Having harems in a story is a question that divides the LitRPG community. I will now answer the burning question of when it is and isn’t okay to have a harem.
It’s okay to have a harem if you’ve put in the time and effort to flesh out personalities, reasons why it adds to the story, reasons why it makes sense in the World, and why having a harem is better than treating women like competent allies and/or only having one main love interest. Since most authors do not do the leg work, most authors shouldn’t do it.
Let’s define harems. A harem is usually confused with but different from having multiple love interests.
As an example, in the incredibly overpowered Demon Accord series, there are two main females who are vying for the protagonist’s attention. The first is the only natural birth female vampire in existence (Tatiana) and the second is the first hybrid wolf vampire (Stacia).
Even though both females are vying for the male’s (Chris) attention, he starts off with the vampire (Tatiana) and never does anything romantic with the other female (Stacia). This can’t be considered a harem, just a love triangle or multiple love triangles.
A harem is when one male inextricably has every single woman vying for his attention. He is either sleeping with all of these women or at least wants to sleep with every woman he’s around.
Often harems are done so poorly that they elicit eye rolls and groans, but we have to ask, “Is the harem always a bad thing?” The easiest way to figure this out is to ask this question.
Why does this character act the way they do?
Let’s take an example, Blood and Bullets: Deacon Chalk. In this book, Deacon rescues women who have been sexually assaulted and/or raped and turns them into…. strippers for his bar.
Does this sound realistic to you? Do you think women who have been sexually assaulted think “Stripper” as their first line of work? So when we ask, “Why do these women become strippers” the answer is, “Because the plot needs them to be strippers to show how cool Deacon is.” Why do they instantly fall in love with Deacon? Because the plot needs them to. The end.
This is a terrible answer. Every character only serves as a symbol to show how awesome Deacon is, and every female that meets him instantly falls in love. Because strip club owner is the most prestigious job in the World according to this novel.
In contrast, we can look at the Daniel Black series. In Daniel Black, it’s a quasi-medieval World where women are not given high positions of power. Ruling powers and religions are often hostile to women. To gain influence and status, women have to prove themselves to be extraordinary or get attached to a man of high power.
Ragnarok is coming, and Daniel Black has the ability to create massive, well-defended fortifications against Fimbulwinter and the other encroaching terrors. Women are trying to get with him because he can defend against the incoming hordes of enemies and the eventual destruction of the Earth.
Thus if we ask the question why women are trying to get with him, we know that it’s because he can defend them against literal death. In addition, the harem members have functions and utility outside of their position in his harem.
He has a hearth witch that brews food and potions up that increase his strength and grant powers to other members of the coven and community. He has a spell witch that can fight and kill monsters. He has a member who is carrying a reincarnated goddess.
In addition to serving roles outside of the harem, they serve as an answer to a question. “Why would Daniel Black chose to stay in such a lethal World?” If he wasn’t getting something out of it, he would probably end his contract with Hecate and the story would end.
So from both a narrative standpoint of why there’s a harem and from a perspective of why women would agree to be in a harem, we can understand it. That doesn’t mean it always works, and if a story set in the realistic world where women were second-class citizens by birth is offensive to you, you’re not going to like it.
But within the context of its own story, it works. If we ask, “Why do the women act the way they do” the answer is “Because in this World, it’s either get involved with a powerful man or get killed.”
Most harems that I’ve read are unfortunately, more along the lines of Deacon Chalk. The women exist as props to showcase the awesomeness of the main character. Rather than describing mental attributes or how the women serve a role in the novel, the novel emphasizes how beautiful/big-tits/sexy ass and other physical features the woman has.
Ask the question:
If I removed this character from the harem, would the novel be affected at all?
If the answer is that removing the harem element doesn’t change the story, or removing a particular woman from the harem doesn’t change it, then your harem adds nothing to the story. But it’s even worse if you answer this question:
If I removed this character from the story, would the novel be affected?
