top of page

Saranghae Stereotype: Famous Tropes in K-dramas

Ever find yourself watching k-dramas and thinking to yourself, "I’ve seen this somewhere before"? That’s because you probably have. With all the k-dramas ever written and produced, it’s impossible to come up with something completely original. While one storytelling element might have been unique once, it is bound to be repeated several times over.

What is a Trope?

In literature and media, plot devices, themes, visual cues, and other storytelling elements that are repeatedly used within the genre, so much so that they become recognizable, are called tropes. Although tropes sometimes get a bad reputation for showing a lack of originality or imagination, they also serve as a shared vocabulary among viewers and readers. Even if most people consume media personally, a trope allows us to have a collective experience and memory.

Tropes are not exclusive to a particular genre although they are more likely to appear in one than the other. Also, because of the numerous characters with complex backstories that appear in one drama, you’re more likely to have more than one trope in one series. Below, we look at a few of the most used tropes in k-dramaland.


Friends to Lovers

Can a man and a woman ever really be JUST friends? The line between platonic and romantic love can sometimes be blurred. Maybe one of them is afraid of losing the friendship, maybe the other has been holding on to unrequited love after all these years, maybe the timing is all wrong––whatever the reasons are, these two just can’t seem to get a break until one of them finally makes the first move to prove that best friends often make the best lovers. (Read the full article here.)

In Fight for My Way (2018), Ko Dong-man (Park Seo-joon) and Choi Ae-ra (Kim Ji-won) have been best friends since they were children but now that they’re all grown up, things are changing. Will they make it or will they let their fear of losing the friendship hold them back?

Other k-dramas: Reply 1988 (2015-16), Weightlifting Fairy Kim Book Joo (2016), My ID Is Gangnam Beauty (2018), and My First First Love (2019)

The First Love

K-dramas place an unusual emphasis on one’s first love. Loving for the first time means that you are able to give a heart that isn’t skeptical, broken, or guarded. This trope often has the couple meeting many years after they parted ways as children or high school sweethearts or even as reincarnations of their previous selves. They’ll have to overcome whatever it was that separated them in the first place to find out if their first love can become their last.

In Legend of the Blue Sea (2016), Shim Cheong (Jun Ji-hyun), a mermaid, and Heo Joon-jae (Lee Min-ho), a con artist, meet in present-day Spain. They’re instantly drawn to each other but what they don’t realize is that they were each other’s first love in a previous life. How many times will they have to be reborn and to meet before they can finally be happy together?

Other shows with this trope are Goblin (2016), Thirty But Seventeen (2018), What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim? (2018), and True Beauty (2020-21).

Unlikely Housemates

Through some financial, cosmic, or even completely contrived societal pretense, the couple must live in close quarters. Living in such close proximity with someone so attractive eventually leads both to fall in love. In the end, when the reason for their cohabitation no longer exists, the couple must decide if there is enough within the relationship to actually WANT to be together for the rest of their lives. Does familiarity really breed contempt or attraction?

In Crash Landing on You (2019-20), Yoon Se-ri (Son Ye-jin), a South Korean chaebol heiress finds herself stuck in North Korean territory. In order to keep her hidden from authorities, Ri Jeong-hyeok (Hyun Bin), a captain in the Korean People's Army, reluctantly allows her to stay in his house. Can love bloom between these two when the demilitarized zone no longer divides them?

Other shows with unlikely housemates: It’s Okay, That’s Love (2014), Suspicious Partner (2017), Forest (2020), It’s Okay to Not Be Okay (2020), and Oh My Ladylord (2021)

The Noona Romance

Whether it makes your heart flutter or cringe, there’s no denying that k-dramaland is filled with the “noona romance,” a term used to describe a love story between an older woman (the noona) and a younger man. Here, the noona is often an accomplished career woman who has gotten so busy with her work that she no longer has time to date, or if she were dating, she would not be impressed at the lackluster selection of men who are often intimidated by her independence. Enter a young man, who either by a workplace setup or by fate, becomes absolutely besotted by the noona. His youth allows him to reject the typical signs of machismo, like the need to earn more than her or having to be the dominant one in the relationship. Instead, he wholeheartedly applauds her spirit and wants her to succeed in her work and life.

In Encounter (2018), wealthy divorcee Cha Soo-hyun (Song Hye-kyo) meets Kim Jin-hyuk (Park Bo-gum) on a business trip in Cuba. They spend some time together and think they’ll never meet again. However, fate has other plans, and Jin-hyuk ends up working for one of Soo-hyun’s hotels. Would love be enough to overcome the vast differences between a super rich CEO and a humble hotelier? K-drama seems to think so.

Other noona romances are: My Name is Kim Sam-Soon (2004), Witch’s Romance (2014), Romance is a Bonus Book (2019), WWW: Search (2019), 18 Again (2020), and She Would Never Know (2021).

Love in the Workplace

Human Resources might send us memos warning us about dating our co-workers, but in k-dramaland, the workplace is THE best place to find a romantic partner. If you spend most of your waking hours at work, you might as well find your soulmate (or love triangle) there too! One-sided crushes turn into chance encounters. Stressful situations turn into shared experiences. And with enough soju and a well-timed company retreat, well, what else can sparks do but fly? (Read the full article here.)

Doctors spend hours on end in hospitals. It’s natural that the hospital becomes a petri dish for love, as in the case of Dr. Jang Gyeo-wool (Shin Hyun-Bin) who has the hugest crush on clueless pediatrician Dr. Ahn Jeong-won (Yoo Yeon-Seok), who secretly wants to be a priest in Hospital Playlist 1 and 2 (2020, 2021).

Other k-dramas with this trope: She Was Pretty (2015), Dr. Romantic (2016), Strong Woman Do Bong Soon (2017), Clean with Passion for Now (2018), Touch Your Heart (2019), and Business Proposal (2022)

The Love Triangle

It is completely believable to think that two people can fall in love with the same person, and that that same person can be torn between the two. Does the lead choose the stable, reliable option, or the more exciting, unpredictable one? Is it a choice between the heart and the head? Either way, someone’s heart is bound to get broken. All’s fair in love and war, after all. (Read our article on second lead syndrome here.)

In Start Up (2020), Seo Dal-mi (Bae Suzy) must choose between young, shy Nam Do-san (Nam Joo-hyuk) trying to make his way in the world and successful, dashing Han Ji-pyeong (Kim Seon-ho).

Other k-dramas featuring a love triangle: The Heirs/The Inheritors (2013), Strong Woman Do Bong Soon (2017), and While You Were Sleeping (2017)

Comedy, Action, and Mystery

The Vigilante