The Breakdown - What is Romance?
Welcome to another instalment of ‘The Breakdown’, the series where I explain complicated publishing terms simply.
Following on from the first entry in this series, I will be continuing to discuss book classifications as part of my deep dive into the different genres of fiction. This time I will be looking at ROMANCE. This genre type, though not my personal favourite, is one of the bestselling in fiction, and therefore well worth exploring.
What is the Romance Genre?
From Jane Austen to Helen Fielding to E.L. James this genre takes many different forms. So, what exactly do we mean by Romance? The definition given by Wikipedia describes it as —
“...a type of genre fiction novel which places its primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people, and usually has an "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.“
That seems quite simple really, a romance book should rely quite heavily on the romance arc. Many books include a romance arc as their B plot, depending on the genre and target reader, meaning romance is arguably both the most popular genre, and the most used trope across the board in fiction.
All genre books, no matter what type, have certain tropes that identify them to their particular genre. There are literally hundreds of tropes classic to romance but with the help of shereadsromancebooks.com and WritersWrite I have shortlisted some of my favorites:
Armed Forces - hero/ine falls for someone in the armed forces, or is in the armed forces and falls for a colleague, the job creates conflict for the love story. Example: Purple Hearts (Tess Wakefield)
Beauty & the Beast - The hero, often disfigured or injured in an accident, must overcome his physical and emotional scars to find love with the heroine. Example: Beauty & The Beast (1991)
Betrayal / Revenge - hero/ine is betrayed by love interest, maybe purposefully or maybe due to a misunderstanding, often leading to central character wanting retribution. Example: Dance with the Devil (Sherrilyn Kenyon)
Bodyguard / Guardian or Ward - hero/ine is in danger or must be protected, they fall in love with their protector. Example: The Bodyguard (1992)
Forbidden Love - a connection between two people who shouldn’t be together due to certain oppositional factors. Example: Romeo & Juliet (William Shakespeare)
Love Triangle - Hero/ine is caught in a three-way romantic relationship, usually with a stable and dependable, but boring match, vs the exciting partner who is wild and destructive, but filled with passion. The hero/ine must chose between their lovers or risk losing both of them. Example: The Notebook (Nicholas Sparks)
Secret Baby / Unexpected Pregnancy - Heroine has a baby too young and must adapt to a slightly derailed life, fighting adversity and finding love in the process / a hero learns that he has a secret baby with an old flame that could destroy a current relationship, or in a more optimistic outcome, help him fix his wild ways and be the father and partner he was destined to be. Example: Where the Rainbows End (Cecelia Ahern) / Love, Rosie (2014)
Single Parent - Hero/ine must grieve the loss of their spouse while caring for their kids. They navigate finding love under their new circumstances. Example: A Nordic King (Karina Halle)
According to Reedsy Blog and shereadsromancebooks.com the following are considered subgenres of Romance.
Notable Example: The Hating Game (Sally Thorne)
Best Friend’s Brother/Sister - hero/ine falls in love with their best friend’s brother/sister creating conflict in both relationships.
Beta Hero / Girl Next Door - the good guy, guy next door, the sensible and sensitive choice for the hero/ine or an unrequited love (such as the popular girl/boy at school) that the hero/ine wins over throughout the story, both learning they have hidden depths.
Bully - hero/ine falls for their bully but must confront them for their previous sadism. Bully must atone for past misdeeds.
Notable Example: Fifty Shades of Grey Series (E.L. James)
Alpha Hero / BDSM /Domme Heroine / Dom Alpha - Love interest is strong-willed domineering or hyper-masculine, successful and wealthy. Power dynamic often at the forefront of the romantic arc.
Amnesia / Mistaken Identity - the hero/ine suffers from temporary or permanent memory loss or is living under a false identity - usually accidentally.
Boss & Secretary - hero/ine falls in love with their boss or secretary, there is a pronounced power dynamic at play that both titillates and creates conflict in the relationship.
Billionaire / Secret Billionaire - mysterious billionaire becomes romantically interested in hero/ine or is a secret billionaire testing the hero/ine to see if they are interested in more than just money.
Fantasy / Sci-fi Romance
Notable Example: A Court of Thorns and Roses (Sarah J. Maas)
AI - hero/ine falls for a sentient robot or disembodied / holographic AI. Example: Her (2013)
Cursed! - the hero/ine may have fallen under a curse, spell, or wicked charm that only the love interest can break or reverse.
