What Makes a Romance Novel a Romance Novel

Before we get too far in the tips and how-to’s of writing romance, we should define romance as a genre.

Over the years, romance has gotten a bad rap.  In the early days of the romance novel - in the days of Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers - there were books that, by today’s standards, would be viewed as rape stories.  These were stories of vulnerable females who were “owned” by strong alpha-males who had their way with the women.  The heroines could fight all they want - the “hero” won in the end - and eventually the heroine would realize that he was the man for her and they’d end up living happily ever after.

Bodice Rippers.

Here’s a definition that alludes back to this time:  A romantic novel or film marked by seduction of a female protagonist, sustained drama, and sometimes violence. American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language.

As the genre grew, this type of story became politically incorrect and gave way to stronger, less victimized heroines.

So what qualifies as a romance anyway?  Understand please that the answer found here is ONLY for the GENRE of romance.  But if you’re going to write books in this genre, you must know the rules.

Or you risk turning your reader against you.  And we don’t want that.

Let’s get to it then.

Googling “definition of a romance novel” can be fun.

Wikipedia says this: “The romance novel or romantic novel discussed in this article is the mass-market literary genre. Novels of this type of genre fiction place their primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people, and must have an ‘emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.’”

The bastion of romance-writing - Romance Writers of America -  says it this way:  “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.”

RWA goes on to make it clear that there are many types of romance novels, from historical to mystery to erotica.  But no matter what, the love story is the main story.  A suspense novel with a side of romance doesn’t qualify as a romance novel.

To get this definition of romance from the RWA, there was quite a long and involved discussion amongst the leaders in the genre.  When they got to the “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending” part, they realized that a “happy” ending meant different things to different people.

Here’s Jennifer Crusie (one of those involved in this discussion) - “My feeling on this, which I have expressed loudly and often, is that the romance novel is based on the idea of an innate emotional justice in the universe, that the way the world works is that good people are rewarded and bad people are punished. The mystery genre is based on the same assumption, only there it’s a moral justice, a sense of fair play in human legal interaction: because the good guys risk and struggle, the murderers get punished and good triumphs in a safe world. So in romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice, unconditional love in an emotionally safe world.”

I’ve always said that romance was defined by a “happily-ever-after” ending but after reading about emotional justice in Crusie’s words, I might borrow that.  Don’t we really all long for a story in which, after all is said and done, good triumphs over evil?  And if you’re a believer in love conquering all, emotional justice might really be what you’re after in reading romance.

Leigh Michaels - writing for Writer's Digest - says it like this: “A  romance novel is the story of a man and a woman who, while they’re solving a problem that threatens to keep them apart, discover that the love they feel for each other is the sort that comes along only once in a lifetime; this discovery leads to a permanent commitment and a happy ending.

There are the rules summed up in one paragraph.

●   A hero and a heroine

●   A problem that threatens to keep them apart

●   A realization that this is “the one” and the struggle to make the relationship work

●   A commitment - whether that’s marriage or simply the implication of marriage - at the end.


I couldn’t have said it better.

As long as we’re here, let’s quickly look at what the RWA calls the two formats for the genre:

Series or "category" romances: books issued under a common imprint/series name that are usually numbered sequentially and released at regular intervals, usually monthly, with the same number of releases each time. These books are most commonly published by Harlequin/Silhouette.

Single-title romances: longer romances released individually and not as part of a numbered series. Single-title romances may be released in hard cover, trade paperback, or mass-market paperback sizes.”

I balked at this definition because I use the term single-title romance to mean any romance novel that isn’t part of a series.  Let me give you an example.  I have written a 5-book military romance series.  But I also have a “single-title” paranormal romance coming out in 2017 that is not part of a series.

I think I’d revise their formats and leave the word “series” out.  I’d make it Category Romance and Single-title romance.  Then within the Single-title format I’d put Series and Standalone.

But that’s just me.

As an aside, Category Romance used to be a sort-of laughing stock of the genre.  But not so anymore.  If you aren’t familiar with the amazing variety of categories in Category Romance, stop by the Harlequin/Silhouette website and check it out.  And before the dawn of Amazon and e-books, the authors of these books had, literally, thirty days to sell their books.  Kudos to the authors who made that work and thrived in that environment.

I’ll be back next month and we’ll get into some of the tropes of the genre.

Until then, campers, BIC-HOK - Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard.



Jax Hunter on sabfacebook
Jax Hunter
Jax Hunter is known for her heartwarming 5-book military romance series: True Heroes. She is currently writing American Revolutionary War novel. Recently, she has ventured out to write journals: climbing trackers, motivational journals and bible study journals. She teaches a wide variety of writing courses, both online and in person and travels the state telling the stories of April 19, 1775. She also is the owner of a health and wellness business.

Whew. What does she do for fun? Well, she’s a huge hockey fan. She has a fancy embroidery machine and she’ll embroider anything that will fit in the hoop. And she collects really old books.

She lives in the high mountains of Colorado with own true hero and the two pups that rule the house.

4 thoughts on “What Makes a Romance Novel a Romance Novel

  1. I’ve been writing romance (writing mostly, not publishing much, mind you) for a long time and this is the best set of definitions I’ve found. I appreciate that someone is treating romance more like a business proposition than a “hide in the closet” issue. Romance gets a bad rap, but is still the biggest seller, so it’s frustrating. Thanks, and I’m looking forward to your next blog!

  2. Good history of Romance writing. I read many of those early books and the depiction of sometimes violent rape, followed by a woman falling in love with someone who brutalized and imprisoned her was the reason I opted out. It’s an incredibly hard trope to swallow when you’re counseling victims of sexual assault. So, I was happy to see the genre change. I read many genres and I’ve always found that the best books all have a strong romance element. In my opinion, every writer can benefit from learning to write a solid romance.

Leave a Reply