Atypical Male Leads in Costume C-Dramas


Some time ago, I created a poll in which I asked the MDL users:

According to your drama-watching experience, when you think of a “typical” representative for the male lead in a non-comedy costume C-drama (wuxia, xianxia, xuanhuan, historical), what are the character traits that first come to your mind?

I got 23 responses (a big thank you to everyone who participated in the poll!) and presented the results on the chart:

As you can see, the most common answers are: highly intelligent, skilled in martial arts, composed, burdened with responsibilities, cold, serious, stoic, brooding, introverted. On the contrary, there are only 3 – 4 answers which include traits like: friendly, warm, talkative, mischievous, carefree, funny, easy-going, and sociable. Although the results of this poll cannot be taken as any serious statistical evidence, I think they are enough to illustrate the point I want to make: there are much less non-comedy costume C-dramas with warm, cheerful and extroverted male leads than dramas with “block of ice”-like personalities which somehow became the standard for C-drama MLs.

The prevalence of dramas with cold or stoic male leads doesn’t mean that there are no alternatives to watch; the problem may be in how to find them! The tag Cold Male Lead is rather common in the MDL database, but try searching for Playful Male Lead: you’ll get only eight costume C-dramas as a result; for Mischievous Male Lead – two results; for Funny Male Lead – no match found.

Therefore, in this article I want to introduce you to my favourite friendly, sociable and funny male leads! I hope to reach two goals: first one, to help you find dramas with this type of male characters; second one, to convince you that having the male lead with such character traits can work just as well in a non-comedy costume C-drama as relying on the popular cold and serious” types!

(Warning: the next parts of the article may contain spoilers for the first episodes of the mentioned dramas! But in general I tried to keep them as spoiler-free as possible, so you could be able to enjoy these dramas to the fullest if you ever decide to watch them.)

Without further ado, let’s start:

Fan Xian | Joy of Life

(wuxia, political, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sci-fi)

Fan Xian is an illegitimate son of Southern Qing’s Earl of Sinan, Fan Jian. He was raised by his grandmother, away from the capital in which his mother had been killed not long after giving birth to him. What is more, Fan Xian has memories of his previous life as a 21st century young man who died due to an autoimmune disease. Because of that, and given a second chance at living, he is determined to enjoy his life as much as possible, avoiding unnecessary struggles for power and high positions in the society. However, once back in the capital at the behest of his father, Fan Xian discovers that many people have various plans related to him, and his freedom to live happily and carefree will have to be fought for…

In the drama, we meet him first as a several year old resolute young master, who talks back to the house manager in defense of his unjustly punished handmaidens, then smiles, stands on a stool and slaps the manager’s face with tremendous strength. Only in the first episode he also knocks out his future teacher (whom he mistook for an assassin), then tries to deny his involvement in the matter by pretending to be just an adorable little boy. From his very first scenes we can get the impression that he will grow up to be an intelligent, a little bit arrogant, troublesome and shameless, but also sociable and funny person. At the same time, it is evident that he has his heart in the right place and is not afraid of fighting for justice.

What I like the most about adult Fan Xian’s character is his uncanny ability of turning his enemies into friends and seeing past first impressions, as well as being able to flatter, deceive and talk his way out of the worst situations (there is a scene taking place in another country, where Fan Xian has to improvise and lie through his teeth in a foreign Imperial Court, and he does it in such painfully obvious manner, yet his charisma somehow makes everyone go along with it; watching this scene always makes me laugh!)  

The drama itself is heavy with politics, Imperial Court(s) power struggle, and various secret agencies fighting each other; however, it also contains numerous light and amusing moments, which result mainly from Fan Xian’s mischievous personality. Having this type of character as the main lead makes the otherwise grim political drama balanced and enjoyable to watch.

