On 豆瓣 Douban, which is like the Chinese IMDB, the majority of top rated content created since 2015 is animated shows. So how do live action dramas compete and engage Gen Z and Millennials?
1 Gamer Protagonists Steal the Show
China is the world’s largest gaming market. There are about 640 million players in China, which makes up 46% of the country’s population. There is a reason why many of Douban’s highly ranked series are animated with graphics like MMORPGs. People can relate to dramas that focus on or include leads who like video games.
Some examples are Ye Xiu in the Tencent web series “The King’s Avatar”, Bohai from “Sweet Dreams” or Xiaonai in “Love020”. The male leads make time to play video games regardless of what their life pursuits are. The love for video games is not only for boys though; just look at the female lead of “Love020.”
2 Go Heavy With the Bromances and Sisterhoods
Mainland dramas are not afraid of adding lots of sauce to their protagonists’ friendships. Since most Gen Zs and late Millennials are single children, they build strong relationships with friends. The dramas’ protagonists treat their friends like family. Even when the protagonist is in a risky situation, there is always a friend who has their back. The audience should want to take the main character’s side too. The faith placed in the bromances and sisterhoods makes the audience sympathize with and support the protagonist too.
3 The Real Teen Spirit Starts in University
There is a reason why the Chinese reboot of “Meteor Garden” is set in university instead of high school. On Western TV networks, high school is the biggest milestone in developing adulthood. It is the first time teens encounter many adult situations. High schoolers are introduced to huge scandals and emotional drama. They start going out and gaining independence. In Mainland Chinese television, however, university is that milestone.
Characters are not making independent choices and taking responsibility for moral dilemmas while still living at home. Innocence is challenged and protagonists mature when they are fully adults. At university, there is still a slight feeling of being taken care of by elders. The difference is university students now have more responsibility and more independence to make choices.
4 Entrance Exam Anxiety Fuels High School Dramas
If the main leads are in high school then a major dilemma they will all face is the entrance exam. We’ve talked about how important the gaokao is to high schoolers in China. The gaokao influences the decisions of all the characters in a high school drama. They face the pressure from the gaokao, regular schoolwork and their parents all while having a social life. This is another perk of university dramas: they can avoid the gaokao arc and show less stress from school life.
5 Daddy Wasn’t There To Take Me To The Fair
Many young people in China are being raised by grandparents or extended family because their parents are busy. “Daddy Wasn’t There” applies when the main lead has an absentee parent. Whether the parent is sick, dead, missing, divorced, in jail, or just walked out, many protagonists have at least one parent missing.
These parents miss the big moments of their child’s life and their bond is weak. That character then makes stronger bonds with the people who are there. This includes grandparents, cousins, friends, teachers, bosses, and colleagues. The audience wants the protagonist to become happy and whole in spite of not being raised by two parents.
6 The Invincible Man Has a Crack in His Armor
Everybody loves a superhero. Every superhero has their kryptonite. Many protagonists are almost inhuman in the way that they are idolized by other people in the show’s world. The protagonist is well rounded and can act as an intelligent role model for Gen Z. But a role model is not relatable if they are completely perfect. This is why every drama takes the time to show the flaw of the strong protagonist.
For example, in “Nirvana In Fire” the protagonist is smarter than all the other characters. Later, the drama makes him relatable by showing that his plans were great not because he is inhumanly smart, but because he made them years in advance. He had a life changing event as a teenager that changed his goals in life. Beyond his plans he is still just human.
7 Big Shots Start from the Bottom Too
People love the invincible character and idolize the rich. However, the character can’t be relatable unless they have some real life struggles too. Many drama characters face an event where they are knocked down and have to rebuild their reputation and assets from scratch. If they did it and could “eat the bitters,” as a popular Chinese phrase says, then you can too. A young audience starting with little experience can be inspired by the protagonist’s ability to overcome their trials and restart from nothing.