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The term "harem" is frequently used to describe manga and anime series that feature one man surrounded by a variety of female romantic candidates.
The Harem is a popular theme in anime and manga. Often they work as a good excuse to have a variety of female cast to push toward a prominently male reading audience. Often times these series have a great deal of fan service to them.
The sign of a Harem series is best described as a anime or manga that has a small male cast that is primarily surrounded a large female cast.
Though a single male character may be surrounded by multiple women. It's not necessarily true that all will have some sort of romantic or sexual interest in him. It can be as few as two girls or the whole cast of women.
A Harem series normally has many standard types of characters present in each series. Only one real constant is the male lead of Harem series.
The males in Harem series are almost always rather awkward or 'common man' types. Not always the strongest or most handsome of the male cast. Most often they are rather average.
This is most likely to help the average manga reader to connect more with the lead character and wish to be in his place, surrounded by beautiful women who compete for them without doing much at all. It very much feeds into the male ego to be wanted above all others.
There are times that the male lead will have some special power about them. This is often tied into some secret in the plot of the story. It's a theme that appears in Harem series that have some form of fantasy or science fiction to them. This power is normally not in the control of the character.
If the male lead has a male friend in the series. More often this friend will be rather lecherous and encourage some of the worst in the leads personality or inadvertently giving poor advice on dealing with women, such as trying to goad the lead into peeking in on girls changing. Going so far as to question his manhood if he doesn't peak. They tend to do more harm then good, but mean well.
This kind of character is often present in a Harem series. They will already be popular with the ladies and most likely rich. Sometimes they are an alright personality, but more often they are real jerk type characters. The standard is that he will be a chief rival to the male lead for a certain female in the cast.
Though already surrounded by women, he will desire the one he can't seem to have. Feeding into the childish desire to only want what you can't obtain.
Without the cast of a variety of girls a Harem series would be very boring. Though a story may put twists on classic themes, many of the same character archetypes can be found in just about every series. Sometimes character traits are combined into different characters.
In manga and anime the girls may have a wild variety in hair color and designs. Series that tend toward a more realistic hair qualities will almost always have one blond.
In most series that has a girl among the harems that is a front runner in the male's affections. This girl is a normal all around beauty. Normally, she is very cute, but not overwhelmingly so. The body shape is normally good to average. The kind "you bring home to meet your mother" type.
This type of girl will often express her love for the lead character from the very beginning, or have love for the character and be too shy to admit the truth.
The Outgoing girl is normally a wilder personality. At times the character has much more in the way of a 'pretty face'. They are normally rather aggressive in their techniques to attract the male lead. These types of girls are normally very confident in their sexuality.
They almost always tend to lose out to the more demure type of characters. The male lead in harem series is often frightened off or intimidated by the aggressive tactics used by the outgoing girl.
The Shy type appears in many a Harem series. These characters are often introverts who have difficulty expressing their emotions. In more extreme cases they have difficulty talking to anyone at all.
In the case where the shy girl is among the love interests for the male lead. The male character has somehow helped or encouraged the girl to become less shy and have her express herself.
The childhood friend is a classic theme in many Harem series. More often when a series is based around a male lead in his home town. This girl is almost always the "girl next door" type.
If this character has a romantic interest in the male lead. They normally lose out to some 'new' more interesting character. (i.e. transfer student, alien, or other such fantastical character.)
The Tomboy character is a staple in the Harem series. Though almost never a front runner. The tomboy is petty much a female character who behaves in a more male like fashion. She doesn't tend to like to do 'girly' things and seems like she would be more interested in doing things like one of the guys.
The Delinquent or Wild Girl type of character normally doesn't show much respect for the rules of society or authority in general. She always seems to be in some sort of trouble with someone.
The Lolita is often popular in Harem series. The character is either very young or just behaves in a young manner. The character often times has an under developed body when compared to the rest of the female cast and it tend to bother her greatly.
These type of girls are normally far more relaxed emotionally. They don't speak much and often times don't show a great deal of emotion, though that doesn't mean they are emotionless.
In every Harem series there is almost always one girl who has impressively large breasts. These characters are normally the largest source of fan service in a manga or anime.
The Front Runner character can at times have large breasts, but those are in series that are heavy in the fan service.
Many Harem series has a female character who is rather oblivious when to comes to matters of love or sex. They are normally either not too bright, sheltered, or just not good with interactions of the romantic kind.
Almost all Harem series have some character that is very rich or has a lot of influence to offer things other girls can't. Sometimes they are even of royal decent.
A Front Runner Harem series is best defined where a male character may have a wide variety of females surrounding him. The one he will select is mostly obvious through most of the series.
The tradition in these kinds of series is that the first girl the male lead meets or has some sort of emotional connection with is the girl he will end up with at the end.
In the manga series Love Hina, the lead male, Keitaro Urashima, is surrounded by several women. Most of which eventually express some level of romantic interest in him. In the end, though there were some twists, he eventually ends up marrying the first girl he met in the manga, Naru Narusagawa.
The anime altered the beginning so the first girl he interacted with from the series was Shinobu, but this meeting didn't occur in the manga. The anime also ended, before the series reached a true finale.
The stories in the My-HIME series varied wildly, but the basic beginnings were the same. Yuuichi Tate arrives to Fuka Academy and sees Mai Tokiha crying. The anime version of the story altered the use of the 'key' characters, the use of the CHILD, and character relationships. Yuuichi and Mai have a deep connection that is shown throughout most of the anime series.
A Harem series that rarely if ever shows much favor for a particular girl is best defined as having no Front Runner. More then one seems to have a better chance in the end. These series most often end with no resolution to the finale. It's instead left up in the air as to the outcome.
The Tenchi series has had many different version of the story, but no real front runner is ever really present. The first girl the lead, Tenchi Masaki meets tends to vary in the different retelling of the story. All versions end with no real front runner.
The stories in the My-HIME series varied wildly, but the basic beginnings were the same. Yuuichi Tate arrives to Fuka Academy and sees Mai Tokiha crying. He proves to be the 'key' to both her CHILD and Natsugi Kuga's CHILD. He has a connection with these two girls and they often compete over his affections. The manga ends with no clear cut answer in the outcome.