“I have a request. If Wang So dares to oppose us, you must kill him.”
– Wang Wook (Scarlet Heart: Ryeo, 2016)
All’s fair in love and war, so casualties are to be expected. And when it comes to our beloved dramaland those casualties are more often than not our endearingly sweet, yet ill-fated ‘nice guy’ second-leads, who inevitably fall victim to the very qualities that made them so lovable in the first damn place. You know the ones. The hopeless romantic, who wants to wait for the ‘right time’ to confess his love, but ends up being too late. The self-sacrificing saint, who puts the happiness of his love interest before himself – even if it means never being her leading man – and who ultimately bows out, conceding to the the ‘real’ male lead (often without much of a fight).
As the saying goes, ‘Nice guys finish last’.
It’s that classic (read: cliche) trope of the beautiful soul too ‘nice’ for their own good, fated to be friend-zoned and betrayed by their own decency. It’s the source of the dreaded ‘Second-lead Syndrome’ and dramaland is saturated with it. Yet, despite how much it makes us drown in our own tears, masochistic fans like us fall for it every damn time. Because maybe. Just maybe this time he’ll get the girl.
So what happens when a seemingly typical ‘nice guy’second-lead like Scarlet Heart: Ryeo’s (2016) 8th Prince, Wang Wook (Kang Ha Neul) comes along and takes a blow torch to the whole archetype, burning it to the ground? Well, fan outrage and backlash for one. “What the fuck writers? How could you turn Mr. Perfect-if-only-for-that-one-thing… in to the series’ most ruthless asshole and biggest all-round douche bag? He makes Yo seem like a semi-decent human being!” And so on. But in reality we get a lot more than just pages and pages of angry tumblr rants.
In fact I’d argue that we ultimately end up with a far more interesting, and dare I say appealing (though not necessarily romantically appealing) character, who brings with him another layer of depth and complexity the drama that can only make the series better. He becomes a personification of our own cynicism, towards love in both real life and in dramaland, and an honest acknowledgement of the fact the sometimes, as with real life, nice guys go bad and that love doesn’t always make us better people.
Of course, before we can sink our teeth into Wang Wook as he is now we need to first understand him as was, a typical ‘nice guy’ second-lead and the relationship between this kind of character and romantic drama itself.
SECOND-LEADS: FROM ALWAYS GETTING THE GIRL TO ALWAYS LOOSING HER
Love triangles are as old as love itself and as a result second-leads (second-fiddles, third wheels, or whatever else you might call them) have, in one shape or another, been a fixture of romantic drama since the very beginning. Story of Troy, anyone? As long as there have been stories of love there have been love triangles and the obligatory second-leads, serving as a catalyst for dramatic tension and romantic conflict. However, the form that second-leads take in a story has changed considerably over time, evolving to reflect society’s attitude towards love and romance.
Back when marriage was less about love and more about politics, the second lead typically took the form of a wealthy suitor or fiance that was not of the female lead’s choosing. But rather was forced on the heroine by social expectations, family or circumstance. These second-leads were less about being another possible avenue for love for the heroine to fret over, and more about being an obstacle to true love. They were not the ‘romantic’ second-leads we know today and some where most definitely not nice guys.
Often these old school second-leads had little to no romantic connection with, or even interest in the heroine beyond political, financial or social gain. So, it’s safe to say that ‘Second-lead Syndrome’ wasn’t as big a thing back then as it is today.
Of course, as society moved away from the practice of arranged and political marriages the second-lead also changed, evolving from an unwanted fiance into a friend or co-worker; from an obstacle into a rival. And with this change came a new layer of potential conflict: the relationship between the second and main leads.
In the past a relationship between the main and second lead was not a yet a staple of the romantic drama. They often came from completely different social circles or social classes, so not much in the way of bromance between male leads, sorry. The second lead was usually an advantageous candidate for marriage; a typically flawed individual (proud, arrogant, violent) who more often than not had the ‘upper hand’ – money, power, and status – over the main lead, a beautiful, sweet soul who typically had nothing but love to offer. Jump forward to today and things are reversed. The second-lead is now the underdog, with nothing more than love, and often fewer flaws than his main lead counterpart, to offer.
Isn’t if funny how things change?
One good example of this modern dichotomy is the contrast between Domyuoji and Rui from the incredibly popular Japanese adaptation of Boys Over Flowers (Hana yori Dango, 2005), or Jun Pyo and Ji Hoo if you prefer the Korean version(2009). Main lead, Domyouji/Jun Pyo is arrogant, short-tempered, jealous and possessive. Not exactly qualities you would be looking for in a Mr. Perfect. Second-lead, Rui/Ji Hoo on the other hand is thoughtful, sensitive and protective. A pretty decent guy compared to Domyouji/ Jun Pyo, so why doesn’t he get the girl?
One word: Cynicism.
