On Harem Romances

Harem romances are fairly common in anime and light novels. That is, many of these stories feature a male protagonist with several female love interests (only two love interests is merely a love triangle, not a harem). A harem story may or may not involve the guy marrying all the girls. I’m not a huge fan of this kind of setup, and often find them annoying. Harem protagonists tend to be either cads or indecisive idiots, and it’s completely inexplicable how or why so many women would fall for them (see Tenchi Muyo, an influential early harem anime, which makes fun of the protagonist’s blandness in its title, translated to “No Need for Tenchi). However, one of my favorite light novel series has a harem romance angle, and another couple series I read also follow the harem romance model without driving me away. So I wanted to explore why the harem in Invaders of the Rokujouma!? and, to a lesser degree, Seirei Gensouki: Spirit Chronicles and How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom don’t irk me as much as other harem romances I’ve encountered.

First, I think it helps with stomaching a harem if the male protagonist doesn’t actually return the affections of all the female characters. This can keep him from coming across as either a jerk who refuses to commit so he can take advantage of all these girls, or a weak-willed loser too spineless to make up his mind. Koutarou from Invaders is an example of this—due to past (non-romantic) trauma, he has attachment issues that have kept him from even considering a romantic relationship. Thus, he has a bunch of girls interested in him, yet without being a waffle or scoundrel. This is also factor in Seirei Gensouki, where protagonist Rio encounters a number of girls who take an interest in him, but kindly and firmly rebuffs all direct advances they’ve made. Rio, who was reincarnated in a fantasy world, is also dealing with the past: in his case, unresolved feelings from his previous life. Another, slightly different, example might be Kirito from Sword Art Online—he ends up with several girls interested in him, but its unambiguous that he has eyes only for Asuna. Whether by establishing that the guy could plausibly not return any of the girls’ affections, or by showing he’s already interested in someone, I believe it definitely helps a harem romance if the male character finds a way to avoid behaving like either a two (or three, or four, or…) timing cad or an indecisive train wreck, but this aspect alone isn’t sufficient to make harem romances work.

Closely related to the above, it helps a ton if the male protagonist is believably likeable. Part of being likable is avoiding certain negative character tropes (see above), but it means more than that. This is one of the points where I think harem romances most commonly stumble: the protagonist just isn’t charismatic or impressive enough to explain multiple women falling in love with him. I don’t claim to understand what women find attractive, but some protagonists are such twits that it’s incomprehensible why even one girl likes them, let alone half a dozen. This is one of the areas where Invaders shines. Through a long series of events, from fighting epic battles to doing homework to knitting, Koutarou consistently displays a variety of virtues, such as courage, kindness, diligence, and loyalty. It’s easy to imagine he would make a good friend, and not a difficult stretch to imagine someone of the opposite sex liking him as more than a friend. Ensuring the protagonist is appealing to the reader seems like a huge factor in selling a believable harem romance situation. It goes a long way toward explaining why various female characters would take an interest in him.

Alongside having a congenial male lead, another major factor that makes the harem work in Invaders is time. Setting up the protagonist as emotionally unable to form a romantic attachment (cf. the first point above) buys the author time to develop non-romantic friendships among the characters. Nobody falls in love with Koutarou at first sight. They spend many volumes getting to know him, gradually coming to appreciate him more. And even after a whopping twenty-one volumes, there’s still been hardly any explicitly romantic developments. The girls have realized they like Koutarou, and that’s about it. Spending so much time developing the characters’ friendships allows the growth of romantic feelings to be a lot more organic than what I see in most anime or light novels with a harem. I’m sure not every series can afford to spend two dozen volumes gradually progressing relationships, but at least Invaders‘ author has made good use of time to make the harem romance situation more believable. Seirei Gensouki, although many volumes shorter as a series, also uses time to lend plausibility to the budding romantic attraction, with the narrative spanning periods of months or even years in several cases. Once in a great while love at first might be workable in a story, but a ton of girls falling in love with a guy at the drop of a hat is just lazy writing.

Realist Hero isn’t nearly as good as Invaders, either in general or specifically when it comes to the harem elements, but its romances are instructive nonetheless. In contrast to the aforementioned series, this one is clearly taking the polygamy route. Of protagonist Souma’s five fiancées, the three relationships I find more plausible are with Liscia, Roroa, and Naden. As I pondered why, I realized the common element of all three is that they are arranged marriages. Liscia’s father betroths her to Souma, Roroa arranges her own marriage to benefit her country, and Lady Tiamat handpicks Souma to become Naden’s partner. Making the engagements a fait accompli actually incentivizes the girls to fall in love with Souma. Political necessity (for Liscia and Roroa) and a draconic demigod (in Naden’s case) set up these relationships. Once that’s done, the girls have the option of stoically enduring a miserable, loveless marriage, or choosing to make an effort to love Souma. Even if the characters don’t consciously think through all this, the circumstances give them a compelling reason to be interested in him and try to get closer to him. Ironically, the fact that their relationships are literally (somewhat) forced upon them makes the actual relationships feel less forced and more believable.

