] Landon. Even if I was friends with Hardin, I’d say, ‘You guys just fight. You don’t get along. What are you guys doing?'"
Why do you think people are so drawn to Tessa and Hardin's relationship?
"It's the intensity. A lot of times in romance, characters get their happy endings so quickly. They meet, they have one conflict, they get it resolved, book's over. They’re married, happy ever after. With Tessa and Hardin, even as a writer, I didn’t know if they were going to end up together. It’s up and down. I’ve had readers tell me it’s way more realistic, especially the older ones. They say this is much more like first love or first heartbreak than we typically see in books or movies.
Because it’s messy?
"Super messy. And people are so messy. Real people are so messy."
Do you want Hardin and Tessa to end up together?
"I was half and half. Honestly, there were times when I was like, ‘This is never going to work. I’m going to have to delete my Wattpad profile because they're never going to end up together.' There were times when I was so frustrated with Hardin that I was like, ‘He should just be alone forever and be miserable.’
"I don’t know if I wanted them to end up together. I just wrote it, and they had to be. I don’t feel like I had a choice with what they did. I would be surprised while I was writing, especially with Hardin. I’d say, ‘What? How could you do that? What are you saying?’ Literally as I was typing it. I feel like I have no control over anything that happened in the book. I was just typing it out, and it all came out."
You get the feeling they can't quit each other. How will their relationship continue to evolve?
"It takes a really long time. They’re apart for years. Hardin goes through a lot. He goes to therapy, he becomes sober again. He becomes an advocate for kids with addicts for parents and writes books. They both had to grow separately.
"When I was writing on Wattpad, I got a lot of flack from people who were like, ‘Why aren’t they together?' It's not real, but if it were real, they would need time apart. I’m not a believer in changing for love, as much as I love it in fiction. It would be too easy if Hardin and Tessa all of a sudden were amazing people just because they love each other. They had to keep making mistakes. That’s usually how relationships like this are, when you’re so up and down, back and forth. You repeat the same thing over and over until you finally learn. I am optimistic for their future — it just takes a really long time for them to get it together."
Are you writing to satisfy your fans?
"It’s just for myself. If I try to write for them what I knew they wanted, I feel like they’d be bored. I love making them mad and having characters do things they don’t want them to do. I love getting angry emails, angry DMs. With the movie I have a whole new readership. Now they’re at the angry part. Now they’re emailing me, ‘I can’t believe this is happening!’ They’re so mad. There are all these new Wattpad comments."
Friendly angry, though?
"It’s like, ‘I can’t believe you did this!’ Then I'll get one sometimes and they'll come back and apologize for sending that email. I would much rather evoke extreme emotion, whether it’s good or bad, than have someone say, ‘Meh, that’s okay.’"
You've been married this entire time. Did you base the series on personal experience?
"No, it was just escapism and imagination. The actual romance was nothing like mine. I took everything from books and movies that I love and put it all in one. Some of the family dynamics were real to me, but the romance was not."