SECOND-LEADS: SUBVERTING THE ROMANTIC FANTASY
The romantically doomed ‘nice guy’ second-lead trope has been done to death and yet we still cant’t get enough of it, but why? Why can’t ideal guys like Gu Yong Ha (Sungkyunkwan Scandal, 2010) or Kang Shin Woo (You’re Beautiful, 2009) get the girl? What is it about this trope that insists on so many second-leads suffering the emotional equivalent of being dumped on the curb in a cardboard box on a cold, rainy night?
Maybe it’s because something about the second-lead’s tragic story of unrequited and unfulfilled love that speaks to us, either consciously or unconsciously. All of us have experienced what the second-lead experiences at some point in our lives. We have all faced rejection, and/or the impossibility of a desired romance. Maybe that’s why many of us often find ourselves connecting with the second-lead (‘Second-lead Syndrome’) more than the main lead. Add to that our natural inclination to root for the underdog and we are pretty much emotionally screwed. But that’s not all.
The typical ‘nice guy’ second-lead trope, with all of its inevitable heartache, naturally subverts the exaggerated romantic fantasy at the center of the lead romance – whether the writer intends it or not. The second-lead will always be the loser in love (unless polyamory ever becomes a thing) and is often left with an unresolved and unfulfilled romantic love line. Even when the second-lead is given another romantic interest in an effort to solve this problem, the resulting romance often feels forced or contrived and is rarely, if ever, as satisfying as his first.
In the world of the second-lead not everyone gets their happy ending. And this speaks to an inherent cynicism we all have towards love and romance, which insists on making itself known even in our escapist fantasies. In fact this cynicism is so entrenched in romantic drama – regardless of how perfect a love story it tries to create – that the very trope it feeds, the second-lead, has become an object of cynicism. And this is where Wang Wook comes in. He is a refreshing twist on an arguably worn-out trope, a product of our own cynicism towards the typical ‘nice guy’ second-lead, who will graciously bow out when the story calls for him to step aside. He is the physical manifestation of that little voice in the back of your head screaming for the second-lead to grow a pair and fight tooth and claw for what he wants; to not be sad, but to be angry and better yet, get even.
WANG WOOK: THE NOT-SO-NICE-GUY SECOND-LEAD
It seems like years go, when Wang Wook was the perfect example of the ideal ‘nice guy’ second-lead. Sure he was married, but it wasn’t a marriage of love. It was a political marriage to improve his family’s standing, in which, like some gender-swapped period romance, Lady Hee was the classic second-lead providing a source of conflict and tension for Wook and Hae Soo’s romance.
Minus the ring on his finger, Wook was built up as the perfect ‘nice guy’ second-lead: kind, generous, patient, willing to promise and provide everything and anything Hae Soo may have needed or desired (if not for the whole being married thing, of course). But his loyalty to his wife, or at least his desire to remain as faithful as he possibly could was not a blight on his character, rather it made him even more perfect. Almost more perfect than the most perfect of ‘nice guy’ second-leads, Kang Shin Woo (You’re Beautiful, 2009).
For anyone who isn’t familiar with Kang Shin Woo, what the hell are you doing here? Get out there and watch You’re Beautiful, right now! Don’t worry I’ll wait until you’ve finish it. You won’t regret it, or maybe you will and the ‘Second-Lead Syndrome’ feels will make you curse me until you dying breath. But we’re getting off topic here.
In short, Wook was the perfect ‘nice guy’ (which those familiar with the Chinese series or original novel knew wasn’t gonna last long) and you would expect would follow the typical ‘nice guy’ second-lead arc: confess love, maybe challenge main lead in some way (an ultimatum, some slightly passive-possessive behaviour, or a veiled threat might do the trick), then realize she’s just not that into you – despite how perfect you are for her – and bow out, only to watch over her as she lives out the romance you want with someone else.
But no, Wang Wook it turns out is not so noble or honourable. After living through one politically motivated marriage that was more for his family than himself, Wook decides he’s not going to give up on a chance at actual love (at least as far as he is concerned it is real love) and does what a lot of people would do it in a similar situation: he fights for it. And I mean actually fights, he throws himself into his pursuit of the thrown as a means of securing his relationship with Hae Soo. Like many of us his judgement is clouded by his desire to be with the one he loves. Love changed him, but not for the better. It exposed the devious, power hungry, Wang Wook that we see now and may have always been there just beneath the surface.
As he said so himself, “If the situation won’t change, then I will change.” Facing the possibility of being trapped in the typical tragic arc of the ‘nice guy’ second-lead, Wook changes in a effect to escape it and show it for the unrealistic, self-depreciating farce that it is. And ultimately embrace the cynicism that fuels him.
About the Author: Reiyezerwyre is full time language teacher, and part-time otaku, based in Japan, who loves to write about their love of film, music, language and fandom in their spare time.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this meta discussion are those of the writer, Reiyezerwyre, thus, Reiyezerwyre does not claim that the opinions expressed in this meta discussion are authoritative in anyway.