Writing 101: What Is a Romance Novel? Learn About the History and Characteristics of Romance Novels

Written by MasterClass

Jun 12, 2019 • 5 min read

From love affairs set in England’s Regency era to contemporary sensual affairs, romance novels continually top the New York Times best-selling charts. These stories are aspirational, optimistic, and provide escapism. In writing a romance novel, it is helpful to know the key elements to developing a romantic relationship on the page—and, of course, crafting a happily ever after.


What Is a Romance Novel?

A romance novel is a work of extended prose fiction with a theme of love. According to the Romance Writers of America, a romance novel must have a central focus on the development of a romantic relationship between two people. The other criteria for a romance novel is that it must have an emotional throughline and build to an optimistic conclusion.

A Brief History of Romance Novels

Romance novels can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece, with five surviving stories centered on romantic love from this time. Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela is also a precursor for the modern romance novel. In the nineteenth century, romance novels rose to prominence with the popular works of Jane Austen, whose novel Pride and Prejudice greatly influenced the genre.

The British publisher Mills & Boon began releasing romance novels in the 1930s through subscription services. Harlequin Enterprises, a Canada-based publisher, started distributing Mills & Boon titles in North America in the 1950s. The publishing houses merged in 1971 when Harlequin bought Mills & Boon, and romance novels were then mass marketed to women in drug stores and supermarkets. Harlequin/Mills & Boon continued monthly book services to sell series directly to readers.

Today, romance novels span many different subgenres and are distributed widely across the globe. According to the Romance Writers of America, women count for 82% percent of the genre’s readership.

2 Types of Romance Novels

There are two types of romance novels with differing formats.

  1. The category romance, also known as series romance, is issued as part of a sequential collection. The numbered books are released at regular intervals, usually monthly. Books in the series may share characters, similar themes, or settings. Harlequin/Mills & Boon is the largest distributor of category romance novels. Category romance novels are no more than 200 pages long. Successful category romance stories are tightly focused on the central love story, and subplots and minor characters are part of backstory.
  2. The single-title romance is a novel that not published as part of a delineated line of books. These run longer, typically between 350 and 400 pages. Single-title romances are not always stand alone works, and can sometimes be connected to other stories or characters as part of an author’s own long-running series.

What Are the Characteristics of Romance Novels?

At its core, a romance novel is about a developing romance between a hero and a heroine. Here are some common characteristics of romance novels that span subgenres:

  • There must be a conflict challenging the relationship that needs to be overcome.
  • The stories are aspirational, and so issues outside of the central courtship are limited.
  • Romance novels are generally told through the perspective of a woman and feature strong-willed and clever female characters.
  • All romance novels follow the moral principle that good behavior is rewarded with unconditional love.
  • Most important of all, the stories have a happy ending.

Throughout history, as women’s opportunities and roles in society have expanded, the characteristics and plot devices of romance novels have evolved. There was a time when publishers strictly censored the content of romance novels. Premarital sex was relegated to rape fantasy, heroines had to be virgins, and adultery was unacceptable to include in romance novels.

Today, romance novels feature heroines of varying ages who often have careers in male-dominated industries. The heroines are more nuanced and the heroes are gentler than in the past. The power dynamics in romantic relationships are also more balanced. There are varying degrees of sensuality in romance novels, ranging from chaste kisses to explicit erotica.

What Are the Subgenres of Romance Novels?

Because romance novels have just two guiding principles—a central love story and an optimistic ending—the genre can span into many different tones and styles. The subgenres of romance novels are defined by the story’s timeframe, plot elements, and location.

  • Contemporary Romance. A contemporary romance novel takes place after 1945, is set in the time that it is written, and reflects the social mores of the time. Contemporary romances are demarcated by the end of World War II.
  • Historical Romance. A historical romance is set any time prior to 1945, before the conclusion of World War II. Historical romances can include novels that were written and set in a time prior to 1945, and any novels written today that take place before 1945.
  • Romantic Suspense. Romantic suspense novels blend the central relationship with elements of mystery or suspense. The romantic couple has something to solve, and typically the heroine is the victim and the hero is a protector. Sometimes the hero serves in an official role of power, such as a police officer or bodyguard.
  • Inspirational Romance. In an inspirational romance, religious or spiritual beliefs play a fundamental role in the central love story. Generally, the courtship in these novels is chaste and there is little to no swearing or violence.
  • Paranormal Romance. A paranormal romance combines a love story with the futuristic, fantastic, or paranormal elements.
  • Science Fiction Romance. Science fiction romance novels overlap with paranormal romance, and may include alternate worlds.
  • Fantasy Romance. Fantasy romance combines reality with fantasy, and may take place in an alternate world.
  • Time-travel Romance. Time-travel romance stories separate the lovers by time. Usually the heroine is set in the present day and travels into the past to meet the story’s hero.
  • Multicultural Romance. A multicultural romance novel explores the love between interracial couples.
  • Erotic Romance. Erotic romance novels are characterized by strong sexual content. This subgenre may contain bold language, sexual scenes, and a focus on sex acts.
  • Young Adult. Young adult romance novels focus on the lives of young people and contain strong romantic themes.

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