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February 24, 2012

7 familiar characters in Korean drama

Even fledgling Korean drama addicts will soon start to recognize certain characters that appear in nearly every drama. Here are a few you may know:

The Spunky Heroine

Energetic, outspoken, very pretty, and under 35. There is often a secret about her birth, and one or both of her parents are dead. She is optimistic in the face of adversity, and courageous in the face of injustice. Although she may be the smartest character in the drama, her desire to believe the best of people causes her to initially overlook villainous acts right under her nose. Defying obstacles and personal risk, she sticks to her goals. Through persistence sometimes bordering on stalking, she overcomes rejection, and shames good people who are behaving badly into changing their ways. She is flawed, but that saves us from hating her.

The Damaged Villain

Handsome, and under 35, he wears an expressionless mask most of the time, yet manages to be the most charismatic character in the drama. We rarely see him smile, and when we do, it’s an unpleasant smirk. He is an arch manipulator whose motives are never what they seem, but may show flashes of honorability, which are usually as unsung as his villainy. He has a traumatic backstory. We see his inner loneliness and despair, and want him to turn out to be a good guy in the end, even after he commits irretrievably evil acts. Female viewers may yearn to personally reform him. We always see him shirtless at least once, and are better for it.

The Slightly Above Average Hero

Any age (though typically under 35), attractive, personable, uncomplicated and underachieving. He has talents, but not necessarily intellectual ones, and they may not be immediately apparent. When we first meet him, he shows signs of immaturity, but soon we see that he is deeply loyal and can (motivated by The Spunky Heroine) discover unsuspected reserves of honorability, perseverance and capability in himself, and turn into a real hero, deserving of The Spunky Heroine’s love.

The Opposing Woman

Any age, this woman creates obstacles for the hero and heroine, and may be the primary villain or a sometime co-conspirator with The Damaged Villain or The Abusive Father Figure (but only for as long as it benefits her). She is often loved by a weaker but better man, who has little influence over her. She may be a conniving businesswoman with a hidden agenda, a mother or grandmother stuck on an irrationally negative notion, or a former love interest of the hero. Her rigidity is a key plot device, and can take the form of utter self-repression, ruthless abusiveness, or relentless scheming. Colleagues, family members and friends try to intervene unsuccessfully. She may have secret allies, usually an alternate love interest, jealous relative, or competitive colleague of the hero or heroine. If her power is in the home sphere, she probably repents by the end of the drama. If in business, however, not so much. She may end by suicide.

The Abusive Father Figure

Over 40, in a leadership role, single-mindedly ambitious, and remorselessly violent. Usually travels with an entourage of lackeys. A classic bully personality, charming in public and brutal in private. Often involved in political conspiracies to enhance his business opportunities. Sees good people as weak, and his worst behavior as completely justifiable. Since he can’t repent, he must end badly.

The Spoiled Brat

Female, and under 40. Attractive, but with such a petulant expression on her face most of the time that we hardly notice. She has a whopping sense of entitlement, and is hostile and arbitrary when she feels it has been violated (usually by the heroine, through no fault of her own). She is often competing with the heroine for motherly love, and refuses to accept that they can both receive that love. She may lose the hero to the heroine through her mean behavior. She matures during the drama and grudgingly accepts the heroine in the end. Sometimes The Spoiled Brat becomes The Spunky Heroine!

The Clown

Usually (though not always) male, any age, and in a position with some influence. This character usually provides comic relief with unexpected or silly behavior. He may be a major or a minor character. When he is a major player (The Wily Clown), he is a conscious trickster, manipulating the hero or heroine into growth experiences without fully revealing his motives until later. When his character is minor, the story may turn (for better or worse) on his actions. He is usually regarded with respect or affection by the hero or heroine. Even when his errors or bad behavior cause harm, it is understood to be inadvertent (if it comes to light at all), and he is rarely punished.

Did I miss anyone?

Related posts:
5 signs that you are watching a Korean drama
10 Obstacles to Love in Korean Drama
10 Common Kdrama Phrases, and What They Really Mean

6 comments to 7 familiar characters in Korean drama

  • Lorim

    How about the shrill elderly mother/grandma who has no clue whats really going on, but expects everyone to obey her commands.

  • Mihansa

    Yes, I know exactly the character you mean. I think she is covered somewhat under The Opposing Woman – “a mother or grandmother stuck on an irrationally negative notion.” But you’re right, the character is so common it deserves more attention, and I should cover the male version as well as the female.

    I wrote this post just a few months after I started watching Kdrama, so it is unduly influenced by a few particular dramas. If I were writing it today, I’d roll the Abusive Father Figure and the Opposing Woman into one, and call it the Matriarch/Patriarch.

    “Has no clue whats really going on, but expects everyone to obey his/her commands” is a perfect description of this character – I couldn’t have said it better.

    Family heads do have that kind of power in traditional Korean households. The oldest son is expected to care for mom and dad, in his home, for life. Therefore, the parents are technically the head of household, even of adult, married men with children in their own homes. Since women outlive men, this is more often grandma than grandpa.

    There’s also a thing where stay at home moms live through their children, especially their sons. There’s actually a word for this kind of mother/son bond, which entitles mom to completely control the son’s life since she has sacrificed so much for him.

    Korean parents do sacrifice a lot for their kids. They are extremely education-focused, and kids are likely to attend expensive private evening schools as well as regular daytime school, in hopes of getting into big name colleges. To pay for these, parents also work very long hours.

    So these characters are probably so common in Korean drama because every Korean knows someone like that. We should feel lucky we don’t :) But the character IS usually mellowed and reformed by the end of the drama, right?!

  • MadaMag

    There’s also the Second Good Guy, that helps, protect and loves the heroine, but Never Get’s The Girl.
    Usually an childhood friend of the heroine or the hero.

    • Mihansa

      You mean the one who’s more mature, perceptive, honest, kind, and supportive than the Hero, not to mention financially stable and just as handsome? See #5 in 10 Obstacles to Love in Korean Drama. Less charismatic, perhaps, but offering WAY better odds for a happy home life. Spunky Heroines have lousy taste in men!

  • Aisha

    How about A band of bitches (early part of drama, about 3-4 of them) who were ardent supporters of the villian, that gradually turn good and went to the good side.

    • I don’t think I’ve come across that one yet, but it sounds right in line with kdrama, especially melodrama, where villains stick like glue to more and more extreme bad behavior, even when their former followers desert them one by one.

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