Oh, So Tropical: The Stupid Harem Protagonist

You’ve seen harem shows. Just admit it. Admit that you are powerless, and put yourself in the hands of a higher power.

No, wait. That’s for alcohol.

But still, the comic possibilities of a harem show are pretty obvious. Slap-stick, double entendre, sight gags, mistaken identity: everything is fair game so long as you can keep the story going.

That’s the hard part in a harem story, of course. You have to keep the story going even though 99% of the time everyone knows who the male main character is going to end up with. So you have to find reasons to keep Boy and Girl apart, because when they hook up the story is done.

One easy way keep the two of them apart is to make him stupid. You can’t make HER stupid, because then the audience will ask, “What does he see in her?” But it’s EASY to make HIM stupid. And since it’s easy, it’s done a lot. That’s what makes the stupid harem protagonist a trope. Der.

Poor Keitaro has to choose from among these lovelies in Love Hina. Here’s a clue for you, Jack: the two on the left are twelve years old!

Now to be fair, stupid is probably not the best descriptor. In most harem stories the main male character, if he’s not a school kid, is involved with some reasonably respectable profession at which he is at least minimally competent. He can be an accountant or some kind of middle manager, or an artist of some kind (often in video games). He can even be high up in his business/company: yes, he’s so devoted to his work that he is clueless about the female of the species.

Bingo. Not really stupid, just clueless. Maybe even nerdy. But I’ll call him stupid anyway.

You see, that stupidity is what extends the series. He doesn’t understand that the girls/women of the harem are chasing after him, and doesn’t believe (or doesn’t know) that the girl/woman of his dreams is also dreaming of him. Or both.

Dramatically speaking, HE HAS TO NOT KNOW. When you each the moment that he realizes that she wants him as much as he wants her, the story is done! That’s Boy Gets Girl, as in Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Track of Girl in a Pile of Other Girls, Boy Gets Girl. (Not just comedy but harem comedy!)

Now, it’s possible for him to be clueful, but that leads us down two paths that make him unattractive, and since he’s the main character, that bodes ill for the success of the series. One path is that he can be a horndog. Oh, wow, all these women are throwing themselves at me? Well, then I’ll take ALL OF THEM.

You see the problem with that right off, I hope. First of all, that makes him a user, a player. It might be possible to envy that person, but most of us are wired to respect monogamy, so that makes him unsympathetic. Second, how the heck is the story line supposed to resolve? At the end he’s supposed to be with his one and only…only she ain’t the only if he’s been screwing around.

Yeah, um, oops.

The second clueful situation is that he knows what’s going on and yet he only has eyes for his lady. That’s noble and it makes him a respectable character, but what it does is take the tension out of the series. He wants A. He gets A. Where’s the conflict in that?

But if he’s stupid, you avoid both of those. He can be endearing, a charming klutz, a naif. (You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever used the word ‘naif’ in a sentence.) Better yet, he can give the audience a sense of superiority: Poor male main character, I, the viewer, know they are all hot for him and he can’t figure it out. I must be smarter than he!

Making him stupid (Clueless. Nerdy. Whatever.) is an AUTOMATIC source of tension in the story: will he figure it out, or won’t he figure it out? And the more they throw at him, the stronger the tension gets.

That tension is what makes the stupid harem protagonist a trope: he automatically creates narrative conflict. You throw him into the story, you get conflict. Will he find his one and only, or won’t he? It’s AUTOMATIC.

With tension built into your story, all you have to do is make him attractive or sympathetic in some way. And there are a zillion ways to do that. You’re a writer. Figure it out. Then you have a story that can run for as long as you like and the audience can buy into the premise.

Poof. Tropes is your friend.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

4 thoughts on “Oh, So Tropical: The Stupid Harem Protagonist

  1. I kind of wish more harem stories would draw to a reasonable close at a reasonable point. There comes a time where they really are just stretching out the clueless or whatever act to the point where it just becomes frustrating even if initially the character interactions were pretty enjoyable.
    Then again, I like stories that have closure and prefer things that simply tell the story they want to tell and then end solidly.


  2. Yeah the “stupid” male protagonists are kind of everywhere even in normal romances even if its not a harem. I wanna see some non-frustrating main character but these harem shows seem to sell well even if the author isnt creative with their writing since the female characters are the main sales point…


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