Romance Genre Basics

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of LARA Confidential, the newsletter for RWA Chapter 25, Los Angeles Romance Authors.

By Laura Sheehan

The definition of romance as a literary genre is fairly straightforward. Per the RWA website, the two basic elements that define romance are:

A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.


This definition is simple, almost to a fault. So many stories can fall under this definition! And so the subgenres evolved. Still under the umbrella of “romance,” we can find dozens of stories that can be categorized into more specific groups. Some examples include:

Historical Romance: These novels are set in a specific time period in history. Authors strive to create a historically-accurate background for their stories, and will often weave authentic language, characters, dress, politics, and other details into their plots. Historical Romances can be written in any previous time period or location, despite the fact that many of us automatically associate “historical romance” with those stories set in Regency or Victorian England. Other popular settings include Medieval England, Viking Romances, Renaissance, Colonial U.S., and Civil War/Reconstruction U.S., although you can find romances set in almost any period in history.
Inspirational Romance: These novels incorporate religious or spiritual beliefs as an integral part of the romantic relationship. Although non-denominational by its definition, currently most novels written within this genre are Christian-based. Often, one or more of the characters in these stories will need to overcome a crisis of faith during the story’s arc, which must be resolved. Depending on the religious guidelines of the book in question, often there will be restrictions on the type of behavior that characters will be engaged in (e.g., no pre-marital sex). Amish romances would fall into this category.
Paranormal Romance: This subgenre is difficult to define, because it encompasses any romance that incorporates paranormal/fantasy elements or settings. This means that science fiction romances would fall under this category, as well as any story that includes shape-shifters, vampires, fae, witches, magic, ghosts, demons, elves, etc. Romances which take place in a setting other than the current period or known history would also be categorized as paranormal, such as alternate histories or those set in the future, as well as stories which take place on different planes or planets. Time-Travel, Urban Fantasy, and Steampunk are three examples of sub-subgenres that would fall under this category.
Romantic Suspense: Identifying features of this subgenre include elements of danger, action, tension, thrills, adventure, rescue, and/or mystery. In romantic suspense, the hero/heroine may have to traverse a series of nail-biting adventures before they can live happily ever after. Some people define romantic thrillers has having a more wide-reaching sense of danger than romantic suspense novels (e.g., in a romantic suspense the antagonist may be a jilted lover who is bent on revenge; whereas in a romantic thriller the antagonist may be an international crime lord bent on starting a nuclear war). Mysteries are also often categorized under this genre, as they frequently include elements of tension, danger, and action.
Young-Adult Romance: The target audience for books in this genre are adolescents and young adults, although many adults read this genre as well. Often abbreviated as YA, these stories almost always have an adolescent hero/heroine. The internal conflicts in these stories typically are consistent with the age of the protagonist(s), but the external conflicts can vary widely (everything from the normal coming-of-age conflicts to saving the universe from destruction). New Adult is a recently created subgenre that focuses on older adolescents or young adults (18-25 years of age).
LGBT Romance: Like YA, this categorization focuses more on the identifying characteristics of the main characters, rather than the setting, plot, or tone of the novel itself. In LGBT romances, the hero/heroine(s) identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Many LGBT romances can fall under the definition of other subgenres as well.
Erotic Romance: Most of the aforementioned subgenres can sustain a variety of heat levels (from chaste to steamy), with inspirational romance being an exception. However, if the sexual content of the story is the primary focus, it can be considered an erotic romance. In these stories, the sexual interactions are integral to the plot, character growth, and development of the relationship. It should be noted, however, that there is a difference between erotic romance and erotica. The primary goal of erotica is to elicit sexual desire or satisfaction. Unlike erotic romance, erotica novels do not need to focus on the emotion of love and they do not necessarily need to have a happily-ever-after ending.
Contemporary Romance: Often, romance novels that don’t fall under one of the subcategories above will be considered Contemporary Romance. The only defining factor for this subgenre (besides the general factors which define a romance: a primary focus on the romantic relationship and a happy ending) is that they are set in the current time period.

Sometimes a book may fall under more than one subgenre. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, for example, can be classified as a contemporary, paranormal, young-adult romance. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander contains elements of historical romance, paranormal, and suspense.

If you need to choose a single genre under which your novel would primarily be categorized (e.g., in order to choose the correct category for a contest submission), consider where your book would be shelved at a bookstore and which readers you are trying to attract. For example, some readers simply do not like paranormal. If your main character is a psychic with the magical ability to read people’s minds, it doesn’t matter how much danger and adventure your heroine faces, you would be better off classifying it as a paranormal rather than a suspense. The young-adult subgenre also trumps most other genres as the primary classification. For example, even though the Mortal Instruments books (by Cassandra Clare) could be considered paranormal, suspense, and contemporary, their YA distinction overrules the rest as its primary categorization.

There are almost certainly some subgenres that I’ve forgotten to include here, and even more that have yet to be defined. I expect that as the romance genre readership continues to expand, so too will the diversity of its content.

Laura Sheehan writes romantic suspense, paranormal, and fantasy/sci-fi. Her award-winning romantic suspense, Dancing with Danger (published by Red Sage), can be purchased online at Amazon, B&, and the Red Sage website.

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