Asian Drama Saranghae – Tropes and Terms
Guest post by Kelly Sparkles
Hello! Welcome back. I thought we should talk about some common tropes and remind you of a few terms related to Asian Dramas. If you check out the fan chats, you may get confused with all of the terms. Just like any fandom, there are insider terms used as shorthand when talking about dramas.
These are in no particular order
FL, ML– Shorthand for female lead and male lead. Referring to the two main characters. Most dramas are centered around a main romantic couple or couple with potential for romance. But not always.
Flower Boy(s)- Term that originated in Korea to describe very pretty men. Kpop boy bands and male leads will almost always be flower boys. Eye candy
Eye Candy– American term to describe really good looking people, usually used when talking about men.
Kdrama– Korean drama
Cdrama– Chinese drama
Historical dramas– Any drama not set in the present or future. Korean historical dramas are much more realistic overall than Chinese historical dramas. They usually center around real kings or events. In Chinese historical dramas, it is not exactly as it sounds. It is Chinese, of course, but the ‘historical’ descriptor can be a bit of a stretch. There are dramas that strive to be historically accurate, or as much as possible with artistic license, and realistic to the laws of nature. Being within the bounds of physics may seem like something that doesn’t even need mentioning, but when talking about Cdrama, believe me, it is! LOL. Often though, it is considered to be within the historical genre only because it is set in ancient China not in the present day. There are often supernatural elements either within the story or specific actions of the characters.
Wuxia– Any historical Cdrama movie or show that is set in the ancient (fictional) martial arts world. It centers around the Jianghu, or martial arts sects (clans) in the human world.
Xianxia– Historical Cdrama that specifically centers around otherworldly beings; gods, goddesses, demons, etc.
These three categories can be considered separately, but are so closely linked that sometimes the terms are used interchangeably.
Top Knot– Ancient man-bun. LOL. In historical dramas, the hairstyles are always long hair on both male and female characters. The males usually have their hair up in a neatly groomed, tight top knot (just as it sounds, a knot or bun on the top of the head). The amount of ornamentation denotes status. Having hair down usually indicates a character of a younger age. This can be used when a character ages throughout a show, the hair change can subtly indicate the passage of time and/or increase in status- such as single/married, titled/heir to throne.
OST– Original Soundtrack. Many Asian dramas have amazing soundtracks and message boards often inquire about the OST, names and artists of songs and where to find them. I find it is pretty easy to track down the names and artists with a quick Google search. Finding the actual song to download can be challenging. I’ve had a fair amount of luck on iTunes. It can get tricky if the track is listed in the original Korean or Mandarin (using Korean or Mandarin characters). But a few minutes of persistence usually pays off.
OTP– One True Pair. The main couple that the drama centers around. The plot can be completely focused on the romance or the romance can be secondary. But there is almost always a romance. There are a few that have no romance in them at all and I will do an article about them in the future.
Ship– shorthand for rooting for the relationship of a couple. “I ship them”
Second Lead, 2ML– Usually refers to a male who also likes the FL but will not get the girl. I have only seen one drama where the 2ML got the girl instead of the ML. There are a few, but it is very rare.
Second Lead Syndrome– When fans love the 2ML more than the main ML and ship him with the FL over the ML but know that it won’t happen so are heart broken.
Trope– A trope refers to a theme. The dictionary defines it as ‘a common or overused theme or device’: Cliché. And boy do they ever overuse some tropes. I personally like some of the tropes though to admit to my guilty pleasure.
Let’s talk about common tropes. Many of the names I’ve given them I have made up myself for convenience. A few are common to fan boards.
The Noble Idiot Trope– This is used in almost every romance. This trope is when one of the leads, usually but not always the male, breaks up with the other lead in order to protect them. They fall on their sword so to speak in an attempt to protect the one they love. It is usually a misguided attempt and it always fails. By fail, I mean that they will get back together.
The iceberg– The cold, arrogant male trope- This one is so common that it is ridiculous. More often than not, the male lead will be rich, cold, and very arrogant. His behavior towards the female lead is often bullying and borderline abusive. In this trope, the FL is the foil, or opposite of the ML character. She’s usually poor, cheerful, and humble. My issue with the trope is when it’s taken too far and the ML is emotionally abusive and the FL is portrayed as stupid and/or childlike, which makes it difficult to ship the OTP. When this trope reinforces misogynistic stereotypes is when it is no longer fun. But if it’s done right, it can be fun especially if the FL is strong in her own right and if there is character development. There usually is some sort of character development. This is probably one of the easiest tropes to show character development. With the FL becoming stronger, usually through very hard work, and able to stand on her own and with the ML warming up and becoming more human.
