Our Top 10 favorite K-drama tropes
by DB Staff
javabeans: It was painful to pick only 10 dramas for the previous list of gateway dramas, but when we decided to write about tropes for this list, I found that it practically wrote itself. (The list, I mean! Not the entries, which were as arduous as ever!)
girlfriday: Yeah this list was particularly fun, because it allowed us to look at dramaland as a whole and talk about our favorite recurring tropes—the things we see time and again across all dramas, that are such a huge part of why we love them in the first place.
javabeans: Tropes are a funny thing, in that they can be wildly exciting when executed well, in a story that moves you, and when they’re done badly they’re the stuff that creates all those Youtube parodies and mocking diatribes about why K-dramas are weird, or cheesy, or dumb.
girlfriday: Yes, totally. That’s why if you only thought of the bad examples, this could easily be the Top 10 Cliches of Dramaland.
javabeans: For the record, I hate those snarky Top 10 Cliche lists, because I always feel like those list-makers don’t even get dramas, or set out to mock them and only pick bad examples. Or maybe I’m just earnest and protective of my babies, even the ugly ones.
girlfriday: Oh I hate mean-spirited snark too. Because for every cliched example out there, there’s a good version, or a hundred, that they left out. The dramas where the trope was sincere and used to great dramatic effect, and made us all cry.
javabeans: Also, I think that it may be entertaining to poke fun at commonly used cliches—I’ll never find a Truck of Doom to not be funny, not by now—it skips over the more interesting flipside of the question, of why we all watch dramas anyway. Why does that dumb-sounding premise get its hook into your heart? And why does the twentieth drama to explore the same concept still manage to get your heart racing and tears flowing?
girlfriday: YES, EXACTLY. This is why we still watch dramas and still love them, no matter how many we’ve seen, because there is an inherent appeal in the way these tropes are used—sometimes with great creativity—to set up a love story, or to complicate it, or to make it sweeping and epic. If you’ve seen a drama (or ten thousand), these will be familiar to you.
javabeans: Crossdressing—particularly in the woman-as-man iteration—is so frequently featured in dramaland that a newcomer might find the fixation strange, or at least disproportionate to the rest of the world. But it’s not for nuthin’ that it’s also frequently featured in the dramas on many a favorites list (see: Coffee Prince, Sungkyunkwan Scandal, You’re Beautiful, Moonlight Drawn By Clouds).
What crossdressing in K-dramas accomplishes so well is in addressing one of the heart’s most earnest desires: to be loved wholly and unconditionally for who you are, as you are. I don’t mean that crossdressing results in a truer love than others, but as a narrative device, it’s a wonderful way to cut to the heart of what draws two people together. When the hero of Coffee Prince decides that he’ll love the heroine “whether you’re a man or an alien,” it becomes the ultimate declaration that she is what matters most, not her appearance or gender or place in the world. In a society that is still overwhelmingly driven by heteronormative ideals, crossdressing flirts with transgressing those norms, challenging characters to value love above social acceptance, while also allowing them to have a sunny happy ending when they don’t actually have to give up that acceptance. That may sound like a cop-out, but it is a step in the right direction and the dramas that use this trope often do promote tolerance and acceptance, even if the heroine does turn out to be a she. Moreover, having a heroine also be one of the boys gives us a chance to marry romance with bromance—the very best way to have your cake and eat it too.
girlfriday: Amnesia may be overused in dramaland, but it’s a surefire way to create narrative suspense when you wipe a character’s memory, and we as the audience know something the characters don’t (Winter Sonata is the classic example of this, where you’re glued to the screen while shouting She’s your first love but you just forgot, you dummy!). In romance, amnesia is a common way to reinforce that this couple is the be-all-end-all of fated OTPs (one true pairing), if despite not remembering one another or themselves, they will always find their way back to each other. Like the soul remembers what the mind cannot.
Sometimes that fate is so strong it defies death (Legend of the Blue Sea, The Lonely Shining Goblin), though most of the time amnesia works to intensify a regular romance by stamping it as Meant To Be, like in I Hear Your Voice, when Lee Jong-seok forgets who he is but falls in love with the heroine all over again. (Also in W.) Amnesia can also give us insight into a character’s true nature (Shopping King Louis, A New Leaf), where wiping the slate clean actually helps people discover who they are fundamentally as people. Mostly, I like to think of amnesia as Fate’s go-to trick—if you separate lovers and force them to forget each other, and then they cross oceans and lifetimes to reunite anyway, Fate gets all the credit.
