Boy Meets Girl. And Girl. And Girl. And Girl. The Romantic Comedy meets Love Dodecahedron, this is what happens when a Ordinary High-School Student who is unlucky in love finally manages to roll a natural 20 on his CHA check.
The result is that the protagonist, previously unlucky in love, suddenly has several girls all vying for his attention at the same time. One of the most popular Anime and Manga storylines due to its pure unadulterated wish fulfillment — this is the major setup for Romance Games (often called Dating Sims in the US), which are frequently made into an Anime as a form of cash in. That shouldn't stop you from doing one, remember Tropes Are Not Bad, and the story of conflicted lovers is as old as time itself.
Much of the advice on Write a Magical Girlfriend Series also deals with harems as well.
Go here if want to make the protagonist.
- Fanservice: A Harem series is essentially a fanservice series. You need to make your characters very appealing both to the protagonist and to the audience. This includes specific Shout Outs to the audience. Naked Apron, Beach Episode, etc etc. However, it is possible to put in way too much Fanservice
- Love Dodecahedron: You don't have a series without at least some relationship conflict. In most cases, this is at least 3 characters being in love with The Protagonist, who is unable to choose. If there's only 2 rivals for his affection, it's a Love Triangle.
- Note that these do not necessarily have to be serious contenders. The situation could shake out to a Official Couple or a Love Triangle situation, with the extra, "beta" characters being Pretty Freeloaders or be genuinely interested — but not to the point of the "real" relationship interests. Many Love Dodecahedron situations in harems turn out to have some of the beta characters having Hidden Depths in the form of outside relationships — a girl who initially seems to be pining for the guy may actually be suffering after losing her husband to illness, or be awaiting her fiancee's return from overseas.
- Status Quo Is God: You don't have a series if he picks a girl and spits it out, so naturally he won't be able to.
- Accidental Pervert and many of the Mistaken for Index tropes: Misunderstandings are going to move your plot forward, you should stop thinking about avoiding them and start thinking about how to do them well.
First things first, you will need to figure out the level of harem-ness. Is it a protagonist with a large number of Pretty Freeloaders and a rapidly less understanding girlfriend? Is it a pair of Childhood Friends both realizing their feelings for The Protagonist at the same time he finally makes progress with the new exchange student? Is it a band manager trying to keep a group of diverse personalities from killing each other?
How bizarre the harem is? Surely you want some diversion and variety, but this is depending on your setting and tone of story. Handle it carefully, for having unusual girls can make the harem look more interesting, but they also add more question you need to answer.
- Normal girls: Childhood Friend, Tomboy Genki Girl, Tsundere Alpha Bitch, Shrinking Violet Meganekko, etc. This is basic group, easily fit in any setting.
- Exotic but not unusual girls: New Transfer Student Princess, Idol Singer, The Stoic Student Council President, etc. Unlike the first group, to has these girls in harem mean this guy is indeed a special guy. Think of some good reason why they're in the harem. A simple handwave may be enough to justify one of these special girls being in the harem (hey, he may be just a really lucky guy to catch her attention). But unless it's backed up by good writing, you harem hero can easily come off as a Marty Stu.
- Girls that you won't see in Real Life: Cute Ghost Girl, Token Mini-Moe Cute Witch, Friendly Neighborhood Vampire, Magical Girl, Angel, Ridiculously Human Robot Girl, Succubus, Opposite-Sex Clone, Human Alien, etc. On plus side, it's clear that you're writing fantasy here (Urban Fantasy if you can justify their presence in a modern setting), and the audience will question less about their reason to fall in love than group 2's. On the other hand, do not expect to keep audiences satisfied with just romance and drama, they expect something special from this harem.
There are good harem stores, and there are bad harem stories. The genre does not work without actual interpersonal conflict. If one character isn't likable, then there's no reasonable struggle, no drama.
