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).
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
In Korea, han or the sense of “unrequited rage” plays an immense role in national and personal identity. It comes as no surprise then, that revenge and plots revolving around vengeance are common in k-drama and Korean cinema. When injustice has been served, either by corrupt law enforcement or by exploitative rich people, one has no choice but to look to a different kind of judge/jury/executioner to restore justice: the vigilante. In k-drama, he’s the one to call when you need justice to be served even if he must do it through illegal, dubious, or unethical means. However, the “good” vigilante has lines he will not cross, such as refusing to kill the suspects or hurting the police. He is the good bad guy, and you can’t help but root for him as he works on the fringes to give justice to the powerless and oppressed.
In Taxi Driver (2021), Kim Do-ki (Lee Jee-hoon) works for Blue Bird, a secret organization that metes out justice for those who have been horribly bullied and exploited, but who also have no means to “win” in life. He uses his training as an ex-policeman to find those responsible, and with the rest of his crew, creatively punish the guilty parties outside the law. (Read the full review here.)
Other k-dramas with this trope are: Bad Guys (2014), Healer (2014), Mad Dog (2017), and City Hunter (2011).
The Fish Out of Water
A fish out of water is a comedic trope that draws laughs because a character, who for some reason or other, is transplanted into a new environment. In order to survive, s/he must navigate new everyday experiences that other adults often take for granted.
In Mr. Queen (2020-21), Jang Bong-hwan (Choi Jin-hyuk) is a chef in modern-day Korea. One day, he finds himself trapped in the body of a woman and queen in the Joseon period at that! Now everyone around her is both appalled and amazed by the queen’s unusual behavior.
Other dramas that feature this funny trope are Legend of the Blue Sea (2016), Bride of Habaek (2017), Live Up to Your Name (2017), and Melting Me Softly (2019).
Even if it’s extremely rare in the real world, amnesia in k-dramas have been pretty commonplace. In k-drama, amnesia is usually triggered by a freak accident or by a traumatic childhood incident. When either happens, the lead is then forced to dig for his forgotten memories, and in the search, will probably uncover other truths and secrets that have been kept from him or her all this time. Thankfully, more k-dramas are retiring this trope, but we still see it pop up from time to time. (Read the whole article here.)
In The Innocent Man (2012), a betrayed Kang Maru (Song Joong-ki) plots to take revenge on his ex-girlfriend, so he seduces a rich heiress so he can use her to hurt his ex. Problems begin when the heiress develops amnesia midway, causing her to forget why she was involved in his scheme in the first place. Worse, her amnesia forces Maru to care for her, leading to unexpected entanglements.
Other k-dramas with the amnesia trope: Winter Sonata (2002), Moon Embracing the Sun (2012), Fated to Love You (2014), and Crazy Love (2022)
Skeletons in the Closet
Our main leads look happy and content—but are they, REALLY? To make characters more interesting, writers often throw in a tragic or dark backstory. It’s even better when the skeletons in the closet are made up of secrets so grim or horrific that they hang over everyone’s heads and present a legitimate threat to the future of the leads if they ever get found out.
In Penthouse seasons 1-3 (2020-21), the wealthy residents of Hera Palace all live lives rife with secrets. Many of them have committed grievous sins, but have always gotten away with them because of power and money. But one night, the bizarre murder of a young girl in the midst of Korea’s most luxurious address now threatens to expose all their horrible misdeeds once and for all. But will the crazy Hera Palace crew get away with their crimes again? Or will justice finally prevail?
Other shows with this trope include Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo (2016), Chief Kim/The Good Manager (2017), The Smile Has Left Your Eyes (2018), and It’s Okay to Not Be Okay (2020).
The Reluctant Hero
We’re all conditioned to love the heroic and handsome character whose exterior strength manifests his strong moral compass and unshaken principles. But not everyone can live such an unblemished life. And so we get our fair share of flawed heroes, the ones who may have started out with a dark past or not-so-good intentions but were surprised to discover that they could be heroic after all. The Reluctant Hero steps up to the plate when no one else will, and despite his own insecurities and misgivings, manages to pull the amazing feat of toppling the big, bad evil system, and ends up saving the world.
