What Makes a Romance Novel?
First of all, let me come right out and say that no genre should be disparaged for existing. Many people look down on romance as though it is worthless or “too formulaic.” One of my favorite quotes upholding the romance genre comes from Diana Gabaldon, who said: “Harlequin romances have very strict guidelines as to length and content. So do sonnets and villanelles. Neither length nor guidelines have anything to do with the quality of writing or story.”
Lots and lots of novels have romances in them, and it drives me nuts when any story is dismissed as being “just a romance” because it happens to have a romantic subplot or pairing. Because, you know what? Being “just a romance” is pretty awesome.
But what does romance mean, exactly?
Romance as a genre is any story where the relationship between two (or sometimes more) characters is central to the plot and structure, and where those characters come together in at least a semi-permanent way. If your story is structured around a mystery that happens to be solved by people who fall in love, it is a romantic mystery. If your story is structured around people who fall in love and also happen to solve a mystery, it is a mystery romance. Another way to think of it is this: if you can take the romance plot out and still tell the same story, it isn’t a romance.
Romances can be paired with pretty much every other genre. I write fantasy romances, or romance novels with magic. But the Fay of Skye series is also alternate-history based on a fictional Victorian period, so you could say that I write “alternate history Victorian fantasy romance.”
There are also paranormal romances (typically the romance version of urban fantasy), contemporary romances (with a million subgenres, from billionaires to secret babies), historical romances (often set in the British Regency around 1800 or medieval Scotland), science fiction romances (usually space opera rather than Hard SF), military romances (SEALs are big), western romances (both Old West and contemporary cowboys), and just about anything else you can think of.
Notice that I don’t include LGBT or multi-cultural romance as specific genres, even though the publishers do. I don’t include them because ANY of those story types in my last paragraph can be told with minority or queer characters. I don’t feel like the skin color or sexual orientation of the main characters should define what genre they live in. The same is true for a lot of Christian romance. The character’s religious beliefs are just like skin color and sexual orientation – not genre-defining. In my opinion, anyway. Now, there are inspirational or Christian romances where the story is built around the religious experience (say, a mission trip or a pastor dealing with his congregation) and those are legitimate genre-defining qualities. But just having Christian characters should not define your story as a Christian romance.
Another thing I don’t include as defining a romance sub-genre is heat level. I’m going to do a different post about sex and romance, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but suffice to say that while heat level can help a reader determine if a book matches their comfort level/preferences, I don’t think it’s a useful distinction otherwise.
But here’s the heart of romance – the idea that relationships are important. That love is important. That connection, and family, and friendship (and, yes, sex, or being able to make one’s own decisions about sex), are all important. That hope is important – hope for the future, and hope for a better world. A Happily Ever After (or Happy For Now) ending doesn’t make romance an unrealistic genre. It makes us the genre of eternal optimism. At the end, after all of the trials and conflict and pain, our characters come together and are stronger because of their love. And that’s an idea worth celebrating.
To read my fantasy romance, check out one of these fine retailers:
And if you want to check out my guest blog over at A.J. Culey’s website, here’s the link!