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On Genre: Romance Novels

Romance novels are one of the easiest types to define. However, the term can be quite slippery, as it can be difficult to determine whether romance is the central plot device or a subplot.

Once you know the main characteristics of romance books, it becomes easier. So, let’s go over the key areas of romance literature and some of the biggest names in the industry.

What are Romance Books?

Simply put, a romance novel is one with a love story as its central plot. It usually involves two characters falling in love and typically has an emotionally rewarding ending.

The beauty of romance stories is that they can be set anywhere, at any time, and with any characters. What’s more, the love story can be as erotic or as chaste as you want. As a result, there are numerous subgenres of romance depending on the setting and characters. We’ll take a look at these later.

Tropes of Romance Literature

Unlike some other genres, romance has a set of clearly defined tropes that influence the main love story. You won’t find all of these in every romance story, as they usually define the context for the main relationship. Some of the most popular include:

Love triangle

A love triangle usually involves two rivals for the same lover or an outsider disrupting an existing relationship. For example, it could be two men fighting over a woman or a couple breaking up because of a new love interest.


This is an obvious one. In older romance books, two people are arranged to be married, and the story focuses on them getting to know each other. In newer romance books, the plot might center on a bride running out of her wedding or the groom falling for someone in the wedding party.

Workplace romance

Again, this is pretty self-explanatory. Two people in the same workplace end up falling in love, but this can lead to a broad range of settings. The traditional trope is a relationship between a boss and secretary, but it can also include ranch settings, coworkers and much more.

History of Romance Literature

The idea of a story focusing on two lovers is as old as fiction itself. In fact, the English word “romance” is based on the old word for novel: roman. You’ll find medieval texts with this in their title – Roman de la Rose­ – where it means story or tale. Similarly, roman is still the word for novel in languages such as French and German.

Our earliest examples of romance literature date back to ancient Greece. It’s fair to assume they existed before this but they’ve been lost to time. Romance was a popular plotline throughout the ancient era, the Middle Ages, and well into the Renaissance.

Some of the best-known romance novels come from the Victorian era. Think of titles such as Pride and Prejudice and basically everything written by the Bronte sisters. We might not consider the stories especially romantic anymore, as they’re quite chaste, but Jane Austin’s novel still enjoys a top spot on lists of the best romance books. Her story of two lovers arguably sets the tone for almost all romance books.

In the 1930s, a British publishing house called Mills & Boon changed the face of the romance genre. They started mass publishing short, easily accessible books every week, and their popularity skyrocketed. The main difference between their books and the rest of the market was how raunchy their plots were. Unsurprisingly, this appealed to many readers.

Americans might know them better as Harlequin romances, named after the Canadian company that bought North American publication rights to Mills & Boon novels. It’s thanks to publication houses such as these that romance literature looks like it does today.

Although romance books are a dime a dozen, sometimes they surprise even the best of us. Take, for example, Fifty Shades of Gray. It did the Mills & Boon trick of exposing an audience to sexually explicit content they hadn’t really experienced before: BDSM. While its writing is… not brilliant, and it normalizes rape culture in a way that BDSM doesn’t, it sold over 135 million copies in 4 years.

Subgenres of Romance Literature

As mentioned, the broad nature of romance means it works in different settings and timelines. This has led to a wide range of subgenres, including:

Historical Romance

Historical romance, unsurprisingly, involves a romance story in a historical setting. It’s typically Victorian or Georgian, but earlier settings can occur, too. We’d technically consider the likes of Jane Austin and the Brontes to be historical romance, even though they weren’t at the time of writing.

Paranormal Romance

Paranormal romance involves love stories between humans and paranormal beings, such as vampires or werewolves. Of course, it could involve a relationship between two paranormal beings instead. The stories blend elements of fantasy and sci-fi literature with a romance story, and typically involve elements of mystery literature, too. Some popular authors include Nalini Singh, Patricia Briggs, and JR Ward.

Multicultural Romance

This subgenre centers on a love story between two people from different cultures. As such, the tension in the story usually involves them breaking away from cultural norms that dictate romance. It could involve, for example, refusing an arranged marriage, going against parents’ wishes, or something else.

Erotic Romance

While you’d hardly think this needs a definition, there are some features worth discussing about erotic romance. The genre is a middle ground between romance and erotica, the latter of which is almost entirely sexual. Erotic romance, therefore, involves more of a relationship between the sexually active characters and more sex than traditional romance books. The Fifty Shades series is a prime example.

Final Thoughts on Romance Books

Romance is perhaps one of the most classic elements of all fiction. Due to the popularity of the genre, you’ll inevitably find some books you love, although you might have to sift through plenty of trash first. However, with romance books, this is part of the fun!

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