A young woman tumbles into a magical book and discovers she’s the savior of the “fictional” country she’s landed in. To save the country and return to her own world, she must find her seven celestial warriors, who are all bound to aid her on her quest. Along the way, the relationships among them grow, strengthen, and evolve. There’s romance and friendship, humor and heartache, angst and suffering, all as they face a dangerous adversary who will stop at nothing to prevent their success – and ensure his own.
This is the basic plot to Fushigi Yuugi (Mysterious Play), my favorite anime and manga series as well as my original introduction to the reverse harem genre. Fushigi Yuugi is a hallmark example. You’ve got a strong-spirited young woman, a Chosen One portal fantasy adventure, an array of handsome men destined to join her quest, romantic tension and angst, and the exploration of the relationships that grow among and between them. All the good stuff!
So when I learned from a fellow author that people are writing reverse harem romances in Western fiction, I was stunned and super excited! Being a longtime anime fan as well as a reader of fantasy (and romantic fantasy when I could find it), it was choirs singing and birds soaring. Now, I absolutely love a traditional romance between two people, but seeing reverse harem romances – something I always associated with being unique to anime – appear in my beloved fantasy, it changed things for me, both as a writer and a reader.
REVERSE HAREM: WHAT IS IT?
A reverse harem (often abbreviated as RH) refers to the “one woman, multiple men” romance dynamic – the literal flipside of the more recognized and historical traditional harem (many women kept by one polygamous male). A more modern and descriptive term is “why choose,” as the female protagonist (or “center”) is not required to choose one – she can have them all! The harems themselves include three or more members and can have both genders within (i.e. not always a male harem).
In the context of a story, the harem can either be the focal point of the plot (the center must find or connect to her harem in order to defeat the big bad), or could be the subplot (the center must defeat the big bad but also gathers a harem along the way). This can be paralleled with fantasy romance (romance/harem is the plot) and romantic fantasy (romance/harem is subplot), which author Miranda Honfleur distinguishes very well here. Epic fantasy lends itself very well to the idea of reverse harems, though just as in anime, RH stories span genres from contemporary to paranormal to science fiction. It is a boundless dynamic, and readers can pretty much find any “flavor” that they are keen on reading.
The genre mainly appeals to female readers. Though varying degrees of sexual relations and explicitness are present, the focus is mainly on the relationships. Specifically, those the center has with her harem: how they first come together, the means of attraction, the resulting emotions and feelings, how the guys relate to one another, and of course how they work together in the end. This romantic dynamic is in a sense itself fantasy, as it is not commonplace in the real world. And what could be more exciting than being loved and supported by more than one partner?
REVERSE HAREM: EAST VS. WEST
There is no doubt that the idea of reverse harems has been present and popular in Eastern media for a long time. Despite many similarities (female protagonist, multiple guys with different personalities, focus on the relationships, etc.) the one main difference is Choice.
In Eastern media (anime, manga, dramas, etc.), the girl either chooses one mate by the end, or does not choose anyone. There is either a canon pairing as defined by the story, or it is left ambiguous. This can be both fun and unsatisfying to a fan, especially if you’re really hoping the girl picks the guy you like! Otome or dating games are a balm for this, where as the player you can control who the protagonist chooses and watch the relationship develop. But in the end, the protagonist still chooses one mate.
In Western fiction, on the
other hand, the girl can have them all! Fans have adopted the hashtag
#whychoose, which means exactly that: why should the protagonist choose just
one partner from her bevy of attractive potential mates? And what makes this
dynamic particularly compelling goes back again to the relationships between
her and her harem. Who are they? What is their connection to her? How do
they each fulfill her, support her, care for her? How do their different
personalities complement and clash with each other? How do they resolve their
feelings for her, as well as towards each other? If they are all romantically
involved with her, then there is going to be tension, jealousy, and hopefully
acceptance and love in the end.
WHAT REVERSE HAREM MEANS TO ME: EXPLORING OTHER FORMS OF LOVE
There’s no doubt I love a good, solid romance between two monogamous characters, and have for as long as I can remember. There’s something special there, reading about two characters who come together while they face adversity, or solve a mystery, and find love in the process. The attraction, the first kiss, the “will they / won’t they,” the forces keeping them apart, and the final resolution. Those elements are vital to me as a reader – I want to experience all those stages along with the characters, to feel the blossoming of love from their very first meeting. Blend that with my beloved fantasy, and I couldn’t be more content.
But there’s something exciting, complicated, and tantalizing about an intelligent, sexually independent woman who has not just one but a whole group devoted to her, supporting, protecting, and loving her. It’s a chance to explore how she relates to each potential mate, as well as the harem as a whole. How she interacts with one member of the group may be totally different than another. It’s not all about sex, though that may certainly be an element with some or even all. To me, it’s the discovery of how their relationships develop, how they each fulfill her and contribute to her growth, how the harem members grow, and how the group as a whole evolves together.
It’s a different kind of romance. A different kind of love. And for me, as both a writer and reader, it’s a path worth exploring.
What do you love most about the reverse harem fantasy genre? What was the last reverse harem fantasy book that you read? Share in the comments!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Catharine Glen is an independent fantasy author residing in New England. As a child, she loved creating stories about distant lands filled with adventure and mystery. She was probably one of the only students who actually liked writing academic reports, and as an adult discovered she had a knack for technical writing. Returning to her first passion—fiction—is like reliving a part of her childhood.
Reach her at:
- Website: www.catharineglen.com
- Amazon: www.amazon.com/author/catharineglen
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/authorcatharineglen
- Twitter: www.twitter.com/catharineglen
- Goodreads: www.goodreads.com/catharineglen
- BookBub: www.bookbub.com/authors/catharine-glen
Catharine’s forthcoming reverse harem romantic fantasy series, The Shadowed World Saga, is anticipated in late 2019.
Catharine is also the author of the romantic fantasy novel The Rose Crown.
Elite soldier Marian serves and protects the royal family—a responsibility she does not take lightly. But when she thwarts an assassination attempt on the king, she unwittingly becomes a prime suspect. Worse, she is left with a terrible, pulsing wound and vile, intrusive thoughts that are not her own. Now, the mysterious cult behind the attack has targeted her, and Marian soon learns of their goal to restore a devastating relic: the legendary Rose Crown.
Former mercenary Henryk has vowed to prevent the restoration of the Rose Crown at any cost. When he encounters Marian, he discovers the terrifying truth of her involvement—and the mortal danger they both face. Drawn together by the very thing that could destroy them, Henryk and Marian must forge a bond of trust—before it’s too late.
Can Marian battle against the ancient darkness consuming her soul, or will it utterly destroy them both?