It’s no secret that Korean dramas thrive on an interesting range of characters, intricate—sometimes confusing—plot lines and the common clichés that give K-Dramas their essence; the thing that unites all the different shows, stories and genres. Among the dramatic confessions, memory loss, car accidents, love-triangles and all the other familiar K-Drama tropes, there are some reoccurring clichés that we always seem to enjoy—despite how cheesy they can be at times.
Although these characters aren’t real and K-Dramas are merely a source of light-entertainment, their stories and their character’s actions send messages to all who view them. They can influence, shape or even warp a viewer’s thoughts.
We love watching dramas and their characters, it’s a source of enjoyment and fun as well as a useful tool for those learning Korean. It’s also interesting to look back at how far K-Dramas have come over the years, with their clichés being less cringey and predictable and their characters becoming more dimensional and developed.
So we’re going to look back on some old, familiar clichés and relationships from classic and popular K-Dramas and explore whether or not they’re necessary for the plot to be interesting. We’ll also share our favourite K-Drama relationships, as well as the ones we’d best left in the past.
Warning: The following paragraphs contain spoilers for dramas mentioned.
These days, many K-Drama fans are looking back on some of the older, classic dramas and have realised that quite a few of the cliches and characters can be seen as toxic and, in some cases, abusive. Toxic people tend to be overly-needy, self-centred, pushy and inconsiderate without being aware of it, whilst abusive people will purposely use charm and flattery to build trust with someone, to manipulate them.
We’ve seen these types of characters over and over, so we’re almost used to their questionable actions and thought processes. No doubt we’ve all thought to ourselves; this stereotypical, clichéd character is what makes it a Korean Drama. But are some of these clichés a bit too outdated for our time?
One of the most popular K-Drama clichés is the Jaebol x Poor Girl: this is where the leading man uses his wealth to help out a girl who is significantly less well-off than him. Jaebol (재벌), also known as chaebol, is a word which refers to members of “extremely rich families”.
We’ve seen examples of Jaebol characters many times, in older dramas such as Coffee Prince, Heirs, Secret Garden and Boys Over Flowers and newer ones like Goblin, I Am Not A Robot, What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim and Encounter. Although not every “Jaebol x Poor Girl K-Drama” does this, the sad reality of the cliché is that these jaebol characters, sometimes without even realising it, tend to use their money and power to control others. This can create some awkward and pretty uncomfortable situations for the people around them, especially characters who aren’t as influential or well-off.
It seems to be a trend in older K-Dramas for Jaebol characters to display signs of 자기애 (jagiae) or narcissism. This complex trait usually makes people feel that they’re superior to others and deserve people’s admiration; they might show-off or act-out to get people to like them. Characters such as Han Chang-ryul and Kim In-Hee from Personal Taste and Park Gulmi from Love Alarm fall into this description.
In more serious cases, narcissism can cause people to intimidate, or even go so far as to bully, people into accepting them; an example of this is K-Drama royalty Go Jun-pyo from Boys Over Flowers. Although his strong personality and bold actions have made him a household name in the K-Drama world when rewatched in this day and age, some of his actions thought-processes are somewhat questionable.
Another common character cliché is that of the 까도남 (kkadonam), or an “abrasive city-man”. This title refers to a man who is rich, arrogant and self-centred—very similar to Kim Joo-won from Secret Garden, a character who was passionate and charming but, as the stereotype goes, a bit on the arrogant side. A similar expression is 냉미남 (naengminam) which describes a handsome, but cold-hearted man such as Lee Kang Hoon from Noble, My Love, who had all the looks but not much emotion for others.
It’s also common for the Jaebol characters to suffer from 공주병 (Gongjubyeong), Princess Disease, or 왕자병 (Wangjabyeong), Prince Disease. This term describes people who act like royalty despite having no proper reason to — they simply think having a lot of money makes them superior to everyone else.
Famous K-Drama characters who are prime examples of this cliché include; Kim Tan and many other characters from The Heirs, Park Tae-yeon and his family from The Greatest Marriage, Lee Youngjae from Full House, Baek Sheung-jo from Playful Kiss, Park Do-Kyung from Another Oh Hae Young, Joon Ji-sung from She Was Pretty and, of course, the “king of bad K-Drama characters”; Go Jun-pyo from Boys Over Flowers.