Blackmail / Kidnapped - hero/ine is kidnapped, or blackmailed into marrying the romantic interest, possibly as revenge for a slight or insult earlier in the story.
Magical Hero/ine - the hero/ine discovers they are a magical being / their powers are awakened and they must navigate a romantic relationship plus the obstacles that come with their new powers.
Time Travellers - hero/ine is or falls in love with a time traveller and must deal with the obstacles this introduces to their romance (e.g. disappearing / incompatible timelines)
Notable Example: Outlander (Diana Gabaldon)
Heiress / Royalty - the love interest or hero/ine is royalty or heir to a great fortune and often tasked with marrying correctly based on the social expectations of their upper class society.
Cowboys - love interest embodies frontier moral code, rough, hyper-masculine, salt-of-the-earth but a little bit chauvinistic.
Notable Example: Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda (Becky Albertalli)
Coming Out - LGBTQ+ hero/ine decides to “come out” and live their best life while finding love (or heartbreak) in the process.
Bisexual Hero - romantic lead is, or becomes aware of bisexuality, and has dalliances with lovers of both sexes. Often includes love triangle.
Female-Female-Male / Male-Male-Female - love triangle between bisexual characters. Polyamorous exchange creates conflict.
Gay for You - previously heterosexual hero/ine has homosexual awakening.
New Adult Romance
Notable Example: The Partner Track (Helen Wan)
Age Gap / May-December - there is a large age gap between the hero/ine and love interest. Example: Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
Au-Pair Abroad / Fish Out of Water - hero/ine takes job in foreign location becoming fish out of water and often starts relationship with (often older) local or their (usually single) employer.
Christmas Romance / Home for the Holidays - holiday is the setting of the story, hero/ine returns and rekindles romance with old flame or is reminded of the person they used to be before they fell pray to becoming a work monster in the “big city”.
Country Inn / Rags to Riches - city-slicking hero/ine inherits or buys quaint B&B in sleepy town and must hang up their old life and adopt a more rural mindset, with the help of a hunky farm-boy.
Medical / Legal / Cop / Office Romance - romance takes place in a workplace, often jeopardising the hero/ine’s career track.
Unexpected Parenthood - free-wheeling, usually irresponsible, hero/ine is saddled with caring for children after death of a family member, friend, or previous lover who secretly had their child. They must navigate a romantic relationship while finding their feet as a parent, frequently failing at both.
Notable Example: Felix Ever After (Kacen Callender)
Asian Hero - hero/ine is from Asia / of Asian descent navigating living in a western country
Circle of Friends - three protagonists in the same friend group are searching for love while also pursuing their own careers and passion in parallel stories.
Notable Example: Warm Bodies (Issac Marion)
Alien Hero - Human hero/ine falls in love with, or is abducted by, an other worldly creature.
Mythical Creature - hero\ine falls for a ghost, Mermaid, witch, vampire, Werewolf, Shapeshifter. This pairing creates conflict as two very different worlds collide.
Return from the Dead - a love interest who was thought to be dead is revived using magic, or becomes an otherworldly being (e.g. Vampire)
Notable Example: Bridgerton Series (Julia Quinn)
Weddings - love interests meet or are thrown together at a wedding, ball or other high society function.
Secrets & Lies - social morays and high society gossip are a major factor in the romance arc. One or both of the love interests may be hiding a secret, altruistically or not, or be lying. Revelation of this will either damage or strengthen the relationship (depending on the circumstances).
Runaway Bride - hero/ine may be betrothed to the wrong person, or someone they don’t want to marry, and will run away to pursue another relationship. Possibly with the original suitor coming to reclaim their lost bride and causing mayhem.
Notable Example: Bridget Jones Series (Helen Fielding)
Blind Date / Dating Game - hero/ine set up on a date with a twist. The love interest usually being someone they already know but hadn’t considered as a romantic prospect (e.g. boss, friend, etc.)
The Dare/Bet - the heroine takes up a challenge from friends or a rival to date or bed a popular young man – or an unpopular wallflower. She eventually loses her heart to him until he learns of her deception.
Bachelor Auction - heroine buys a date with a handsome player and starts a romance.