Yuan Zhongxin | Young Blood

(wuxia, adventure, romance, comedy)

Yuan Zhongxin is kind of a mystery; at the beginning of the drama all we know about him is that he studies in the Imperial College and has an older half-brother Yuan Boqi, who is a former Army General and a traumatised sole survivor of a tragic battle. Yuan Zhongxin is an “insignificant” son of a concubine, while Yuan Boqi is the heir of the family as the son of the first wife; however, the brothers hold some affection for each other, even though they often don’t know how to express it. It is precisely because of Yuan Zhongxin’s desire to get his brother out of some dire straits, that leads him to being recruited by an enigmatic agency and starting a new and unexpected career path. 

The first scene with Yuan Zhongxin in the drama is set at the Imperial College, in his own room which he apparently turned into a gambling den; upon being discovered, he immediately and confidently denies his own identity and tries to divert the attention from himself. It gives us the impression that he is used to this kind of situation and has even formed an almost automatic response; thus from the very beginning we can see that he is adventurous, chatty, quick-witted, and smiles often, albeit not always sincerely. Next scenes show us his other character traits: being serious when the situation calls for it, yet often masking his true thoughts and feelings by making an impression of fooling around; being a team player when necessary, but most often relying only on himself

This is the character setup with which the story starts. During the subsequent episodes we can observe the impact of various events and new relationships on Yuan Zhongxin’s trust issues and self-sufficiency tendencies. I like the fact that his character development doesn’t include changing the fundamental traits of his colourful personality, but rather the way he perceives other people and himself. 

The drama is not primarily a comedy and actually deals with rather serious themes, such as serving your country by eliminating foreign spies and their disruptive influence, often by working undercover. Having the playful and street-smart Yuan Zhongxin as a main character adds a very natural levity to the story, which balances the potential tediousness of the “spy wars” plot (and simply makes you laugh out loud multiple times because of his antics!).

Xie Yun | Legend of Fei

(wuxia, adventure, mystery, romance)

At the beginning of the drama, Xie Yun is an even greater mystery than Yuan Zhongxin; dressed in a black outfit suitable for a spy or an assassin, he suddenly arrives at the 48 Strongholds (a nearly inaccessible place where many Jianghu sects live and work together) as a messenger for a deceased Army General. Although he claims to be just a commoner who agreed to do it as a favour for the dying man, it is rather evident that his true identity cannot be as simple as that: he has exceptional lightness skills (qinggong), sharp mind, good manners, and an extensive knowledge of the world and past events, which he is trying to conceal. Having accomplished his mission, he disappears back into Jianghu on some self-appointed errands, but later can’t seem to avoid meeting his acquaintances from the 48 Strongholds again and again…

In the first scene with Xie Yun we see him crossing the deadly and almost uncrossable Ximo River (one of the borders of 48 Strongholds) by using his qinggong. Later, despite being chased as an intruder, he decides to step in and help two disciples of 48 Strongholds who got themselves stuck in the middle of the same river with their lives hanging by a thread. This scene shows us a few traits of his personality: the inability to stand by and watch innocent people die, his own lack of fear in the face of very possible death, as well as his funny and playful side: he can’t stop himself from light teasing and joking even in an extremely dangerous situation. 

What I like the most about Xie Yun is that he tries to be friendly with every new person he meets; he seems like an extrovert who thrives on social interactions, which is pretty unusual for a male lead in a costume C-drama. He often teases his friends, but never in a creepy manner; when he teaches someone, he never belittles them for their lack of knowledge. He is like an ultimate friend material: good-natured, talkative, funny, but also helpful, as well as showing a sense of responsibility together with an awareness of his own limitations.

Xie Yun is the main male lead of the drama, but not the main character; as the title says, it is a story primarily about Zhou Fei. However, his warm and playful personality compliments the aloof and stoic Zhou Fei extremely well, making the two of them a power couple we love to watch and cheer on!