The Manic Pixie Dreamgirl– The plucky, hard working female trope (I did not coin this wonderful term)- the foil to the iceberg ML. She is unshakeably positive and works hard, refusing dirty money and help. She deserves love and riches because of all she has suffered while still retaining her plucky can-do spirit.
The Weird Allergy Trope– Pretty much only found in ML and includes things like extreme germaphobia or being allergic to humans. The ML will only be able to inexplicably interact with the FL on a physical contact level. There is even a real ‘allergy’ to alcohol sometimes depicted in Kdrama. A percentage of the real Korean population have a genetic mutation that causes them not to produce the enzyme associated with processing alcohol. Drinking any alcohol is dangerous for those with this condition.
The dysfunctional childhood trope– This trope is used to explain why the ML and/or FL behave the way they do. For example, severe childhood trauma caused the ML to become cold to protect himself. Another example, the FL can’t see violence or has severe anxiety needing to be rescued in order to breathe. Often, the ML and FL experienced the same trauma or their traumas are related but neither of them know it yet. There is also an abundance of dysfunctional family situations. The twisted rich or royal family with everyone scheming for the ‘prize’ (money or power). The twisted custodial (not original parent) family mistreating the plucky FL is another common Cinderella-like theme.
The Accidentally Lliving Together Trope– By a strange set of circumstances the two leads have to live together. It is usually a secret from other characters. It is also sometimes overly complicated or even head scratchingly ridiculous. But hey, it gets our leads closer together to fall in love with each other and to set up the romantic/sexual tension.
The Topless Guy in the Shower Trope– My personal favorite for obvious reasons. Asian dramas will never show female T&A but will usually show a little male skin. I really appreciate this trope to its fullest. Despite other stereotypical sexism, women are not exploited in eastern dramas as they are in western TV. This is for TV shows, I’ve seen a few naked women in Asian movies.
Small Detail Tropes- These tropes are common moments found in dramas but are not long term plot devices.
The Whooshing Sound Effect Trope– This sound effect is used for every tiny romantic moment, particularly the arm grab and surprise hugs.
The Arm Grab– Usually in slow motion with a ‘whooshing’ sound effect and usually done by the ML to the FL. This is often the first physical contact between the OTP so it is meant to indicate the start of emotions and heart racing excitement. It is always done as a way for one character to stop another character from walking away or to drag them away from a situation.
The Three Way Arm Grab– When one character has grabbed the arm of another character to stop them or drag them out but then a third character rushes in to stop this action. It is often the second lead grabbing the Fl and the ML rushing in to stop this. It usually signals the start of the OTP feelings even if ML hasn’t realized it, the second lead will realize it sooner.
The Piggy Back Ride Trope- At some point, it is very likely that the FL is going to need to be carried- drunk, sprained ankle, etc and the ML will give her a piggy back ride. A way to get them in physical contact without overt sexual overtones.
The Side Carry Trope– Again, the FL needs carried and the ML is going to sweep her off her feet, literally, and carry her away in his arms. This one tends to be a bit more aggressive and slightly sexier than the piggy back carry.
The Back Hug– Done by both male and female characters to a romantic interest. This one is interesting because it does not necessarily have to happen between the OTP, it can be a second lead hugging one of the leads. The person doing the hugging hugs the other from behind in supplication begging them not to go or do something. This is a way to indicate romantic interest without reciprocal hugging or kissing from the character being hugged.
The Slow Motion Hug– Also accompanied by the whooshing sound effect. Usually between the OTP, often the FL will be surprised by the hug from the ML. She may have been questioning his feelings until this moment. This moment may confuse her or both of them further.
The Lean In Trope– This is my personal favorite. It would make me go weak in the knees, I think, if this happened in real life, depending on the leading man of course. This is when the ML corners the FL against a wall and has one arm extended to put a hand on the wall next to her head, thus physically blocking her for a moment. Sometimes both hands are used on either side of her head, ensuring that she is physically ensnared in the ML sexiness. The ML will lean in, close enough to kiss, and say something in a deep, barely above a whisper voice. This move effectively leaves the FL breathless with a racing heartbeat. This move rarely results in a kiss, it establishes a strong physical reaction between the leads.