We recommend: Nice Guy, Boys Before Flowers, The Moon That Embraces the Sun, A New Leaf, I Hear Your Voice, Arang and the Magistrate, Oh My Ghostess, Who Are You–School 2015, Legend of the Blue Sea, The Lonely Shining Goblin, Shopping King Louis, W–Two Worlds, Bring It On, Ghost
3. Contract Relationships
javabeans: A hero and heroine get caught in a compromising situation and agree to contract-date to save face. A hero hires a girlfriend to get his mother to stop setting him up on blind dates. A heroine contract-marries a hero to provide for her child because she’s dying of cancer. Whatever the reason, contract relationships are a tried-and-true staple of dramas, because they force proximity between two characters who might not otherwise find themselves in each other’s orbits, and keep them there long enough for attraction to do its work.
Contract relationships work particularly well in conjunction with that old chestnut, opposites-attract romance, because it’s way more satisfying to watch two diametric opposites struggling to find common ground and clashing with chemistry and fireworks than it is to have a well-matched pair with similar backgrounds and tastes coming together in a calm, rational partnership. We’d like to note that in real life, Door Number 2 seems eminently preferable to the Sturm und Drung of dramaland romance, but who said real life had anything to do with dramas? Of course, even in a fictional story, we need pretexts for keeping two people who hate each other together (or even just people who don’t care to necessarily be together), and contract relationships are a handy-dandy way to provide that couple with their denial starter flame: I don’t actually LIKE him, I’m here for the money! I have zero interest in her, but she’s my best bet for getting Mom off my back! They can keep making all sorts of excuses for why the contract relationship is real, and the terms of the contract keep them firmly in place until it’s too late to walk away with the denial intact: You’re hook, line, and sinkered, and only true love will do at that point.
girlfriday: Dramaland would be nowhere without forced proximity, and Cohabitation is like Contract Relationship’s big sister: One forces relationship proximity, and the other forces physical proximity. How would ALL of those characters who hate each other’s guts discover that they’re actually meant to be unless the powers that be force them to spend all that time together night and day in cramped quarters, against their will? Reluctant relationships come in all shapes and sizes in dramaland, but cohabitation is one of the quickest and most entertaining ways to cut through the crap and see people for who they really are, warts and all. It’s a fast-track to romance, which is why it’s so often employed, particularly in romantic comedies. The fact that they often come with accidental shower run-ins is just icing on the cake.
What is so appealing about cohabitation as a trope is that it brings out adorable domestic coupley behavior, before anyone is officially a couple. Everything from washing dishes to doing laundry can suddenly become meaningful, and for some reason, the more minor the activity, the more it highlights the comfortable everydayness of their lives together. They needn’t even be a romantic couple, as Goblin and Reaper can attest—once you wash each other’s underwear and compromise on the interior decorating, even sworn enemies can become the best of friends (The Lonely Shining Goblin, Hwarang, Age of Youth, Answer Me 1994). In the classic rom-com (Attic Cat, Full House, Personal Taste, I Need Romance 3), cohabitation is the impetus for romance to bloom by playing house. Because if we go by the rules of dramaland, grocery shopping, all-night sickbed nursing, and matching toothbrushes can only lead to true love.
We recommend: Personal Taste, Feeling (Neukkim), Attic Cat, Full House, Bottom of the 9th with 2 Outs, I Hear Your Voice, You’re Beautiful, Answer Me 1994, Age of Youth, The Lonely Shining Goblin, Sungkyunkwan Scandal, It’s Okay, It’s Love, I Need Romance 3, Pinocchio, Shopping King Louis, Hwarang
5. Candy and Alpha Heroes
javabeans: Call it Candy and her Alpha hero, or the Darcy syndrome, or tsundere; they’re all variations on the same theme. At the crux of the matter is a plucky heroine melting the heart of a crotchety (but hot!) hero—after first melting the ice around his stone-cold heart—and it’s one of the bedrocks upon which dramaland is built. I like to think of it as an evolution from the Cinderella story, which is a perennial favorite for a reason but does rather put the worn in time-worn. Prince Charming ruled the early days of trendy K-dramas, but it wasn’t long before Charming underwent a bad-boy makeover and emerged charismatically cranky.
