Ghost Bird cover an example of reverse harem in fiction

Reverse Harem in Western Fiction

In a previous article about where reverse harem actually came from, it discusses how in Japanese anime and manga (and fiction worlds in general) a female (hetero) or male (yaoi) can be the center of attention of several different characters, mostly male, but occasionally with a female or trans person included.  However, in Japanese stories, most often the main character will pick one of the suitors.

In Western fiction, the tone has a slight change, where instead of a main character choosing one partner, they could end up with all, some or follow traditional Japanese style and pick one. The style is usually way more obvious, with characters admitting their love to the central character directly.

The options in Western fiction have opened up considerably. While some call it polyamory, a real life reverse harem relationship it is actually a subset type of polyamory. The possibility of outside relationships among the suitors is often completely ignored. However, the expectation in fiction, as noted, is that the main character is the center of attention of everyone.

With the numerous ways a story could be told, reverse harem being introduced into western fiction has been met with a bit of confusion from readers as to what they can expect .

Defining Reverse Harem in Fiction for the West

It’s important to understand that reverse harem doesn’t actually dictate heat level when it comes to expectation in the trope. Just like any romance story, there are sweet romances, more Christian-like romances, erotic romances, etc. Unlike menage stories (derived from ménage à trois to mean three people in a relationship) or gangbang stories (one person being the center of sexual attention from many people), where the trope’s expectation is more on the sexual dynamics, reverse harem is strongly connected to the romance part of the story, not the sex. While sex may be included in the story, how the relationship turns out and the attention one gets throughout determines if the story is a reverse harem.

It’s similar in the idea of a gay or lesbian or polyamory (where all parties are dating openly) stories. A gay romance doesn’t necessarily mean the main character is shown in a sexual relationship. For an example in a reverse harem context, a story could be a sweet romance about a boy who goes to an all boy school, and he joins a group of friends who are suddenly giving him romantic attention. The story could end with a kiss only and still be considered a reverse harem.

Like in the Japanese style, the options for romantic interests or friendships are endless. A girl could be the center of attention with friends who act very sweet with her, and then suddenly dates one or multiple of the guys, and some of the guys remain friends only. The main core of the story is still there is a main character who is the center of a lot of attention.

And also like the Japanese style, the men in a reverse harem also don’t necessarily need to be friends or even friendly to each other. Villains in the story can turn into love interests. Men may fight over the main character. They may not like the main character’s choice in being with other people, but will accept it, not really becoming friends with the others, but having a mutual understanding this is what they do to continue a relationship with a main character.

The Broad Spectrum of Options

With so many variations of reverse harem possible in fiction, it can sometimes be difficult to find a story one may want to read. Readers sometimes want very specific types of stories, like stories with or without bi-sexual characters, or one prefers a male main character getting male attention, etc.

Further keywords may be necessary to develop as the reverse harem trope splinters further. The thing to keep in mind when in regards to this type of romance story is to remember that you could drop in ‘reverse harem’ as a replacement to ‘romance’. For example, if one is looking for a lesbian romance, it doesn’t work to type in ‘romance’ in a search engine. Many, many results will appear. Likewise, with reverse harem having so many options, it would be the same with dropping that term into a search bar to look for a single type of story. Many results, but not necessarily all of them being what a reader wants.

Subsequently, romance shows up in some stories, like fantasy or suspense, but doesn’t necessarily dictate the story is a romance. So someone could write a fantasy with a romance sub plot. It works the same with a reverse harem. A fantasy could have a reverse harem sub plot.

With all the ways stories could be written, authors have a lot of options. Diving too far into how a story goes and putting it into a blurb sometimes can ruin a book for those who aren’t happy with spoilers. However, readers have a long tradition of having expectations of what is in a story before reading. The large publisher Harlequin publishes tons of books based on tropes they’ve come to understand readers really want. Some examples like doctor-patient romances, finding a new dad for a new mother, falling in love with a boss, etc. These are very specific tropes that are recreated over and over in various ways. In many cases one can tell the heat level of a book, or if the book includes possibly bisexual content depending on the cover and the blurb for the book.

A writer who writes doctor-patient romances doesn’t always follow Harlequin tropes to those specifications. Sometimes an individual author develops a certain type of trope within a certain type of sub genre. They could also vary the endings, shaking up expectations, often for the purpose of being less predictable.

Likewise, reverse harem takes on various shades of different types of heat levels and extends into different tropes. So treating reverse harem no differently than romance in regards to looking for such a story, if the type of romance matters to the reader, further research into the blurb, the cover and certain tell-tale signs can depict some details. Unless one reads a full synopsis, it could still be a mystery to how the book ends. Some readers like very predictable stories (Harlequin-style story development) and some like to be surprised. As always, everything has variations and a reader may need to follow a publisher or author who tends to write to a certain style. (Although some authors are known to shake things up.)

