Why Do We Keep Having Second Lead Syndrome?

A nod to the ‘better choice’

This article was first published on 14 September 2021. 

Second lead syndrome is a term we often hear among film and TV drama fans. It’s basically wanting the second lead to end up with the main lead rather than her intended partner (a.k.a. the first lead). Or, well, wishing that you, as a viewer, end up with someone like the second lead in the film or TV drama that you’re watching.

But what exactly is the logic behind second lead syndrome and why do we often find ourselves loving this trope over and over again?

They’re often depicted as ‘ideal’ in every sense of the word

Kind, smart, talented, sociable (in some cases) — second lead characters are usually written in a way to contradict the first lead’s persona. They tend to be the more likeable character at first (or maybe even until the end of the series), taking the role of a friend or a saviour for the main female lead to rely on when the first lead causes a strain in their relationship. They are also often portrayed as the one who usually steps aside to make the relationship between the main lead and the first lead work. This makes them appear altruistic, which causes more heartbreak for the viewers when they don’t end up with the lead.

Think Han Seo-Jun from True Beauty, Do-Hyeok from Nevertheless, and every single adaptation of F4’s Hanazawa Rui in the Hana Yori Dango/Boys Over Flowers/Meteor Garden franchise. One thing these characters have in common is they’re always there whenever the main lead’s in duress, sometimes even more than the first lead. Even some of the supporting characters in their respective dramas say they’re ‘the better choice’.

Looking at the bigger picture, they seem like the ideal partner. In some cases, even the female lead knows this herself — and yet she realises that the first lead is actually the one her heart yearns for. Ouch!

Yu Na-Bi with Do-Hyeok (Nevertheless)

Their story arcs are usually a lot more well-written

Second lead characters have some of the best arcs in most dramas and films too. They’re the childhood friend (Kim Jung-Hwan in Reply 1988), the hardworking guy who doesn’t have everything handed to him on a silver platter (Baek In-Ho in Cheese In The Trap) or someone who takes on life with a smile even if they’re hurting (Higuchi Takuya from Kanojo Wa Kirei Datta).

On the flip side, sometimes they are the troublemakers who get an amazing redemption arc when they start falling in love with the main lead (again, see True Beauty’s Han Seo-Jun). Or heck, they may be just an all-around 'good boy' like Kim Seon-Ho's Han Ji-Pyeong in Start-Up.

At the end of the day, their character arcs tend to be more fleshed out than the main lead or the first lead combined. This makes the viewers a lot more invested in the second lead’s storyline, making the blow of second lead syndrome even stronger even if we already know of their inevitable fate in the first place.

Higuchi Takuya watching the female lead and the first lead get together (Kanojo Wa Kirei Datta)

The downsides of the second lead trope are also the reasons why we love them

Second lead syndrome exists because, to some extent, they symbolise what we want for our real-life relationships. The reason for this is because second lead characters have the tendency to be Mary Sues, which refers to an over-idealised character. This makes these characters too clean or too flawless, an object of wish fulfilment for both the writer and the viewers. It’s not that big of a deal considering that most dramas and films have an aspirational aspect to them. But it also makes a character too unrealistic.

This is why it’s important for second lead characters to also have a flaw that makes them human. Most second leads that effectively give second lead syndrome have a complex set of emotions that makes them feel real and more relatable. They also have moments that make us momentarily angry with them, reminding us that they’re multifaceted.

Hase Tenma comforting main lead Edogawa Oto after a huge conflict in the plot (Hana Nochi Hare)

A great example of this is Hase Tenma from Hana Nochi Hare, who is the ‘corrected version’ of Hana Yori Dango’s Hanazawa Rui. F4’s Hanazawa Rui is the perfect ‘prince on a white horse’ character. And while Hase Tenma looks to be cut from the same mould at first, he gave the second lead role trope a lot more dimension by showing that beneath the kindness, resilience, and princely facade lies a person who also gets angry, jealous, and even selfish — none of which Hanazawa showed in almost all of the adaptations of the character.

Even if it’s painful, second-lead syndrome makes the viewing experience even more interesting

What’s exciting about second lead syndrome is the irrational feeling of rooting for someone who we know is going to lose in the first place. We are expecting the heartbreak but we are still in for the ride. No matter how they’re written, we’re always so invested in finding out what they have to give and to lose to make the story happen. Even if they don’t win the favour of the main lead, they’re still the champion in our hearts.

(Cover photo from: @hi_high_hiy)

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