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What are Romance Novels?

By Tara Barnett
Updated May 23, 2024
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A romance novel is a book that centers on love and relationships as its primary plot element. This type of novel usually has certain other stylistic qualities, although these are not consistent. There are books about love that are not romance novels, and what precisely qualifies as a romance novel is usually in part determined by who published the book. Partly due to its subject matter, a romance novel tends to be most popular among adult women. Despite a reputation as lowbrow works, romance novels make up one of the most widely read genres of literature in the English-speaking world.

Many people apply a very strict definition to what may be called a romance novel. The Romance Writers of America, for instance, only classifies a book as a romance novel if the main plot revolves around two people working to build a romantic relationship with one another, and if the ending is optimistic. This means that a novel re-telling the romantic story between Romeo and Juliet focusing solely on plot would not be a romance novel, because while the main plot revolves around love, the ending is not emotionally satisfying or optimistic. In practice, the structure of romance novels may be more flexible, although such books may not be as popular among romance novel readers.

Romance novels are often categorized with a number of subgenres, including historical romance, paranormal romance, and contemporary romance. These niche novels often have extremely devoted followers, and may gain fans who typically do not read romance novels. There are also books aimed at different age groups, races, and sexual orientations, although these are often more controversial because they can appear extremely stereotyped.

The characters in a romance novel are sometimes considered the most important part of the story. Love in a romance novel typically follows a predictable and optimistic path, so in order to keep readers interested, the characters and setting must be unique. Fine use of language is generally not required for a romance novel to be successful, although many romance novel writers are extremely gifted authors. Romance writers are necessarily experts in story telling, though not always in literary phrasing.

Many women find that they are able to bond with other women over romance novels. This genre provides an outlet through which many women exercise their literacy and also build a sense of community with other readers. Despite critiques of the genre as a form of female-oriented pornography, the focus on positive outcomes and building strong relationships is affirming for many women. As the kinds of men women look for evolves, so too will the romance novels written about finding love with perfect men.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By MrsPramm — On Mar 03, 2014

@Mor - Stories without a happy ending can still be told, they will just be classified as some other genre. Genres only really exist for bookstores and readers to be able to tell whether the book is going to do what they want it to do and people who want to read a romance don't want to be crying from sadness at the end of it.

If they did, they would read something else.

I don't think there's anything wrong with having rules about particular genres, since you can still be original within the rules. But I can see why it might be frustrating if you want to sell to a particular publisher and they seem to not want your book because you didn't quite follow their guidelines.

By Mor — On Mar 02, 2014

@KoiwiGal - Writing romance novels shouldn't be so strict though. I think the only defining factor should be that the novel concentrates on the romance as the primary plot and that's all. I mean, spy novels don't have any other requirement except that they include the adventures of a spy. Crime novels only need to have a crime. They don't need to be from the point of view of a good guy or a bad guy, and no one needs to solve the crime in the end. If it's a good novel, it doesn't matter if it follows a particular formula or not.

I just think that it holds back the genre by making all these rules about what can and can't happen. It limits the kinds of stories that can be told.

By KoiwiGal — On Mar 01, 2014

They call it a "Happily Ever After" ending, or a "Happy for Now" ending when the couple ends up together at the end and the story finishes with a positive note. So technically, a story like The Notebook wouldn't be classified as romance because there isn't really a happy ending at all.

There are some romance novel publishers that even demand that every story end with a wedding, or some equivalent to that. I guess they manage to sell their books so they must know what their audience wants and expects.

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