Thanks for reading. In later posts there will be examples of reverse harem in anime, manga, video games, books and more, with many personal recommendations. If there are any questions, feel free to email me, and your questions may be pulled together for follow up articles.



ouran high school host club reverse harem example

A Guide to Reverse Harem: What is Reverse Harem?

Reverse harem has been garnering a lot of questions in many industries, but the definition changes slightly on occasion. It is an unusual term, but this article series will go into the origin, and the expectations from an audience in different types of media.

Where does the Reverse Harem term come from?

The word harem derives from the Japanese ハーレムもの or harumumono and it literally just means a love triangle or polygamous type relationship where a single person is getting attention from multiple people. Unlike a love triangle, where there are usually two people clamoring for a single person’s affection, the number of people can sometimes be three or more.

However, it is important to note that sometimes in anime or manga, a harumumono can often be just two love interests for the main character, while other supporting potential love interests are usually sweet but are completely just friends only. Those additional sweet friend interests are still giving attention to the main character, in a few very subtle romantic moments that pretty much get glossed over later.

There are actually several different types of harems. For example, when a girl (yuri) or a guy (hetero) is getting attention from a group of women, this is called a ‘male harem’ or sometimes people call it seraglios, which is a Turkish term meaning the place (usually apartments) where a man keeps his wives or concubines. 

When a male (yaoi) or female (hetero) is the center of attention for a group of males, this is usually called male harem, reverse harem, or sometimes 逆ハーレム or gyaku hāremuGyaku translates to reverse or upside down.

It is important to note that even in a hetero or even a yaoi story, often there is also a female(s) in the harem who is also after the attention of the main character, although at times this person might just be a friend. There could be some hints that this person is actually romantically attracted to the central character. The same could be true for a seraglios or harem only with a male(s) being around. There may also be a trans-male or trans-female character in either of the types of harems. In some cases, the romantic options fall in love with or are in love with each other. (Example: The twins in the anime and manga series Ouran High School Host Club.) Despite this other relationship, those characters still spend a lot of attention on the main character.

What does a reverse harem story look like?

When it comes to anime and manga, the variations are numerous, but often enough, a male or female character acts as the center of the story. Sometimes the main character has a history of trouble or sometimes the main character is leading a very normal life but is suddenly thrust into unusual circumstances.

At the core of the story, there is a reason why all these other males are focusing on this one central character, a reason for all of them to stay together. The relationship between the central character and the guys usually develop because they are together for quite a while and they just naturally develop feelings — often in the very subtle Japanese standard of romance.

Is a relationship like this typical in Japan?

A lot of this make sense when understanding the Japanese when it comes to relationships. Jealousy is severely suppressed in the culture, and a girl or guy could go out repeatedly with others until she’s in a committed relationship. However, even in a committed relationship, even when married, it isn’t totally uncommon for a man or woman to go out with friends, both male and female. A partner won’t condemn or deny their partner the ability to do what they want.

While cheating is never really acceptable on the forefront, showing jealousy over a girlfriend or wife who happens to be out with another partner, even overnight, is simply not shown. This is a very, very generalization of the culture and doesn’t depict individuals in any way. If a woman or man does catch their partner in the act or is just unhappy with the lack of attention, they can and will break up with a person or asks for a divorce — usually quietly and without drawing attention to it.

While polyamory agreements like in western societies aren’t really discussed (although it sometimes rarely happens), the culture dictates one to turn a blind eye. This gets way more complicated in the culture, but for simplicity, showing jealousy just isn’t cool. So a man showing up with his wife at a party may run into other men or women openly flirting with his wife, and he may not say anything about it or he may even encourage it — in the very polite Japanese way.

However, to understand the stories, it is also important to understand the very huge separation of ‘fantasy’ versus ‘reality’ when it comes to fiction in Japan. Japan is known in the west to be ‘pretty out there’ when it comes to the types of themes in their worlds (think tentacle monsters having sex with women).

This is because Japanese have a firm grasp of ‘this is fiction’. They don’t really believe in a story or anime or movie reflecting real life desires. It’s just…fiction. It’s just fantasy. They are completely separate from reality. No one is hurt when it is ink on a page, so going wild with thoughts or ideas is very much a thing. So just because you see it in anime, it doesn’t really mean there are people doing that in Japan. They could see poly relationships in the same way as they see tentacle monsters or vampires, it is just fantasy and doesn’t necessarily relate to real life.

Back on track: What happens at the end of reverse harem stories?

While this may change regarding anime and manga, the majority of stories usually end up with the main character either voluntarily or through unusual circumstances (other characters move on, they die, etc.) picking a final person to commit to.

This doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the story is open ended and you get a sense of they could be together in a happily ever after sort of way. Sometimes the main character picks one, but the other characters are still around her a lot, still flirting.

This is the basis for many, many anime, manga and other media within Japan, and also expanding into Chinese, Korean and other markets globally. The style hasn’t translated too often into western mainstream markets except in some rare instances, although it is gaining popularity in the fiction book market. But more about that in the next article: Reverse Harem in Western Fiction.