While Harem Series have a very classic series of tropes, it's very important not to fall into the standard formula too much, lest you be seen as going through the motions. Status Quo Is God, but pointing this out too much will push your luck with the audience.
Avoid abruptly Cleaning Up Romantic Loose Ends as best you can.
Be careful with Clueless Chick Magnet protagonists who don't notice or react to their harem's affections. The general consensus among viewers is that "dense" protagonists are annoying to watch, even if they won't immediately sink a show.
Potential Subversions and Variations
There's a reason masculine pronouns have been used so far — flip the genders. Girl with Boy, Boy, Boy, Boy. This is becoming more popular as creators across the world try to defy the Girl-Show Ghetto.
Flip the sexuality of the characters. Boy with Boy, Boy, Boy, Boy, or Girl with Girl, Girl, Girl, Girl. A popular gag character is a gay character getting in on the harem against the protagonist's wishes, or joining the Harem not to chase after the protagonist, but to chase after another character in the harem — and this is ALWAYS played up for the creep factor — after all, there's No Bisexuals, right? Another one: Boy with Girl, Girl, Boy, Boy or a Girl torn between the hunky new exchange student and her best female "friend".
The end result of almost all of these series is the characters pairing off with each other, one at a time. The subversion then becomes if The Protagonist, or his harem, simply refuse to be shut out by a silly thing like monogamy. Kanokon did this to hilarious effect — Kouta ultimately picks Chizuru but that hardly slows Nozomu down — and in the end, they decide to share him.
A common subtype (based on the first major Deconstruction of this trope, Urusei Yatsura, which ironically came before the Harem Anime really was codified as a trope) is to have the guy be a royal pervert and the "harem" unable to stand him for more than a few minutes at a time — at first. Flipping this, having an asexual character, one who is genuinely not interested in the harem , is the much darker "stalker" type — when the "harem" is all in the protagonist's head, and they are all genuinely not interested. The Harem Anime setup is usually played up for comedy — but it doesn't have to be.
Perhaps the least used variation would be to not focus on the guy in the middle at all. Try taking a look at the situation from the POV of a girl who has to compete with four or five other girls for someone's affections. What makes this boy so special to her? Is her interest in him really romantic in nature, or she really just a friend who doesn't want to lose him to a girlfriend? What will she do to stand out in his eyes, and most importantly, what will she do if he picks her? What if he doesn't?
A lot of harem animes have the guy finally choosing the Patient Childhood Love Interest or the Tsundere. Why not surprise the audience and have him choose the brainy chick, the otaku, the Cool Big Sis, or the gangster girl? Heck, speaking of Tsunderes, how about avoiding Double Standard: Abuse, Female on Male?note
The Parents - So often, the families of the main characters are given generic characterization, provided that they show up or are mentioned at all. Defy this Adults Are Useless trope by including the Moms and Dads of the protagonist and his harem in some of your plots. Are they encouraging this farce? Are they trying to talk sense into their son(s) and daughter(s)? What could be some wholly original plotlines that could be told if you had such authority figures wading through this quagmire?
Every harem series are usually in a high school setting. Why not age up the characters and make it either a college setting or take out schools all together and have the characters just be adults whom are juggling everyday issues and romantic relationships?
The Unwanted Harem. The standard motif of this series is one "true" pairing, which The Protagonist will not realize until the end. If one of the harem characters (the "one true paring") realizes this before he does expect lots of Cannot Spit It Out.
The Romance Arc, obviously. In addition, everything under Fanservice and Romantic Comedy, only with multiple parings. Eventually the series has to end — the Romantic False Lead might start to make an appearance as some of the tetrinary characters, which may or may not go over well.