One might wonder, How do these sweet K-Drama heroines fall victim to these obviously toxic characters?
A common cliche in older dramas is when the main girl realises her “dream guy” isn’t as great as he first seemed, but rather leaving for greener pastures, the leading man will somehow manage to find ways back into her life.
In these cases, the character’s conflicts are often fixed with heartfelt apologies and crying confessions; in the end, they both live happily ever after and the K-Drama is over. But we’re left to wonder, have their problems truly been resolved? Have the characters grown as people, or have they simply skipped over their issues?
In the early days of K-Dramas, the roles of women fell into categories that are quite different from the ones we see today: even when dramas tried to portray a female character as strong and empowering, they’d somehow still have fatal flaws and stereotypical weaknesses such as being whiny, unable to care for themself and being completely dependent on their male counterpart. Sometimes, these characters were reduced to a 콩깍지가 씌다 (kongkkakjiga-ssida) or a “person so blinded by love that they don’t see how bad their significant other is.”
Today, however, we’re able to watch dramas with well-constructed female characters who are independent, have lives outside their love life, display a wide range of personalities, speak up for themselves, stand up to those who try to belittle them, break conventions and stereotypes as well as address taboo subjects. Characters such as Woo Suji (Because This Is My First Life), Do Bong-soon (Strong Woman Do Bong-soon), Cha Gi-yeong (The Greatest Marriage), Cha Hyun (Search: WWW), Yoo Hye-jung (Doctors) and Kang Soo-jin (Mother) all prove to be inspiring role models for viewers across the globe.
K-Drama characters with Princess-Prince Disease usually pair up with a 셔틀 (shuttle) or someone who is easily pushed around by others. A “shuttle character” can also be a pushover in friendships, especially when partnered with a kkadonam or narcissist. An example of this Park Kae-in and her “Best Friend” Kim In-hee in the drama Personal Taste: whose friendship was less than ideal, even from the very first episode.
The Kongkkakjiga-ssida cliché could teach people that it’s okay to be treated badly by others and to accept them into your life even if they don’t fully repent for their actions. Said clichés might even appear to applaud some toxic behaviours. For instance in Boys Over Flowers, when our leading lady Geum Jan-di ends up with her ex-bully-turned-boyfriend Go Jun-pyo, audiences were left to wonder whether, after much mistreatment at the hands of Jun-pyo, these two characters should have really ended up together?
Shuttle characters lead people to think that being mistreated, overworked and hazed by superiors and colleagues is a normal part of the job. Meanwhile, clichés like kkadonam and naengminam reinforce the outdated idea that men who are cold, dismissive of others, arrogant and emotionally detached are cool, sophisticated and mysterious.
Even basic clichés like the “dramatic wrist grab”, which make an appearance in almost every K-Drama, are falling into the “outdated cliches” box. Whilst this iconic scene is often climatic and provides a ‘gasping’ moment for viewers, when put into real-life scenarios it might not be such a heartwarming or romantic gesture after all.
When it comes to romantic K-Dramas, especially the older ones, quite a number of female characters were nestled into bland, repetitive and fragile roles or ones where they’re pushy, aggressive and mostly dependent on their male leads. Or, as seen in the 2004 drama Full House, the female lead was so naive that she ignored the many bad things her friends did to her. In contrast, recent dramas get quarrelling friends to work out their differences and move on—even if it means putting the friendship on hiatus.
We can all agree that none of these clichéd characters portray women in an empowering way or cast men in a favourable light, nor do they represent how they are in real life relationships and situations. So that begs the question, Are any of these clichés ever done the right way?
Although every K-Drama plot needs to be interesting and dramatic to keep the audience’s attention, they often take certain clichés too far: fueling unhealthy relationships and having them as the core of the story.
However, using this kind of plot only works if the main characters resolve whatever issues they have and grow together as better people—which isn’t seen much in older dramas. Instead, the characters tend to stay the same and continue to be absorbed by these unhealthy clichés, creating 노답 (nodap), or “no answer” situations.
