Kim Savage's 'After The Woods' Shows Why Strong Female Characters Don't Need To Be Likeable
Kim Savage doesn't mind if you hate the heroine of her new novel.
Actually, she kind of hopes you do -- because it's high time that female characters started showing strength in its less palatable forms.
"I think we're seeing an emergence of a lot more of these kind of characters right now," Savage told MTV News. "There's this public discussion happening in YA right now about the way that female heroines can acceptably show strength -- and in my opinion, it's still disappointingly limited."
Savage is the author of "After the Woods," a twisty psychological thriller that is already riding a big wave of buzz in the month before its release. The story has two complex protagonists at its center: There's Julia, who risked her life to save her best friend from a kidnapper only to end up taken herself, a terrifying ordeal that she remembers only in bits and pieces.
And there's Liv, Julia's friend, who escaped that night through pure selfishness and self-interest -- and who is so loathsome that it's making a lot of readers genuinely uncomfortable.
MTV News caught up with Savage by phone to learn more about why she loves her hateable heroine, and why we need female characters who are strong in ugly ways.
MTV News: It seems risky to have a heroine who readers genuinely hate. What kind of responses have you seen so far to Liv's character?
Savage: I've had some pushback for sure. I read a review where someone said they were disgusted by her -- but gave the book quite a good rating! So I think there's room for this kind of character.
MTV News: And we've been seeing characters like this in male form for ages, but it does seem like the field is opening up now to let women live in that morally ambiguous space. Like, even if people hate the character, they're open to her existence.
Savage: Definitely. I used to come across articles with titles like "How to Avoid Writing Unlikeable Characters" -- now it's hard to find one written after 2010. And there's something so dangerous about the idea of likability. I think it's interesting to think about what a likable heroine really is. In "After the Woods," Julia actually calls herself out as a nontraditional heroine -- she says that since her abduction, she's no longer a girl, where Liv still is. The irony is that Julia is in fact a very traditional heroine. She's a character you can get behind. Liv is actually something else entirely: she's strong, she's a survivor, but her strength comes from an ugly, unpalatable place that doesn't necessarily draw empathy.
MTV News: How did you end up with two heroines who played off each other like this?
Savage: I always start my novels with a human impulse that interests me, and in this case it was sacrifice. The question was, would you sacrifice yourself for your best friend? I created a character who would do that -- and that was Julia. And then came the inversion: would you sacrifice your best friend to save yourself? And that was Liv.
MTV News: That's interesting, because a lot of people would of course want to believe that they're the former type, that they'd sacrifice themselves to save a friend. In reality, I think most of us aren't that noble.
Savage: I think that's where a lot of these strong reactions to Liv are coming from.
MTV News: I would think that's what makes her important. You've got a character who's doing unattractive things in order to survive, but someone who allows themselves to identify with her is opening themselves up to the reality that human beings respond to trauma in a range of ways -- including ugly ones -- and still finding a way to empathize.
Savage: Exactly. Hateable heroines challenge us with things like pettiness, addiction, the shards that lodge in your soul after something traumatic happens. A hateable heroine shoves us out of our comfort zone and forces us to identify with whatever humanity she has -- and that includes the things we don't love about ourselves.
"After the Woods" hits bookstores February 23.