The Noble Second Lead Trope- The second male lead is often the nice guy who finishes last. He is hopelessly in love with the FL and takes care of her tenderly. He is usually the much better choice for a romantic partner for the FL than the ML but inevitably, she will fall for the ML despite how well the second lead treats her. I have issues with this trope because it reinforces the idea that women don’t like genuinely nice men. Baloney
The Nasty Second Female Lead Trope– As noble and kind as the male second lead is, the second female lead is usually the opposite- jealous and petty scheming to win the ML’s love at any cost. Again, I have issues with this trope because of the blatant misogyny going on. I love it when I am pleasantly surprised by a 2FL who is mature and sane or at least comes to her senses and shows character growth, like in Suspicious Partner. Too often, this character becomes cartoonish.
The Drag King Trope– This is when the FL disguises as a man, and usually occurs in historical fiction.Sometimes the whole premise of the plot revolves around this ruse. None of the other characters seem to notice this beautiful feminine person is not really a man. LOL. A few dramas have made fun of this trope, like in Cinderella Chef.
The Silent Protector Trope– Where either one or both the ML and the 2ML, protect the FL secretly. Occasionally used in conjunction with the Noble Idiot trope. This can happen before the ML even realizes he has feelings for the FL. The 2ML almost always realizes he has feelings for the FL early on, and he usually realizes everyone else’s feelings before they know it themselves. Sometimes the ML will work with or ask the help of the 2ML to protect the FL.
The Sick Bed Trope– One of the Leads will get sick or injured and need care. The other lead will usually be the one to provide the care- wiping the forehead, holding their hand, trying to feed broth/medicine, sleeping in a chair leaning on the sick bed. Occasionally, if it’s the ML that is sick/injured, the FL will have to leave after giving care and the 2FL will swoop in and take credit for the sick bed care, thus confusing the ML. Or if it’s the FL that’s sick, the ML will leave before she wakes due to pride or needing to keep being the noble idiot.
The Blood Spit Take Trope-This trope can be found in every drama that involves action sequences and Cdramas are especially fond of it. Whenever a character gets a massive injury during some sort of violence, they will spit up blood. Sometimes the injury didn’t seem that bad, but then the blood comes out and the audience knows the character has sustained heavy damage. It can happen to males or females but more often happens to males.
The Stoic Kiss Trope– This one is slightly baffling. Who kisses like this?? This is when the leads finally kiss but they are like statues. Not moving at all. If this trope is used, it is very likely that there won’t be any other kissing between the leads in the rest of the show. That’s it, one and (stiffly) done. Of course, it depends on the age of the characters and the age of the target audience. But sometimes it’s done this way in PG-13 shows between fully adult characters. Like, what? As a Westerner, it can be hard for us to understand this reluctance to show romantic contact. There is a lot of ‘courtly love’ going on in Asian dramas. Courtly love was the renaissance ideal of a romantic love that was so pure that sex could not or would not happen. Even between married couples in some historical Asian dramas, sex doesn’t happen. Wait, what? I’m pretty sure this is not historically accurate. LOL
Pointing out the tropes is not meant as a criticism of the writing and production of Asian dramas. I obviously love Asian dramas and embrace the tropes. Western shows have their own tropes as well. Tropes are universally applicable to both eastern and western storytelling. Good storytelling doesn’t have to avoid clichés and a masterful use of tropes can make for great stories. In fact, I’ve named a few of my favorite tropes that I never get tired of seeing. It can give that whoosh, butterflies in the stomach moment that keeps people coming back to dramas.
Kelly is a biology teacher and lover of Asian Dramas. Since discovering Asian dramas a few years ago while recovering from cancer, they have become a passion and inspiration. Don’t worry, she kicked cancer’s butt. Her love of travel has now expanded to dreams of traveling to Asia to see the beautiful settings shown in the shows she loves and to experience the rich history and culture of each unique country. So far, she has started to make her dream come true with a trip to Japan last year to see Korean artist Kim Hyun Joong in concert as well as touring the beautiful cultural sites in areas like Kyoto and Osaka. She has a variety of hobbies because boredom stinks, such as making stained glass art, baking for friends and family, participating in a whimsical performance art group, dancing like a lunatic, and having as much fun as possible. She lives in Ohio, which is pretty ok, with her daughter Lillian, cat Birdie, and dog Sir Viktor Humpsalot.
*The above post is owned by Kelly Sparkles and may not be republished or copied without consent from the writer.