Despite this trend, there have been many K-Dramas in years that have used these clichés and made it work for both their plot and characters, creating healthy, loving and realistic relationships along the way.
The Konglish (Korean-English) phrase for best friend is 베프 (bepeu), and these roles in K-Dramas are very important. Some wholesome K-Drama friendships we’ve seen include the “Bokja Club” from Avengers Social Club (부암동 복수자들) and the trio from Because This is My First Life (이번 생은 처음이라).
Despite the obvious social and economic differences within the Bokja Club—which included a Jaebol, an upper-middle-class housewife and a widow who runs a market stall—these women banded together and faced their tormentors as a strong unit; becoming a real family in the process. And the girls from Because This is My First Life supported one another till the end, even when misunderstandings threatened their friendship, they resolved it with maturity and love. Although they shared many character clichés, none of those friend groups turned out like other negative K-Drama friendships.
Despite many K-Dramas having the habit of using unhealthy relationships for the sake of an “interesting and dramatic plot”, newer dramas like When The Camellia Blooms (동백꽃필무렵) portray a loving, healthy relationship between the two leads—Dongbaek and Yongsik—that pushes against all the opposition from other characters including an angry mother, judgmental neighbours, a lingering ex-boyfriend, and a psychotic serial killer.
In similar dramas where the male lead is “forbidden” to date the leading lady—such as in Secret Garden, Boys Over Flowers and Greatest Marriage—they often act out and become bitter and abrasive towards their love interest and fail to voice their situation or feelings.
Our Yongsik, however, doesn’t fall prey to clichés. Perfectly fitting the role of 훈남 (hunnam), or a handsome and well-mannered guy, Yongsik is very open with his Dongbaek about his feelings and doesn’t allow outside opposition to form clouds over their relationship—in fact, he makes even more of an effort to love and support Dongbaek. Eventually, the two both become 사랑꾼 (sarangkkun) or a person full of love.
In dramas such as Full House and Absolute Boyfriend, which both feature a “Celebrity x Commoner” romance, the famous love interests are full of Princess Disease, i.e. being whiny, aggressive, manipulative, mean and pushy towards their partner. However, in Touch Your Heart, our celebrity Oh Jin Shin is the complete opposite of someone with Princess Disease: instead she is humble, kind and considerate towards her love interest Kwon Jung-rok; a lawyer that’s portrayed as a 뇌섹남 (noeseknam), or a smart, attractive guy.
And although Kwon Jung-rok initially acts very formally with Jin Shin, he doesn’t fall prey to the naengminam cliché of being cold and uncaring: instead, he quickly adapts to Jim Shin’s bubbly, unique style and when they begin dating, he is supportive and is open emotionally.
These shows feature all the classic clichés that make K-Dramas unique and interesting, but they don’t sacrifice the characters’ relationships and personal development for the sake of drama and conflict. Unhealthy relationships and outdated clichés aren’t necessary for a K-Drama to be entertaining or compelling. And if certain characters need to be portrayed as cold, abrasive, arrogant or somewhat mean, why not make sure they develop and grow to be better people by the end of their drama?
We hope to see more uplifting, wholesome and healthy K-Drama relationships in the future, but in the meantime—for those who need a fix of toxic-free characters right now—we recommend the following K-Dramas:
- When the Camellia Blooms (동백꽃 필 무렵) — for a sweet, healthy romance that survives the most insane collection of conflicts and dramas.
- Avengers Social Club (부암동 복수자들) — for strong friendships and girl power.
- Touch Your Heart (진심이 닿다) — for a “Celebrity x Commoner” romance, as well as side-character love stories that will literally touch your heart.
- Because This Is My First Life (이번 생은 처음이라) — for a toxic-free contract marriage and strong, realistic friends.
- Strong Woman Do Bong Soon (힘쎈여자 도봉순) — for a healthy “Jaebol x Poor Girl” romance that doesn’t fall victim to Princess Disease or belittle the female lead.
Read more about empowering female K-Drama characters here.
Feature Image Source: ©A couple crying due to a broken heart illustration by Freepik.com, 28.10.2019