From youth romances to mid-life melos: K-drama and storytelling perspectives
Is age just a number? We often talk about age in K-dramas as it relates to romantic relationships, but what if we take a step back and look at how the age of the drama’s main characters affects the type of story we get? It’s something we don’t talk about much, but it carries some interesting insight into each drama’s storytelling, and even the kind of stories we enjoy.
Without even thinking about it, the age demographic of our main character immediately colors the sort of story we find (or think we’ll find), how we relate to it, what we can expect from it — and even what we can learn from it. These are assumptions we automatically make about a story when we hear about its premise. Happy, first love vibes from our youth drama, the ambitious and optimistic energy from the main body of dramas that feature characters in their 20s, the thoughtful and mature outlook from dramas about mid-life, and the reflection and wisdom in stories about elders.
I’m making some sweeping generalizations, yes — not because there aren’t exceptions (and there should be!), but because the phase and chapter of a character’s life does have an impact on the story that’s told.
But actually, the age of the main character doesn’t define the genre — after all, there are horror stories with children protagonists, stories about mid-life characters that are anything but mature (ahem, A Couple’s World), and there are youth dramas that are anything but hopeful. Instead, what we get consistently from each story, and the main character’s demographic, isn’t genre, but storytelling perspective.
A Couple’s World
If we take a look at youth and high school dramas, from the heartwarming (Racket Boys) to the dark (Extracurricular) to the light-hearted and fun (School 2017), one thing the age range of their protagonists has in common is their youthful perspective while navigating life, love, and hardships. The degree of those struggles change a lot depending on the story’s ethos, but their age also acts as a constraint on the storytelling perspective we’ll get.
It’s similar for our campus dramas. Here I would compare three very different stories — Cheese in the Trap, Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo, and Nevertheless. All three stories take place on campus and feature a heroine that flounders her way through life and love with varying degrees of grace. Again, very different stories, with very different tones. But what they have in common is that moment in life that is so well-captured by stories about college-age students.
Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju
The bulk of stories — and especially dramas — seem to settle on the 20s and 30s as the most fundamental and broadly relatable age demographic. Here we again have a wide range of stories, from revenge melos, to thrillers, to workplace comedies and virtually all rom-coms.
But what is it that makes stories with protagonists in this age bracket so, well, #relatable? Is it because it’s the median age? The most “neutral” age range for storytelling? Or maybe even the most desirable? A story about a character in his/her 20s and 30s requires almost no leveling when you watch. If you think about it, it just might be the kind of story with the smallest barrier to entry.
In contrast to the neutral storytelling age of the 20s and 30s, dramas about characters in mid-life (and beyond) give us a different sort of story. From broken marriages (On the Way to the Airport), to long-kept secrets and marital chaos (Mine), to workplace dramas (On the Verge of Insanity) — without even realizing it, there is a certain gravity we expect from these stories. The main characters, being in their 40s and 50s, are generally more settled in life, and are married, have children, a career — and most importantly, a past.
I have a soft spot for stories about characters in/around mid-life for this very reason. Whether their younger years come back to haunt them (Graceful Friends), or if their past informs the choices they make in the present (When My Love Blooms), it’s a very different character that has already lived through a few decades of life.
Finally, there are our stories about elders. Mostly these characters are sandwiched into other (usually family) dramas, but every now and then there’s a drama like Dear My Friends or the recent Navillera that puts its older characters in the spotlight. One step up from the baggage that mid-life characters usually carry, dramas about elders showcase characters with a whole life behind them, and all of the wisdom that comes from having lived long and experienced much.
So, accepting that the age of the main character affects our story, what sort of biases or preferences do we have when it comes to the stories we seek out and enjoy? I know for myself, I’m guilty of not being immediately interested in a story about a middle school sports team (and for shame, I know Racket Boys is great).
Similarly, dramas with an older cast — everything from Dear My Friends to On the Verge of Insanity — can be quickly passed off because of the age of the characters. Is this because we don’t think the story will give us what we need? Is what we need from a story dependent upon how well we relate to it?
On the Verge of Insanity
My argument, I guess, is two-fold — and contradictory. First, that the age bracket of our main characters matters, and is a good metric that determines the story that we get. And second, that it might not matter as much as we think. How’s that for drama logic?
I don’t think that stories are necessarily more relevant to us when they match our life stage or circumstances (although that’s sometimes true). Instead, I like to think that we sense — instinctively — whether the story we’re offered will contain something that speaks to us. And what is that something? Well, that’s different for everyone, and even different for us at times.
While the storyteller and storytelling are important, they are not the end all. In fact, sometimes it’s fun to experiment, and pick up a story with protagonists that you normally wouldn’t go for — no matter which end of the spectrum that is for you. In other words, while we can judge a drama by its
cover protagonist and have a great ride, we can also reach beyond that, take a hold of a story that we might not usually go for, and maybe discover something new in the process.
- Premiere Watch: On the Verge of Insanity
- Racket Boys: Episode 1
- Nevertheless: Episode 1 (Review)
- Mine: Episodes 1-2 (Review)
- Premiere Watch: Men Are Men, The Good Detective, Was It Love, Graceful Friends, Train
- Extracurricular: Series review, part 1
- Love is in the air for Lee Bo-young and Yoo Ji-tae in tvN melo When My Love Blooms
- Perfect happiness turns to utter emotional wreckage in A Couple’s World
- School 2017: Episode 1
- Friends, rivals, and training sessions in Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju
- The women of On the Way to the Airport and a new teaser
- Dear My Friends: Episode 1
- Interviews with Cheese in the Trap’s cast (Part 1)
Tags: A Couple's World, Cheese in the Trap, Dear My Friends, Extracurricular, Graceful Friends, Mine, Nevertheless, On the Verge of Insanity, On the Way to the Airport, Racket Boys, School 2017, Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju, When My Love Blooms