True North and The Korean Drama: Lessons in Romance Writing

Allow me to explain: The plaid-covered hottie featured above is Lee Dong-Wook, best known to K-drama fans as Grim Reaper on Goblin. As you can see, Dong-Wook is a snack-and-a-half, though not nearly as dish-worthy as he is in his black-and-white Reaper wardrobe. (I mentioned on Twitter that I now know how fangirls feel when they see pictures of Tom Hiddleston without the Loki wig.) We’ll get to him–and Goblin–in a minute, but first I must talk about something that I’ve been doing with my current WIP.

I came across Mia Hopkins’ series of #notRWA17 tweets on Twitter (archived on her blog) about character development in romance novels. Taking a few pages from Gwen Hayes’ Romancing the Beats (a book that I’m currently reading), she talks about the romantic relationship as the main plot of every romance novel, to which all of the other subplots are aligned–the True North, if you will. Since the relationship is the main development, characters and plot are intertwined, which means the main characters grow together in their relationship instead of having parallel and competing arcs. Hopkins’ process for finding the True North still involves character sketches and plot point mapping, but she also includes the following questions for both of her characters to develop their romantic relationship:

  • I say I hate you because…
  • But I really love you because…
  • The thing I dread most is…
  • Because I crave…
  • But you provide a better substitute, which is…

(The last three questions remind me of The Lie and The Truth from K.M. Weiland’s character-development articles, so I personally don’t think that this process is that far removed from the heroes’ journey-type arcs from your mainstream fiction-writing books.)

These questions serve as a conversation that the characters need to have with each other, but only the reader and the author know when it’s going to happen. I’m using this on my current WIP and I find that it’s a very useful diagnostic tool in sorting out issues in the way that the relationship is handled throughout the story. It’s not a one-shot process, though, because the system really goes in-depth and I find that there’s always a new issue that comes up whenever I stop and think about it more closely. Nevertheless, it’s worth exploring if you’re writing romance as a main plot.

Which brings us back to Goblin, because we need an example of how this system works.

At first, the Grim Reaper’s love story is secondary to the main plot involving the titular goblin Kim Shin (the charismatic Gong Yoo) and his destined bride, young Eun-Tak (Kim Go-Eun, who doesn’t seem to age with her character). Personally, I’ve always felt that Kim Shin and Eun-Tak’s romance is more like an intertwined pair of heroes’ journeys, since they both have to find courage in themselves before they find love with each other. Grim Reaper’s own romance, on the other hand, is more straightforward, and compelling in the way that romances go universally.

(Superfans, please don’t kill me if I butcher anything! Just let me know where I’ve gotten things wrong and we’ll talk.)

Unlike the immortal Kim Shin, the Grim Reaper doesn’t have a sense of identity; as an otherworldly spirit, his memories have been erased after death, and he has been doomed to roam the earth and deliver the bad news to people on the brink. One day, he meets Sunny (Yoo In-Na, also known as #kilaygoals), a gorgeous but neurotic entrepreneur who’s basically the Korean version of Carrie Bradshaw. (She’s also the owner of the chicken joint where Eun-Tak works, but that’s another story.) Sunny flirts with Reaper and tries to draw him out of his shell, but he doesn’t know what he should tell her because of who he really is. At the same time, Reaper doesn’t know what to do with her because she’s the first person who has ever paid attention to him in years, probably even centuries. Thus, their relationship is push-pull: he likes her, she likes him, but neither of them know how to navigate this within the context–and confines–of modern-day dating.

I didn’t think much of it until I binge-watched the last six episodes of Goblin, followed by revisions on my existing WIP. Maybe it’s the K-drama hangover talking, but I found that I could apply the same principles of the True North process to analyze the Grim Reaper relationship as well. So I thought, why not ask the tough questions, too, just to see if the relationship holds?

This is the sheet for Sunny, to Grim Reaper:

  • I say I hate you because you’re socially awkward
  • But I really love you because you have the sweetest disposition
  • The thing I dread most is loneliness
  • Because I crave the attention of men
  • But you provide a better substitute, which is the courage to get over society’s expectations and forge my own path

And for Grim Reaper, to Sunny:

  • I say I hate you because your expectations are too high
  • But I really love you because you always go for what you want
  • The thing I dread most is the betrayal of intimacy
  • Because I crave control over my destiny
  • But you provide a better substitute, which is a sense of greater purpose

Of course, this is way too basic, because I didn’t even count the spoilers that would’ve made these answers more meaningful. (Also, it exposes weaknesses in the script as far as actual motivations go–though I guess that’s more on the tropes and format than it is about actual storytelling issues.) But for the first half of their plot, these points constitute the True North of their story. Every time Sunny waits for Reaper’s phone call, it feeds into her fears of being single and lonely. Every time Reaper puts Sunny through an awkward coffee date, it affirms his affection for her but also shows his insecurity of being found out for who he is. Then Reaper flashes back to his past life, and everything goes bananas until he and Sunny stop seeing each other…OR DO THEY???

(Spoiler alert: They don’t. But in true K-drama fashion, every meeting is more painful than the last. Still, it ends happily for them.)

I’d like to open the floor to further discussion, especially if you read the Reaper plot thread differently than I did. Please feel free to leave a comment or tweet me at @TheStellaTorres and let’s keep the conversation going!

Love, Stella

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Stella Torres

is the author of the adult contemporary romances Save the Cake, Crushingly Close, and Nine Years Away, as well as the short story “Be Creative” in the anthology Kids These Days: Stories from Luna East Vol. 1.

In her previous life, she has worked in public relations, taught English as a second language, and even attended graduate school (twice!). She has lived in Indonesia, Honolulu, and Quezon City before moving back to her hometown of Los Banos, a few hours’ drive (with traffic) from the heart of Manila.

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