Generation Xerox is also a type commonly used in fanfiction, but rarely if at all in a series: The whole harem thing was resolved a long time ago. The Protagonist made his choice, and everyone's come to terms with that and gone on with their lives, found other loves, and everyone has children of their own... Then puberty starts to kick in with the new generation, and wouldn't you know it, it's all centered on the Official Couple's child, or the child of another couple, or someone else entirely. Suddenly, the parents see what it was like on the outside of the situation they grew up with. Some may despair, some may laugh, others may see it as a second chance of sorts (especially if there were other matters aside from (or alongside) feelings influencing their participation in the first place): If I couldn't have you, my son will have your daughter.
Why not make your story set around a literal harem? Powerful Kings, Khans and Emperors across the centuries have been noted in keeping several (or more) concubines or wives, spawning a massive dynasty. Take a break from the Strictly Formula setting of modern day High School and have yourserlf a story set in such a historical (or High Fantasy inspired) empire, and your protagonist is/was the Spare to the Throne who has suddenly found himself an only child, and needs to pick a bride from one of the families in court, or at least spawn an heir or three. Suddenly, you have a justified reason for the Protagonist to have been unlucky-in-love before now and suddenly have to deal with all these women, and suddenly, instead of the heroines being somewhat bratty teenagers who start of Tug Lover War at the drop of a hat, the heroines are darker, more schemy-er versions of the typical Harem Genre Archetypes, with a reason to be so fixated on the same man. Comedy may (or may not) still be apart of the feel of the story, but the audience suddenly finds it balanced with court politics and nasty schemes and temporary alliances.
Set Designer / Location Scout
- Almost universally, you're going to be looking at young characters, and young characters almost always mean schools, libraries, and the like.
- You need a Big Fancy House — or dorm, or inn, or apartment complex — that will hold 3-10 people comfortably.
- A Beach Episode is almost a requirement. A Hot Springs Episode is usually par for the course, as well.
- Mixing in some other genres — scifi, fantasy, etc — is possible as well, and would definitely affect your location choices.
- Transfer Student Uniforms and casual wear that plays up the characters' personality. Fanservice outfits are common as well.
- See Mahou Sensei Negima! as a textbook example of the genre minus (most of) the sexual overtones — the guy is a child. Just about every Anime girlfriend trope is in here — not that there's anything wrong with that. You have mysterious foreigners, glasses-wearing girls, slightly chubby girls, genki girls, a Tsundere with a past, a Ojou with a shotacon complex, pairs of mischievous twins, a schoolgirl lesbian or two, sporty girls, a ghost girl, a vampire Elegant Gothic Lolita, a robot.. However, this should not be considered a typical Harem Anime series, as outside of casting, was a textbook case of Writer Revolt — the author and artist wanted to do a fighting manga, his publisher wanted a harem manga, and he played along until it was popular enough that he could do a Genre Shift.
- Your protagonist is probably going to be an Unlucky Everydude but this is not required. How about a guy that's The Ace and Oblivious to Love? Or worse (for the girls) — The Ace who also happens to be Straight Gay?
- At least one character, most likely the "one true girl" will be a Tsundere who Cannot Spit It Out. A Yandere foil is becoming common as well, played up for a various balance between creep factor and comedy.
- Standard other female characters include:
- The Smart Girl (Glasses, short hair, very meek)
- The Hard-Drinking Party Girl ("American" style characterization, very outgoing, often lustful)
- The girl he's known since childhood (Patient Childhood Love Interest optional)
- The Token Mini-Moe (usually the little sister of one of the girls, often too young to be an actual contender)
- The Magical Girlfriend (alien, witch, monster-girl, etc)
- The Christmas Cake (Often a teacher, often very concerned with the goings on, which she uses to justify her growing attraction.)
- And let's not forget that a story can't solely focus on the romantic hijinks. Well... You can, but that can get monotonous. Spice things up a little by introducing secondary characters to help shape your story. Such as...
- Those Two Guys - Your protagonist probably has a few friends, acquaintances, neighbors or amiable coworkers before striking it (un)lucky. What are their thoughts on the events? While your protagonist is an audience surrogate for Wish Fulfillment, these characters can be an audience stand-in for how they might react if these events were happening to someone they knew, making them fertile for gaining popularity from the fans for completely different reasons.