What’s the appeal in a hero who says mean things and thinks niceness is a character flaw? In real life, we’d just walk away when presented with a sneering superior, a rude boss who’s constantly nitpicking, or a guy who thinks every hand-sewn sequin on his designer tracksuit is better than you. Sticking around to see if he’ll grow and mature out of his assy stage is a bet that’s simply not worth taking. In dramaland, however, there’s satisfaction in the redemption arc (his), as well as safety (for her) in knowing that he is, underneath it all, a decent fellow. It’s a safety that only works in fiction (seriously, don’t try this at home, kids!), where the Powers That Be have assured us that he’s our guy, so we can rest assured that it’s safe to root for the couple. It even becomes a twisted kind of fun to see a sneery Alpha hero misunderstand the heroine or put her down, because we know he’ll be brought down low once love takes hold. Since narratives love dramatic extremes, the higher they stick their noses, the harder they’ll fall on them. And while there have been dramas that tackle the reverse scenario, with an Alpha heroine and a Beta male, it doesn’t have the same effect, inasmuch as swapping the genders reverses the power dynamic. Skewing the character setup to extremes on the conventional power scale (powerful hero, powerless heroine) further emphasizes the great equalizing power of love, where their hearts are on equal ground.
We recommend: My Girl, Goong, Secret Garden, Boys Before Flowers, Full House, Brilliant Legacy, You’re Beautiful, The Last Scandal of My Life, Best Love, Answer Me 1988, Oh Hae-young Again, Master’s Sun, Drinking Solo, Jealousy Incarnate
5. Beta Heroes
girlfriday: Alpha’s Hero’s little brother is naturally the Beta Hero, the type we most often meet in noona romances, who is often younger and less experienced in life compared to his counterpart, the Alpha Heroine. Or maybe he’s even just a ‘fraidy cat, like the hero in My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho, or a pushover who lives to please his dominant girlfriend (the classic example is the movie My Sassy Girl). There’s an obvious gender role reversal that comes with this territory, which is the fun of most beta hero romances, and while they are increasing in popularity nowadays, the Candy and Alpha Hero still dominate the drama landscape by far.
What we often see in these types of dramas is a sassy heroine who’s opinionated and strong, which is a huge part of their appeal for me. And of course she’s coupled with a puppy dog hero who follows her around with complete devotion, almost always in romances where he likes her first and isn’t afraid to declare it at every given opportunity, and publicly at that (Biscuit Teacher Star Candy, The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry). Beta Hero may be inexperienced at a great many things, but he certainly throws everything behind courting his girl, and I’ll never grow tired of watching romances where the hero wears his heart on his sleeve and openly chases after the girl of his dreams. It sure is the stuff of fantasy, but then again, what drama isn’t?
We recommend: Biscuit Teacher Star Candy, Unstoppable High Kick, Witch’s Romance, What’s Up Fox, The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry, Flower Boy Ramyun Shop, My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho, I Hear Your Voice, I Need Romance 3, Shopping King Louis
7. Reverse Harem
javabeans: One (p)lucky heroine, surrounded by many, many beautiful guys. WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE.
The trick to either a harem or reverse-harem setup is that there must be a suitable twist, which allows the characters in the drama to escape seeming overly into the situation. I mean, the appeal is obvious—you just can’t have the characters admitting it all up front! That would be… unseemly. (Also, we fans understand that the gratification is really for us.) That means, if a girl is surrounded by boys, she has to either hate the attention (like the shy agoraphobic of Flower Boy Next Door), or be presenting herself as a different identity (Coffee Prince), or maybe be forced into this situation by factors out of her hands (Flower Boy Ramyun Shop). Moreover, there’s no fun in putting a heroine in the center of a reverse harem if she were the kind who’d naturally attract one on her own, without the extenuating circumstances that establish our drama’s premise. If she’s already a queen bee, there’s no fun in putting her in the middle of the action—at least not the kind of fun that comes in putting a wallflower or overlooked tomboy in that same role and having the guys fall in love with her for her personality and character as much as they do for her looks. It’s part wish fulfillment, part true-love-wins-all. And okay, partly pure eye candy.