In Vincenzo (2021) former mafia attorney, Vincenzo Cassano (Song Joong-ki) is back in Korea to retrieve some of his ill-gotten wealth. However, he soon finds himself fighting for a ragtag group of tenants who want to take on a large conglomerate.
Other k-dramas with this trope are: Bad Guys (2014), Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo (2016), The K2 (2016), and The Fiery Priest (2018).
There are parents...and then there are bad Asian parents. A lead character or his/her love interest is usually given a difficult set of parents to give him a huge obstacle on his path towards real independence or to challenge a budding love story. Difficult parents come in many forms in k-drama, from the passive aggressive to the horribly psychotic. They can inordinately pressure the lead to perform better academically, or mandate that they follow in their footsteps. They are also usually disapproving of their child’s love interest, giving the couple a hurdle they must overcome together.
In Itaewon Class (2020), Chairman Jang (Yoo Jae-myung) is a manipulative and ruthless father and businessman who puts tremendous pressure on his son, Geun-won (Ahn Bo-hyun), to become as heartless as he is in order to become a worthy successor.
Other k-dramas with this trope are: Something in the Rain (2018), Extracurricular (2019), SKY Castle (2019), and It’s Okay to Not Be Okay (2020).
"Tsundere” is a Japanese anime term for a character who is aloof, prickly, arrogant, and hot-headed. However, in the course of the plot, he (it’s usually a he) will soften and become affectionate after having been transformed by love.
In Crazy Love (2022), No Go-jin (Kim Jae-wook) is the top math instructor and CEO of a tutoring firm. He’s the best in the business, but having had to make his fortune against all odds and losing his first love in the process has made him a rigid, exacting, and angry person. Will a life-threatening accident and amnesia help him see the error of his ways?
Other k-dramas with the tsundere trope: Full House (2004), Boys Over Flowers (2009), What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim? (2018), Her Private Life (2019), and True Beauty (2020-21)
Named after the main character in Japanese manga Candy Candy, the k-drama “candy” is portrayed as a young, poor (or at least not financial independent), optimistic, and hardworking girl. Down on her luck but still hopeful about the future, she is usually set up to catch the eye of a rich, powerful male lead (usually a tsundere) who will be able to see past her difficult circumstances and recognize the diamond within. She’s not that different from Cinderella, only she has no fairy godmother.
In What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim? (2018), Park Min-young plays Kim Min-so, a long-suffering secretary to an exacting boss played by Park Seo-joon. Despite her difficulties, she caters to his every whim and basically manages his life. When she’s finally ready to quit her job, her boss realizes that he can’t live without her.
Other k-dramas with the candy girl trope: Princess Hours (2006), Boys Over Flowers (2009), The Heirs/The Inheritors (2013), Fated to Love You (2014), Cinderella and the Four Knights (2014), and Crazy Love (2022)
A chaebol is literally translated as a “rich family” in Korean. They usually belong to the top 1% of Korean society that own and run an industrial conglomerate. In k-dramas, chaebol heirs are usually portrayed as either poor-little-rich boys and girls trapped by the weight of their families’ overwhelming expectations or by a tragic past. OR they are ruthless, scheming, manipulative, greedy villains whose lust for power will stop at nothing. They are often incredibly accomplished, impeccably dressed, and treated like royalty.
In Graceful Family (2019), Mo Seok-hee (Im Soo-hyang), returns from the United States to find the truth about her dying grandfather and contend with her chaebol family’s outrageous lifestyles and backstabbing.
Other k-dramas with chaebol tropes: Coffee Prince (2007), Secret Garden (2010), The Heirs/The Inheritors (2013), The Master’s Sun (2013), I’m Not a Robot (2017), Crash Landing on You (2019-20), and Business Proposal (2022)
What are your favorite k-drama tropes?
If you enjoyed this article, check out our other deep dives in the Gwenchanoona Saranghae Series: