The Curious Ahjumma: The Anatomy of Great OTPs

Telling a romance story is a bit complicated than one might seem to think. There’s a lot of elements to consider like the trope the writer would use, the setting, the narration style, and the most critical element is the main pairing itself. The other elements wouldn’t be useful if the main couple is in itself ineffective in making us believe they are the perfect match. In fan vocab, we call this couple our One True Pair (OTP).

One True Pair/Pairings (OTP) are two characters fans think are good together. Mostly used with romantic context but can also be used with platonic pairings. For this TCA, however, we’re going to talk about our romantic OTPs.

Not All OTPs Are Created Equal

For romance or rom-com K-dramas, we all know who our OTP would be. They’re already a canon from the start of the series. It’s only a matter of how they would end up together. Take for example Sung Deok-mi and Ryan Gold in Her Private Life or Han Ji-eun and Lee Young-jae in the classic K-drama, Full House. Their fate is as bright as the sun.

[W/N: For context, I’m on Team Happily-Ever-After (HEA) in the debate on what could be labeled as ‘romance.’ In short, if the ending doesn’t contain HEA in any type, I don’t consider it as romance. I consider them as stories that contain romantic elements in it but is not, in terms of its genre, a romance series.]

For K-dramas that aren’t labeled as romance such as action, slice-of-life, family dramas, etc., OTPs aren’t handed out in silver platters. The sparks are often minimal and aren’t the focus of the whole series. Some OTPs would be confirmed as a canon at the end of the series but some would just remain as fanon or headcanon. Some OTPs don’t even end up together *cue: a flashback of the cruel ending of Hae Soo and Wang So from Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo*. 

But regardless of whether your ultimate OTPs achieved their happy ending or you just result in some binge reading of fan fiction (which mostly saves our OTPs from doomsday), the fact remains that supporting our OTPs makes our K-drama watching more fun and exciting.

The Anatomy of a Great OTP

So what makes an OTP great? One shortcut is to cast chemistry fairies like Park Seo-joon and Park Min-young who can conjure romantic sparks with anyone they would be paired with. But aside from the actors playing the roles themselves, I’ve dissected some critical parts of what makes a great OTP.

Main Characters and Love Interests

OTPs are mostly like this: main character x love interest. Some might not like the idea of their precious character being labeled as a sub-character but yep, hierarchies do exist even in fictional stories. One way or another, the narrative always leans or favors one character over the other. But that doesn’t make any of these roles irrelevant and replaceable. Both the main character and the love interest should be equally interesting to grab the audience’s attention. After all, it’s the characters themselves that would be first introduced before delving into the main plot itself. 

An example of this obvious difference in character level is The K2 OTP, Kim Je-ha and Go An-na. The story heavily focuses on Je-ha while An-na’s story was carefully intertwined with Je-ha’s as a plot device. Even in romance-labeled series, the hierarchy still exists. In True Beauty, the story’s main character is Im Jung-kyung because if you’d take note, the story leans more on her character development as compared to that of Lee Su-ho.

There are stories, on the other hand, where the OTP is consist of the main character x main character pairing. This is mostly seen on series with an ensemble cast. The hierarchy still exists but it’s minimal as compared to the previous examples. The pairings within the main squads of the Reply Series would first come to mind if this category of OTP is mentioned. Yoon Yoon-jae and Sung Shi-woon from Reply 1997, Trash and Sung Na-jung from Reply 1994, and Choi Taek and Sung Deok-sun from Reply 1988. If you’ve already noticed, all characters in these pairing are considered main characters. 

Regardless of character status, they have to be interesting with their own quirks so that the audience would feel empathic and grow an attachment to them. The story wouldn’t be as effective if one of the characters feels dull or 2D. A great OTP, for me, is composed of characters that are good enough as individuals, and pairing them together would make things more interesting.

Meet-Cute

Meet Cute is the first encounter of the characters in the story. There are two typical kinds of meet-cute. First is the literal first encounter or the moment our characters meet. Second is the moment when one of the characters (or it could be both of them) started seeing the other in a new light.

Let’s go first with the first-meeting-meet-cute. It could range from as simple as meeting the character at work or school or wherever the story is taking place or it could be a unique and out-of-this-world-how-did-they-came-up-with-that kind of scene. Who would forget how Yoon Se-ri fell into the arms of Captain Ri Jung-hyuk quite literally after a paragliding accident that trapped her in North Korea?

The ‘see you in a new light’ meet-cute, on the other hand, is often paired with friends-to-lovers or enemies-to-lovers tropes. Both characters in the said tropes already have an established relationship before the start of the story. The meet-cute is when they notice and felt something quite unusual with their friend or their sworn enemy. Kim Bok-joo and Jung Joon-young from Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo were best of friends. Joon-young often annoys and teases Bok-joo but they got each other’s back. But somewhere along the way, Joon-young started seeing Bok-joo as a woman and not just a female chinggu. Similarly, Kang Dan-i also took time before realizing Cha Eun-ho is not the same younger friend she had known all her life in the series, Romance Is A Bonus Book

두근두근 (Dugeun-dugeun) Moments

Whenever Jeong Beom-jun’s ‘Your Shampoo Scent In the Flowers’ play randomly on my playlist, I would be reminded of Im Jin-joo and Son Beom-soo from Be Melodramatic. The lobby scene where Beom-soo grabbed the guitar from Jin-joo and sincerely sang this song is still vivid in my mind. And that’s because it was simple yet heart-fluttering. This kind of scene is the ‘heart’ of love stories. It’s the scene the characters’ chemistry would be tested. It’s the scene that we would spend time replaying after the drama ended.

Romantic scenes are abundant in K-dramas regardless of genre. It would range from a simple conversation-turned-confession ala Lee Ik-jun and Chae Song-hwa’s ‘you’re my happiness’ scene from Hospital Playlist to that jaw-dropping kiss scene of Moon Kang-tae and Go Moon-young from It’s Okay to Not Be Okay. The point of these scenes is to show the progress of our characters’ relationship and well, to make our heart race to the point that it feels like it would come out of your chest already.

It’s Complicated

If the romantic scenes are the heart of our OTP’s love story, then the main conflict is the brain for the simple fact that it gives fans the headache we didn’t ask for. Conflicts can be categorized into two: external and internal conflicts. 

External conflicts are those caused by outside factors like love rivals, the ever strict K-drama parents, or factors that hinder our couple to physically be together. We’ve been inundated with love triangles in K-dramaland for so long now. Recently, the twitterverse had been divided because of series with strong second leads but aren’t strong enough to break the canon OTP. Aside from the presence of a love rival or a disapproving rich abeoji or eomonim, some external factors are like the multi-verse setting of The King: Eternal Monarch. Lee Gon and Jeong Tae-eul had to work around the reality that they could never be together in one universe for them to get their own kind of happy ending.

Meanwhile, internal conflicts are those inner struggles the characters had to go through and overcome on their own. This internal turmoil could sometimes be frustrating but mostly, it brings more life to the characters. It gives them colors and edges that transforms them into a three-dimensional character. And speaking of frustrating internal turmoil, I think Ahn Jeong-won trying to fight off and hide his feelings for Jang Gyeo-ul is one of the most frustrating-yet-satisfying journeys in recent K-drama history.

Happily-Ever-Afters

Our OTPs’ journey wouldn’t be complete without getting their grand gesture moments. It could be as grand as a public marriage proposal or as equally swoon-worthy as an intimate admission of love. Some would prefer one over the other. But the main point of grand gestures is to make a culminating moment for all the hardships and the push-and-pull of our OTP. Because in the end, that’s what we all want to see. It’s also the reason why we sometimes can’t get over those OTPs without a HEA closure. As Yoo Yoon-jae from Reply 1997 said, ‘Tragic stories stay longer than ‘happily ever after’.

‘Greatness’, as I’ve said, will boil down to our preferences. But one thing’s for sure, OTP – whether you have a long list of star-crossed lovers or just one ultimate couple you support – is an unavoidable part of a K-drama fan’s experience.

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