girlfriday: Friends-to-lovers is one of my personal favorite romance tropes, because I love watching the confusion when love begins to complicate a friendship, and the tension that comes from that inevitable turn when one half falls in love first and has to pine in secret. It’s really the secret one-sided pining that gets me every time, when everyday interactions suddenly become laced with heartfelt yearning, and we’re privy to the stolen glances and silent acts of love—stuff that in many dramas is otherwise reserved for the perfect Daddy Long Legs second lead (Answer Me 1997, Twenty Again, Plus Nine Boys).
The appeal of a good friends-to-lovers romance is that there’s a very natural progression from trusted confidante to romantic partner—you begin to lean on a best friend and cross lines without being conscious of it, and before you know it, you’re already spending all of your time together and getting jealous of potential suitors and acting like a boyfriend without the title (Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju is a particularly adorable example of this). One of the key advantages of a friends-to-lovers setup is that there’s plausible deniability when you’re “just friends,” and denial is very useful in dramaland, as it gets you into all manner of coupley shenanigans without having to label things, and lets the drama deliciously tease out every potential romantic development. But whether it’s denial or one-sided yearning, all roads in a friends-to-lovers romance lead to one conclusion, which is the best of all: that your best friend is the one person you can truly be yourself with, who loves you just for who you are. And what could be better than that?
9. Wrong Identity
javabeans: Mistaken identity isn’t the same thing as swapped identities, or heroes in disguise, or body possession—but what they all have in common is a narrative conflict built around an identity that’s, well, wrong. Whether this circumstance is the result of a mistake (he has amnesia and forgot he’s a chaebol!) or an intentional ploy (he got a new face and name to avenge his dead father!), it’s a great trope for lovers of dramatic irony, where a great part of the fun is in knowing more than the characters do. When we know that the heroine is really just a doppelganger or possessed by someone else’s soul, our meta awareness provides an extra layer of entertainment. Dramas often revel in it, playing with near-discoveries in another form of fanservice, heightening tension and raising blood pressure by throwing our disguised characters in all sorts of close calls.
And playing with identity doesn’t just end there; it also allows for all sorts of angst to befall our main character when the false identity comes into direct conflict with the true one. Maybe a hero falls in love with the enemy he swore to destroy (or more likely, the daughter), or perhaps a heroine fits into her false life so well that she feels trapped in her lie and is deathly afraid of losing it. When the initial motive is pitted against a newfound love, for instance, it forces the hero(ine) to examine what truly matters—and when (s)he chooses love (because they’ll always choose love), it reinforces the preciousness of that love. Over money, over revenge, over anything and everything that came before it, making it seem just a little more epic than had our protagonist not had to sacrifice all else in order to keep it.
girlfriday: The hate-to-love setup is probably one of the most common tropes in dramaland, because you can have a bickering, contentious relationship no matter what genre you’re in, and it has the very simple but satisfying reversal of first impressions being utterly wrong. It’s Pride and Prejudice—where two people’s vast differences first cause hate, and then lead to growth and change—applied to everything from political and ideological enemies (Gaksital), to warring school club presidents (Sassy Go Go).
Characters needn’t be mortal enemies to go from hate to love, since a bad first impression is enough to get two people off on the wrong foot, but it’s especially satisfying when they hate each other with a fiery passion and then have to eat crow. The more hate there is, the sweeter the comeuppance when a jerk falls off his high horse and becomes a fool for love (The King 2 Hearts, Boys Before Flowers). It’s like karma, but with a twisted sense of humor. There’s also a subset of dramas that go love-hate-love, if there’s a divorce or betrayal to overcome, and I find that these can be the most ardent hate-to-love relationships if done well, like School 2013, in which the violent hate between two boys just masks how much they loved and missed each other (sniff!). Hate-to-love is used so often because it infuses any relationship with a strong narrative arc from the start—if you start your love story at rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up.
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