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When describing a typical main character of a romance/slice-of-life K-drama, adjectives like cute, quirky, sensitive, or funny usually come to mind. Most of these show main characters with personalities that are hard to dislike and who capture the viewer’s heart from the first moment. Their admirable traits are usually highlighted by contrasting them with the flawed, unlikeable personality of the antagonist. This prevalent tactic proves to be successful time and time again, with examples like Crash Landing on You or Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha.

Existing dramas with more realistic undertones, for example, Dear My Friends, often receive less attention, as viewers seek to have their moods elevated while watching a show and not focus on reality. It is possible to make a drama with realistic, flawed, and engaging characters without sacrificing the viewer’s enjoyment or the inspiring message of the show. The 2020 acclaimed drama Lovestruck in the City (henceforth Lovestruck) is a perfect example. Lee Eun-oh (played by Kim Ji-won) shows dramas including an objectively unlikable main character can not only make for a great story but also gain some depth which would not be achieved with another character.

Let’s dive deeper into the benefits of including an unlikeable main character, by comparing two greatly written characters from Lovestruck and Record of Youth (Record). Both dramas are slice-of-life romances, with the plot relying mostly on the relationships between the characters, rather than dramatic action. Both were praised for their realistic exploration of human nature and enjoyable plot lines. The shows achieve that goal even though the main female characters are absolute opposites. Lee Eun-oh from Lovestruck is a chaotic, even childish person who often wreaks havoc in the lives of the people close to her. From the beginning of the show, her personality and actions make it hard to accept that she is the main character. On the other hand, the protagonist of Record, Ahn Jung-ho (played by Park So-dam) is a humble and responsible character, who avoids conflict with others at all costs and loves stability and peace. She is a shining example of an unproblematic, likable lead. Even though their stories have a lot in common, the differences in their personalities greatly influence the respective shows. Comparing these two shows that include a flawed, even unlikable main character allows for a more realistic, relatable, and inspiring story, without sacrificing the viewer’s enjoyment.

Including a full portrayal of the character’s flaws allows for a more realistic and relatable plot, as seen in Lovestruck when compared to Record. The main relationships in both of the dramas start with the same thing: a lie. In Lovestruck, Lee Eun-oh lies to her romantic interest, Park Jae-won (Ji Chang-wook) about her name, and her entire identity. In Record, Ahn Jung-ho lies to Sa Hye-joo (Park Bo-gum), denying being his fan. Seemingly, both characters commit the same questionable act. However, the consequences of those actions and their influence on the respective plots could not be more different. While Lovestruck decides to embrace this deceptive side of the main character, Record glosses over it. That one bad action done by Ahn Jung-ho quickly gets resolved in episode 3, without any consequences other than her feeling embarrassed for a brief moment. She doesn’t even have to explain why she lied, as her reasons are quite self-explanatory. The lack of negative reaction from Sa Hye-joo showcases his benevolent personality but it gives the impression that the whole setup of the relationship (a fan dating her idol) gets overlooked and is not resolved in a satisfying way. Even though she lied, Ahn Jung-ho’s good name remains unscathed, giving the viewers no reason to dislike her or to judge her actions.

The same cannot be said about Lee Eun-oh. Her troublesome personality is revealed from the beginning, as the main romantic lead meets her under a fake name she took only to escape from her life for a while. Even though the two characters develop a deep bond, Park Jae-won never finds out her real name. Lee Eun-oh does not seem to have an easily excusable reason for lying, she does it only because it is “in her nature” and because she is too afraid to face the consequences of her actions. The consequences of her lies are long-term and come up in many moments throughout the drama. From quarrels with her friends to getting arrested, Lee Eun-oh’s unwillingness to admit her wrongdoing leads to realistic repercussions. Seeing her constantly make her situation worse by adding more lies and avoiding confrontation makes her quite unlikable and sometimes even annoying, but also extremely human and relatable. The viewers can relate to her fear of being found out, while simultaneously shaking their heads at how her actions negatively influence her relationship with Park Jae-won.

It is understandable that Record, which was written with the intention of inspiring people, did not want to picture its main character as a deceptive person. Ahn Jung-ho’s innocence and truthfulness are inspiring, however, Lee Eun-ho’s flaws make her seem more relatable, without taking away from the hopeful message of the show. Lee Eun-oh’s shenanigans provided the viewers with many funny and enjoyable moments, even though her character often comes off as unlikable. By including a flawed main character Lovestruck achieves a realistic and relatable portrayal of human nature, without compromising the enjoyment of the viewer.

While good-natured, modest, and hard-working characters are inspiring, flawed and unlikable characters can provide just as much hopefulness for the viewers. Nobody is perfect, but everyone wants to be loved. Lee Eun’s story provides hope for everyone, as she finds not only romantic love but also great friendships. Pak Jae-won saying “I just can’t hate her” when Lee Eun-oh acts in mischievous ways adds another deep layer to the loving portrayal in the drama, making it seem so much more real. It is easy to fall in love with. There is nothing wrong with happy stories about likable characters, but this unexplored way of talking about love feels exciting and fresh. The romance in RoY is very touching and well-written. Those two lovely people finding each other and supporting each other through the tough times is very inspiring. However, it is hard to imagine Ahn Joon-ho not finding love, with her cute and admirable personality. The love story in LitC is full of flaws and questionable actions performed by Lee Eun-oh, but is just as hopeful and inspiring. It shows that even a lying, immature person like Lee Eun-oh can find love and mature into a relationship. It provides just as much, if not more hope as a love story involving likable characters.

Outside of romance, Lee Eun-oh is pictured finding another kind of love in the show. Her friends are a big part of her life. Lovestruck spends a lot of time exploring the story and dynamic of this friendship. All the questionable aspects of Lee Eun-oh’s character seem to be highlighted even more in the interactions with her friends, but so are the likable elements of her personality. The friendship between Lee Eun-oh and her three friends is inspiring and shows how true love is accepting the person as they are. Her friends, even though evidently annoyed with her actions, still welcome her back after the disappearance without any questions, patiently waiting for her to be ready to explain. That makes the scene in which she finally tells them her story so much more touching, as leading up to it the drama shows us all the conflict that her secrecy caused.

What is interesting, Record does not show any significant friendships for Ahn Joong-ho. She is a loner by choice and this ties in with her backstory. However, it would be nice to see her, a person who is very hesitant to love, find love and friendship in the show. The strong, often complicated loving relationships of troublesome Lee Eun-oh pictured in Lovestruck provide the viewer with immense amounts of hope and inspiration.

Lovestruck is not the only drama with a deeply flawed main character. Recently, more and more writers are willing to take the risk of showing an unlikeable character in a feel-good story (for example the widely acclaimed It’s Okay to Not Be Okay). It is clear that including such characters adds another layer of depth to the story, without compromising the viewer’s enjoyment or the overall hopeful tone of the show. The two acclaimed dramas, Lovestruck and Record both showcase deep and inspiring stories about human nature. Record was praised for its human portrayal of even the villainous characters, however, the main character of Ahn Jung-ho remains without any major flaws. Lovestruck went a step further and included no outright villains in the story. All the problems are caused by the character’s choices and actions. Including a flawed and at times highly unlikeable main character is a great way to boost the show’s relatability and adds another dimension to its portrayal of real life, while still delivering a hopeful and inspiring message.

(Sources:[1],[2], Youtube [1], [2], [3]. Images via tvN and KakaoTV)