by Hanah, May 28, 2021

Reexamining Second Lead Syndrome, the Nice Guy Trope, and Female Lead Agency

Warning: Spoilers for Shining Inheritance

Ah, second [male] lead syndrome (SLS). When it hits hard, it can be devastating. To be honest, I did not suffer from it that badly. Most dramas I watched, no matter how awful the male leads were or how good their second lead counterparts were, I tended to, if not ship, at least expect our main leads to end up together. Maybe it was the chemistry or maybe I was passively following the status quo. However, if I did happen to develop SLS, it was miserable and aggravating. It would ruin the best of dramas. 

There are two (technically three?) dramas where I can vividly recall being struck by SLS – great dramas that I should have enjoyed but that left a bitter taste in my mouth and feelings of regret in my heart. These dramas are:

Hana Kimi
To the Beautiful You 
Shining Inheritance 

Bonus with Lite SLS: Boys Over Flowers - Interestingly, I never had SLS with Hani Yori Dango.

I don’t really get second lead syndrome anymore. I think a major reason for that is that dramas, in general, are moving away from the "jerk male lead vs. nice guy second lead" trope. Also, dramas these days are not really invoking the shipping button in me more than me wanting to see the conclusion of a story, however it is written. Recently, I have been having a lot of thoughts on the concept of SLS from a character writing perspective and these are some of my thoughts.  

Second Leads and the Nice Guy™ 

Disclaimer: When I say male leads and second leads, I am mostly referring to the very classic jerk male lead and nice/supportive second male lead trope.

So, there are already a lot of think pieces out there on problematic male leads and romanticizing abusive behavior. But there is also a lot to think about when it comes to our nice second male leads. I have recently been reading more about the Nice Guy™ and how toxic and entitled the concept is. Nice Guy™ or Nice Guy Syndrome is basically when a guy feels entitled to get the girl because he is nice and/or does nice things for her. It often derails into feeling that the girl is a bad person for not choosing him despite all his devotion. Googling real life examples can show just how abusive and misogynistic these supposed nice guys can behave.


While it would be unfair to put this label on all drama second leads, the concept is still here – that the second lead “deserves” the female lead more because he is kinder and a good guy.

Looking back, I feel kind of bemused at myself for being such an ardent supporter of the Nice Guy idea. Take Shining Inheritance for example. SPOILER! I felt crushed when second male lead Park Jun Se was pushed to the side and the female lead, Ko Eun Sung (played by Han Hyo Joo), ended up with the male lead, Seon Woo Hwan (played by Lee Seung Gi). I mean, Jun Se (played by Bae Soo Bin) was the one that supported her when she needed someone the most. He was the one that helped Eun Sung get settled, found Eun Sung’s dad, and basically brought the family back together. Plus, Woo Hwan was such an entitled jerk, throwing money into people's faces and being mean to his own grandma. I mean, yeah, he grows up and redeems himself, but he didn’t do even half of what Jun Se did for Eun Sung. 

Reflecting on it, why should Jun Se “deserve” Eun Sung more than Woo Hwan? Just because he is nicer? First, being nice means not expecting anything in return. It sucks, but there is a reason the quote “No good deed goes unpunished” exists. While genuine appreciation is always recommended for acts of kindness, nobody is obligated to return any romantic or sexual gratification. Second, it is Eun Sung’s choice to be with Woo Hwan. It does not really matter what Jun Se did or did not do, or which one the viewer approved of more; what matters is what Eun Sung wants. And that brings me to Female Lead Agency.

Female Lead Agency

Source: defines it as “the condition of being in action; operation.”  Simply put, it is having a goal and using actions to carry out their goals. In terms of writing, character agency is when a character makes decisions that contribute to or change the story. The decisions (good or bad) characters make or the actions they take shape the story; the story should not shape the character. It helps create a fleshed-out, consistent character that is proactive, not reactive.

When characters have no agency, the story progresses regardless of whatever they do or what decisions they make. Think of the female lead that is...

...supposed to be skilled in martial arts but loses this ability during the critical moment.
Or the female lead that is supposed to be smart and career-driven but is almost never seen in the courtroom or boardroom.
Or the female lead who is supposed to be in a position of power but never seems to be making any governing decisions.
Or when the male lead breaks up with, gets back together with, hides information from, or makes major decisions for the female lead based on what he feels is best for her.

My point is that dramas are notoriously bad at giving our female leads agency. Recent dramas have attempted to be more progressive by creating stronger, smarter leading ladies and dressing/equipping them with powerful skills and occupations and attitudes, but oftentimes, they are still making very little plot-determining decisions.

Letting the female lead choose the flawed male lead gives them agency and control over their own storyline. It may be a good decision or a bad one, but it is their decision to make.

I suppose all of this sounds like I am rooting for the jerk male lead to win. I’m not. In my opinion, problematic male leads that get the girl anyway are a problem. And introducing second leads that only exist to create conflict is a whole ‘nother problem. But this is just another way of looking at the concept of SLS.

I will likely continue to have bouts of SLS, but when I do, maybe I'll think about why I have it and the implications behind it. More importantly, I need to realize that who the female lead chooses is her choice, regardless of what I want.  

Thank you for reading my first article here! Please check out some of the sources I used below for more entertaining information on some of the concepts I mentioned above. 

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