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 a romantic fantasy author residing in New England. Her favorite kinds of stories take place in faraway worlds with unforgettable characters, plenty of romance, adventure, magic and the supernatural. She tends to get immersed in all things Japanese, reading, Lego, and possibly consumes a bit too much coffee and tea. She’s also a wife to a loving husband and a mom to two children and a spirited Jack Russell.
Reach her at:
- Website: www.catharineglen.com
- Amazon: www.amazon.com/author/catharineglen
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/authorcatharineglen
- Instagram: www.instagram.com/catharine.glen
- Twitter: www.twitter.com/catharineglen
- Goodreads: www.goodreads.com/catharineglen
- BookBub: www.bookbub.com/authors/catharine-glen
A rogue assassin on the run.
Former assassin Emamori Matsukara stands alone against the warring Ichiyo Faction. The once-notorious “Black Thorn” struggles to protect the innocent and bring justice to the Faction’s brutal raiders. But with a bounty on her head, she can’t evade her enemies forever. When an impossible encounter with a mythological Shadow of Death leaves Ema critically injured, she finds herself at the mercy of three men from a rival clan — and they know exactly who she is.
A tentative trust in uncertain times.
Lord Commander Saitama Ren faces dwindling allies and the demands of a merciless high lord. The last thing he needs is a wanted criminal on his hands — especially one who saves his life. Worse, his closest friend Hagane quickly accepts Ema into their fold, while his stoic vice commander Akhito wants nothing to do with her. Yet despite her unknown allegiances, she may be the key to preventing his clan’s demise.
A bond born from the shadows.
Alliances are uncertain, trust is a rare commodity, and peace is a relic of the past. As shadows spread across the land, secrets unfold and death lurks ever closer. Ema and her unexpected allies must venture through the dark night of dishonor and betrayal to uncover the world’s inevitable fate.
For the one who controls the shadows controls the world.
For fans of epic fantasy reverse harem like The Gladiator’s Downfall (Kristen Banet) and stories deeply rooted in Japanese history and mythology like Red Winter (Annette Marie).