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.