- Harem Nanny - An older, usually female, character who acts as a calming authority figure in the household. Be it a Tug Lover War that threatens to go to far, the threat of inserting yet another romantic interest in the last story arc, a Tsundere running a muck more than usual, or simply a visiting relative our protagonist doesn't want to learn about what's with all these women, she is the one to add a calming, logical influence to mitigate the insanity. Fans adore these types of characters due to their no-nonsense attitudes, them finding just as much amusement in the situation as they do, and the fact that she actually gives a straight answer! An author can also use her as an avatar to help guide the relationships, as well as help hint to the audience who (if any at all) will win in the end. Probably the only recurring female character who never has any romantic interest in your protagonist in the whole story.
- The aforementioned parents.
- An external conflict - Forcing the harem members to cooperate against some outside problem can trigger changes in their relationships. Particularly applicable to Battle Harems.
- Tenchi Muyo! (OVAs 1 and 2) are essentially the most famous harem in the United States, and one of the codifiers of many tropes associated with the genre. They also invented one of the more common solutions to the harem problem.
- Ranma ½ starts piling on the harem girls — and then the girls gain their own harems. Plays up just about every related trope, despite Word of God saying that Akane and Ranma are the real couple and everyone else is just a distraction. Shipping wars follow this series to this very day.
- Similarly, Urusei Yatsura was messing with this trope in the early 80s — with the Universe's biggest pervert Ataru Moroboshi trying to invoke this trope, and failing. Had an odd case of pseudo-Running the Asylum — the fans vastly preferred Lum, who was originally going to be the distraction between the original Official Couple, Ataru and Shinobu.
- SHUFFLE! was a rare example that ended the Love Dodecahedron before the series did.
- The brutal School Days took this general idea and dashed in a nearly Warhammer 40,000-level of GrimDark. Proof that a Harem Anime doesn't have to be comedy.
- Kanokon has a guy who is a nearly asexual cute little boy being hounded by two extremely lusty and busty girls. (Continuing this, they decide to share him in the end.)
- Elfen Lied is what you get when you take a Harem Anime and remove the comedy, replacing it with drama and gore.
- Ouran High School Host Club is a Stealth Parody of Shoujo Romantic Comedy stories, but specifically aims towards Reverse Harem. Oh, and it has plot behind the absurd amount of comedy.
ContestedSome examples that worth the look so you can SEE the pros and con.
- Love Hina: Arguably the Trope Codifier of the harem genre, the reason why it became so popular. Pros: a colorful cast of characters with quirky personalities and healthy amounts of fanservice. Cons: The women enjoy beating up the boy they're supposed to be in love with. A lot.
- Rosario + Vampire: Despite all you heard about them is...Fanservice, or Loads of them. Pros: Good for making the Harem aspect and Interspecies Romance sadly serious and fleshed out, Cons: Too much fanservice, especially the Anime.
- The Wallflower involves people trying to invoke the Reverse Harem version of this to live in a swanky house without paying rent.
The Epic Fails
- Tenchi Muyo! (OVA 3) shows that harem stories that are filled with My Kung-Fu Is Stronger Than Yours can dilute the plot to the point of pointlessness, and the addition of Mary Sues to the cast never helps.
- Tenchi Muyo! GXP also shows that trying to stay Strictly Formula is fine, but shows still need some form of extra oomph to push it up from "mediocre," to "watchable." As with OVA 3, this Tenchi series seemed to have the harem aspect just because everyone expects a Tenchi series to have a harem (never do this), and when harem antics are something you just endure so you can watch the ever wacky antics of Seriyo Tennan, you've messed up.
- Guardian Hearts has the wacky-type harem with an alien princess, a Ninja, a protector of Earth and some more. It's also a Cliché Storm of the highest level and very boring and uninspired, both for story and visuals/sound.