Wei Wuxian | The Untamed

(xianxia, adventure, mystery)

Wei Wuxian is a dead “demonic” cultivator, suddenly brought back to life thanks to the sacrifice from a desperate boy, Mo Xuanyu. In order to stay alive, he needs to resolve the grudges of that boy, at the same time trying to avoid meeting his brother (who may or may not harbour resentment towards Wei Wuxian for his actions in the past), and his former friend (who may or may not want to imprison him, also for Wei Wuxian’s actions in the past), as well as everyone else who may have known him before his death, sixteen years back. It is easier said than done, though, and ultimately he gets involved in an investigation which leads to the reveal of some painful truths about both the past and the present.

The very first scene of the drama shows us Wei Wuxian falling off a cliff to his death, while the background narrative tries to convince us how evil and despicable a man he has been. On the contrary, in the first scene after his resurrection, we see him as an ordinary, inquisitive young man, slightly annoyed by being brought back from the dead and having to figure out what the problems of Mo Xuanyu were, but ultimately happy to clown around and pretend to be mentally unstable in order to get to know the situation at the Mo household. He doesn’t really want to kill anybody, instead he helps to keep the innocent members of the household as well as a group of young cultivators from the Lan Sect out of harm’s way. This discrepancy in Wei Wuxian’s character is later explained by a long flashback, which shows us all the events that have gradually led to the first scene of the drama. 

Wei Wuxian is arguably the most energetic, mischievous, and carefree character out of the ones mentioned in this article. I love his “ray of sunshine” personality, which doesn’t prevent him from turning serious when the situation calls for it. His strong moral backbone is to be admired, even though it is part of the reason why he eventually ends up in despair, persecuted by the entire cultivation world. 

The Untamed is a fascinating drama on numerous levels; one of these levels is watching a sociable, lovable and lighthearted character getting shunned by the society and driven up to the point of no return. In my opinion, the story would not have as much impact on the audience if the main character was aloof and reclusive from the start. 

An Honourable Mention

At the end I want to mention one other male lead from a drama that I have just started watching; I do not know yet what his character development entails, but at least at the beginning of the story he fits my requirements of being a chatty, lighthearted person with a mischievous streak:

Tang Fan | The Sleuth of Ming Dynasty

(historical, mystery)

On one hand, Tang Fan is a scholar, a competent magistrate, gifted with observation and deduction skills; on the other hand, he is also a foodie who enthusiastically writes questionable novels in his free time, to increase his meager income and be able to afford his rent as well as appease his expensive eating habits (and if that’s not relatable, I don’t know what is ;)).

Tang Fan is not above being pouty and grumpy when unhappy (for example, when someone takes away his food), nor is he ashamed of extracting payment (in food) in exchange for help or just information. Even though he looks like a weak, shy, and nerdy type of person, he will talk to anybody and go anywhere to find the information he needs, which is also why he often gets himself into trouble

Again, having this type of male lead in a serious drama with murder investigations helps defuse the tension and allows for some lighter and funny interactions between the characters. 


If you have read this far, then first: you deserve an award for your patience! And second: I hope I managed to convince you that the male leads of C-dramas can come in various flavours – not only cold mint, but also sweet oranges, salted caramel or even chili chocolate (forgive me for that terrible metaphor and blame Tang Fan’s influence ^^). 

Their friendly attitude, jokes and smiles, and the fact that they just want to live happily with their loved ones, appreciating even the simplest aspects of life – this is what draws me to these characters. I do not mean to say that I don’t like the cold and reclusive type at all; Lan Wangji (the second lead from The Untamed) is and always will be one of my absolute faves! But isn’t it nice to change the setup once in a while and follow a lead who is not convinced that the world will end if someone sees him smiling? 

* * *

Thank you for reading this article! All comments will be appreciated 🙂 Are your favourite male leads in costume C-dramas also sociable and carefree, or rather stoic and reserved (there is no wrong answer, we are all allowed to have different tastes)?

Thank you to the Editors who helped with editing this article! All the images have been taken from the MDL galleries for the respective dramas. 

Edited by: Tine (1st editor), devitto (2nd editor)

the untamed
nice male lead
joy of life
young blood
legend of fei
mischievous male lead
funny male lead
sleuth of ming dynasty
playful male lead

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