Souma’s not the most dashing of protagonists, but the arranged marriages give his relationships with Liscia, Roroa, and Naden a certain logic. The value of this plot device becomes apparent when those three relationships are compared with Souma’s other two fiancées, Aisha and Juna. Frankly, eight volumes into the series, I’m still not sure what’s going on with these two relationships. Maybe I missed something, but from my point of view, there’s no real reason why Aisha or Juna want to marry Souma. Souma spouted off some random forestry tips and Aisha was ready to throw herself at his feet. With Juna, I can’t even come up with a pretext that flimsy to explain the relationship. It’s equally opaque to me why Souma consents to engagements with them, absent the pressures to go along with his arranged marriages. Lacking arranged marriages to jump-start their relationships, the author seemingly struggles to develop believable chemistry between Souma and Aisha and Souma and Juna.

The example of Realist Hero also raises another issue—polygamy. Perhaps this is idiosyncratic, but based on what I find in the Bible, I react negatively to harem romances that go all the way to polygamy. The Bible never actually condemns polygamy outright, of course. But in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, Jesus, when asked a question, cites the pattern established in Genesis 2 as God’s will for marriage. Jesus was answering a question about divorce on this occasion, but the logic of his response has larger implications. Applied to polygamy, we find that multiple partners were clearly not part of this authoritative pattern established in the beginning. Less conclusively, it’s also worth considering how negatively polygamy is portrayed in the Old Testament. Yes, God put up with it (much like he permitted divorce under the Law of Moses), but over and over we see that it’s a source of trouble. The examples of Abraham, Jacob, Elkanah, David, Solomon, etc., all depict polygamy as a cause of strife and problems. So although the arranged marriage excuse may help Souma out a little, insofar as he can claim the situation isn’t entirely his fault, I still look askance at his choices.

In summary, then, a lovable, non-indecisive, non-two-timing male protagonist who settles on one girl is key to writing a harem romance that doesn’t grate on my nerves. It’s also essential to progress the relationships at a believable pace and avoid abrupt falling in love scenarios. And while arranged marriage can be a useful mechanism for initiating a romantic relationship, it can’t carry a whole harem. At least, that’s what I’ve concluded after reflecting on these light novels I’ve read that feature harem romance dynamics.

What about you, dear reader? Am I just weird, or do you share some of my disdain for certain common aspects of harem romances? What other factors do you think can make or break a story trying to pull off a harem? What are some examples of harem romance plots that you consider well done?

3 thoughts on “On Harem Romances

  1. Let’s see… Toradora may be my favourite, because of the richness of the characters and also because it doesn’t shy from some sad consequences of the formula. Haruhi Suzuyima (Disappearance, especially), for both the same reasons and how crazy and clever it is, OreGairu, Steins;Gate and Re:Zero, even if it walks the fine line at best about the harem aspect.

  2. I could go into a massive analysis of the various harems I’ve encountered in anime and light novels but here are some quick thoughts for now:

    First of all, I like to classify harems into a couple of different types. The first type is the one where only one of the girls (note: everything I say applies regardless of gender of either the protagonist or the harem members) has a serious chance with the protagonist, and the rest are really only there to fill out the waifu count. While this does allow for the protagonist to “make a choice” and avoid returning the affections of those “support members”, to me it makes me think, “what is the point of all these other girls being in the harem, then?” I feel like these stories would be better served if there were other characters the girls could romance, rather than being a harem.

    That said, I have seen an interesting situation where harems start out like this, but the “winning girl” goes on to become a “wingwoman” and actively bring the other girls in to the second type of harem: the one where multiple girls enjoy a romance with the protagonist. The aforementioned lead girl maintains a “first wife” position within the harem but it does make for a scenario where the protagonist has a main interest without making the other girls feel left out.

    I don’t approve of polygamy in real life, but from a pure fiction-writing standpoint, I do kind of respect the authorial choice to “give the audience what they want” and have the protagonist actually romance all of the harem. Granted, that doesn’t necessarily mean the harem itself is well-executed…

    The third type of harem is the one where pretty much all the girls seem to have about an equal chance with the lead. These are probably the ones most dependent on the actual execution of the harem concept, since there’s not too much inherently good or bad with this setup. If there is one issue, it’s that these can feel dragged out, almost by necessity because the moment the protagonist makes a choice, the central drama of the harem ends. For longer works, it can feel like there’s no real progress being made as the story tries to conjure up various contrivances to keep the harem on equal terms.

    The fourth type is the one where, after placing all the girls in the protagonist’s life, the story branches off to show an individual romance with each one in parallel storylines. This is, of course, the wheelhouse of dating sims and visual novels, and provides a nice setup where every girl has her chance without requiring polyamory. It doesn’t come up much in light novels, though, and it is admittedly a lot of extra work. But hey, it’s possible; OreImo is coming up with a “what if Ayase won” volume, after all.

    In general, I definitely agree that time to allow the protagonist to actually form a relationship with the harem members is best. I’m not a huge fan of cases where the harem member falls in love at first sight and just hangs around.

  3. One of my favorite animes that has a harem aspect to it is The World God Only knows. The protagonist unexpectedly accept a demonic pact to restore the spirits to his female schoolmate through an honest kiss. The premise is a little wonky, but the joke is that Kiema Kasuragi is the ultimate video game champion of dating simulators, and he uses all of the strategies at his disposal to find out what distresses the girls and have them fall for him. They lose their memories after the kiss, so he can move onto the next episode and next girl. It’s actually a really funny series and reasonably tame on fanservice mostly compared to most harem animes.

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