Makeover - a dumpy hero/ine who is nerdy or dresses weird gets makeover to help them win over the hot boy/girl they have a crush on. Either wins the popularity race, or learns that they were better as they were before and returns to that with a renewed sense of self.
Romantic Suspense [https://tracycooperposey.com/what-is-romantic-suspense-i/]
Notable Example: Mr perfect (Linda Howard)
Forced Proximity - hero/ine is forced to be around another character due to circumstance, or potentially being held prisoner by them. A romance arc can result, or they grow close to another character who offers them sanctuary from their circumstance.
Hidden Identity - the hero/ine or their love interest is lying about who they are. Either accidentally (due to amnesia) or purposefully for selfish reasons.
Trauma - hero/ine is a victim of a traumatic experience and is living with the consequences. Their love interest could be a person trying to help them or their abuser hiding their identity.
Notable Example: Beauty and the Baller (Ilsa Madden-Mills)
Athlete Hero - romantic arc centres around one or both characters being highly engaged in sports, the characters’ goal of achieving greatness creates conflict.
Rival / Forbidden Romance - hero/ine falls in love with someone from a rival school, team, etc.
Notable Example: Five Feet Apart (Mikki Daughtry, Rachael Lippincott, and Tobias Iaconis)
Coming of Age / First Love / Virgin - first love for the hero/ine with the prerequisite sweetness or intensity depending on the slant / story may also be centre around losing their virginity or their goal to lose their virginity.
Frenemies - characters are friendly rivals who eventually fall in love / a hero/ine learns their current partner is secretly scheming to ruin their social standing and hero/ine must fight back and get revenge.
Small Town - characters live in small town - the people and town play a bit role (both negatively & positively) on the outcome of the relationship. Hero/ine may have plans to leave their small town, due to not fitting in, but meet love interest who renews their interest in their small town.
Terminal Situations - one or both characters in the romance arc is ill with a serious / terminal illness. They embark on a romantic journey despite this. Often one will die.
Wrong Side of the Tracks - hero/ine falls in love with a bad boy/girl and either falls in with a bad crowd and must eventually leave their beau, or they realise their wild lover is more complicated than expected and helps them to live a better life.
Typical Expectations of this Genre
Mainstream Romance novels seem to sit somewhere between 70-90K words, which puts them at a relatively comfortable reading length for most people. The popularity of these books likely stems for their highly fantasisable, upbeat, generally breezy and lighthearted plots. It’s a nice story to read while you relax on holiday or to melt away a stressful work week. It’s escapism in its truest form where everything works out and you don’t have to dwell on life’s grittier problems.
The main target audience for the Romance genre is women, who are said to make up 84% of the total readership. According to the Nielsen’s Romance Book Buyer Report (yep, that’s a thing) the average reading age for these novels is 42 years old, down from 44 in 2013, with a significant portion of those readers being in the 18-44 age bracket.
While researching this article, I came across this reddit thread asking why there are not really any romance books targeted at the male demographic, which I’m not sure I agree with. I think there are some romance orientated books that follow a male perspective, including Paper Town’s by John Green and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. You maybe wouldn’t paint these as your typical romance books due to their sad natures, but that could speak to the ways in which men and women romanticise love. I’d have to do more research on the subject, but it’s an interesting thought.
Is this currently in fashion (as of 2022)?
Despite being an extremely popular book genre, Romance is often looked down on or considered a ‘guilty pleasure’, as so many things targeted at women are. However, despite this, it still persists in being one of the bestselling genres ever. Although, like so many things, it appears that people’s opinions on the Romance genre have had a bit of a renaissance in recent years.
According to this article by I-D, following the pandemic (and a reduction in the systemic poo-pooing of “things women typically like”), has seen a huge surge in popularity as of 2022. Which, while this is a great thing for romance writers the world around, I doubt this genre will ever be considered unpublishable. Practically all people have felt the familiar joy (or sting) of falling in love — even if they don’t really care to read about it.
There are many different facets to the romance genre. It is one of the most flexible genres due to the fact it can be placed in almost any scenario. You can turn almost any situation into a romance, which is probably another reason it is so popular. You are able to make it fit almost any reader’s sensibilities (provided they are not a love hating robot).
While Romance isn’t necessarily my favourite genre to read, or write in, I have got a romance story kicking about in my head that I have every intention of writing… someday.