If you can completely remove a character from the story without affecting the story, then that character detracts from the story. In good writing, every element should be adding something to it. Real life is messy, it’s filled with lots of irrelevant details, people, and events. Fiction is the antithesis of that, everything should be serving a point or purpose in furthering the novel.
Characters that add nothing useful to the story should be culled. Much like building multiple worlds, you’re better off building one solid romance than trying to shoehorn sixteen romances together in a harem.
Does a harem make sense in this World?
Your harem needs to make sense in the World. If your protagonist picks only one woman, why would the other women still hang around?
Going back to Demon Accords, John Conroe solves this by pairing up Stacia with another character, Declan. Unfortunately, he changes Stacia’s personality drastically in order to make this matchup work. This is why the shoehorned romance is a sore spot for fans of the series. If you start setting up love interests, you need to think them all the way through or you’re going to end up in oddball/forced scenarios.
Does the Harem building detract from the actual story?
It’s no secret that I really hate the third book of the Selfless Hero trilogy. But even in the first two, I hated the “teasing” scenes for harem building. It goes from a story about survival and figuring out how to keep everyone alive in a hostile World to completely inane dialogue. Worse, the reason why the PC, who admits that he sucks with women, and that the dialogue is lame, is getting all the women because….
He has a charisma score of 63.
Can you get any cheaper than that? If all of the harem scenes were removed and he talked to the women like they were competent allies, would the book have been better? Yes. I haven’t read all the reviews for the book, but I haven’t seen any that say, “Man, the exceptionally bad teasing scenes were the best. Get rid of all the conflict, and give me more inane and embarrassing dialogue scenes! Exposition for the win!”
Making Romance work
Even if you aren’t writing harems, but especially if you are, there are five overall things you need to accomplish to make a romance work.
Make me like the characters
Often, the reason why harems don’t work is because no thought is put into making the characters likeable. What are these characters like outside from being in a harem or being a potential love interest? If I don’t like the character, I’m not going to care about their love interest.
Make the characters interesting or have purpose outside of a romance
I already covered this one in detail in the points above, but it bears repeating. I should know something about a character besides “Slavishly in love with protagonist”.
Show me how these characters are better together
“I Love Lucy” works because the two characters, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Belle, work perfectly as a couple. In fact, they are the couple with Desi’s straight man performance matched against his wife’s antics.
Make me root for these characters getting together.
This is why the quasi-romance in House or Castle worked. Because we genuinely wanted the characters to get together. Yes, both dragged their heels for some contrived reasons, but we genuinely wanted Richard Castle and Kate Beckett to get together as a couple because we genuinely liked both characters.
Put believable obstacles in the way
If you want to do a romance, then you have to put believable obstacles in the way that prevents our two-obviously-meant-for-each other lovers at odds with each other. If done wrong, it can feel forced or contrived. If there are no obstacles, then you just get a happy couple, and that’s not romance so much as the result of romance.
Make the Protagonist work
This one got pointed out to me in a post on LitRPG Society by Thomas Taylor:
But in the shounen action genre, the character often has to work/fight their way to the top, thus giving us as viewers a long time to learn their personality, beliefs, and the people in their lives. In contrast, the harem genre starts off with overpowered protagonists, who often have little to no personality. In fact, I’d classify most of them as “bored” and “boring” as their main personality trait.
In review, if you’re thinking about making a harem in your novel, ask the following questions:
- Does your harem make sense in the World you’ve built up?
- Do your harem members have personalities and desires outside from being in a harem and/or revolve around something besides the main character?
- Do your characters serve a useful purpose outside of being in a harem?
- Does making women members of a harem add new depth and plot points that treating them like competent allies does not?
- Does making women members of a harem create a better emotional experience than having a single love or romantic interest?
- Does each of your love interests work as their own romance story?
- Did your protagonist do something to be loved by this harem of women?
Since most books answer “No” to those questions, most books should not have harems. They end up being self-indulgent power fantasies, irrelevant tripe, or outright sexist at worst.