What is a Romance?

Authors Say. . . .

Updated March 22, 1999

In more than one of my columns, I’ve talked about how broadly the definition of a romance novel should be extended. Some romances read to me like historical, epic fiction, others as suspense novels with some romance thrown in for good measure. In some cases the author is truly trying to write a romance but separates the lead characters for so much of the book that it leaves me wanting. In other cases, the author has actually not written a romance but her publisher is marketing her book as such. Way back in January, author Pat Rice and I talked about this phenomenon (you can read her email to me on this subject here), and in June, I set up the HEA endings page to explore one facet of what many of us think determines a romance. What we found out, I think, surprised many of us – we’re not all on the same page because we all don’t think an HEA ending is required.

So I’ve decided to ask authors for their definition of a romance novel, and even went further as to say they could include what they felt a romance should be and/or what a romance should not be, if they so desired.

I’ll be posting author’s definitions here, and have opened a page for reader’s definitions as well – anyone with a definition should feel free to e-mail me, letting me know if you are reader or author. I think this should make a fascinating interplay, as interesting as the Wallbanging discussion we had this spring.

There are links for many of the authors below; those links will take you to additional writings at this site by the author or about the author.

Here’s what authors had to say:

Jo-Ann Power ([email protected]):
A romance novel is the exploration of how two people who have the potential to love fully, find each other, conquer whatever problems stand between them, and make a decision to continue with each other. By the fact that they have conquered their conflict or solved their conflict, they can then go on hand in hand through the rest of life continuing with that success to conquer the many other problems that are going to come their way.

I think a romance has to have an HEA ending. Not simply because that’s our definition – that’s our modern definition. The medieval definition of a romance is, there is no happy ending. He goes away with his love intact, in his heart, and she is married to someone else. She loves him from afar. Contemporary romance has a happy ending and there are lots of cultural reasons why that will continue to be so, despite The Bridges of Madison County.

I think that the past 30 years have shown us that in American society, the idea of the family unit based on a loving nurturing relationship between two people who go on together is dying. The result is, of course, that our children are growing up in single-parent care homes and sometimes in no-parent homes. Our divorce rate is the highest in the world. Among RWA members, the percentage of divorced members is 9%.

I’ll celebrate my 28th wedding anniversary shortly. In a society in which the individual has been revered to the detriment of everyone else, including their own individual growth, romance novels reaffirm that it is possible, though perhaps not probable, to find someone to love and have someone commit to you forever and ever. In a society in which women still bear the brunt of broken marriages and children who need nurturing, romance gives hope that there may just be some happy ending.

Julie Garwood:
It’s a story, a love story. Relationship story. What makes it any different than general fiction? Nothing, except that, in a romance, the relationship is paramount. It has to have a happy ending. But I don’t like to read any book, where, in the end, there is this sense of hopelessness – romance, general fiction, what have you. I don’t write about that and I don’t want to read about that.

Rebecca Sinclair ([email protected]):

There are two answers; one from a romance writer’s perspective, one from a romance reader’s. For the former, defining the romance is to breathe life into two endearing characters who were meant to be together … they just need the author to show them how their love can endure. For the latter, my definition would be almost the same, except that the emphasis is always on the romance, on the way these two people’s lives intertwine and become inseparable until a happily-ever-after ending is a foregone conclusion. In no longer becomes a matter if the couple will happily-ever-after, but how that sometimes monumental feat is possible.

In the end, I think everyone needs to be reassured that ever-lasting love is attainable to us all. That true love can triumph over the most insurmountable odds. It’s a question many of us face in our everyday lives, and an answer that we find not only in romance novels, but in real life as well.

Jennifer Crusie ([email protected]):
The medieval definition of a romance always involved a quest, and I think the modern romance does, too: the heroine’s quest for self-actualization. Until a woman finds out who she is and what she needs from life, she can’t really connect to another person as an equal. So the best romance novels always show a woman coming to her strength and fullness as a human being, and part of the reward for the fulfillment of that quest is a strong, equal life partner. The old “I can’t live without you” always seemed so weak to me; I like the more modern “I can make it without you, but just by exisiting you enrich my life so much I’ll never want to.”

Stobie Piel ([email protected]):
Romance novels provide action, adventure, and excitement with the added focus on a loving, passionate relationship. Through a romance novel, a reader is taken to distant worlds, the past, to different cultures and exotic places. In romances, a hero goes above and beyond the usual, the expected, in his quest to win the heroine. He’ll fight an army to save her. A rake will look deeper into his heart, and realize a woman he loves has more to offer than the pretty, vacuous women he’s known in the past. A hero gives up his kingdom, or his pirate ship, to make her his wife.

I personally like romance because the stories uphold things I believe in strongly – people’s dreams and values overcoming circumstances and obstacles, and that love matters, people matter, and that two people who love each other can live an adventurous, successful life. Romance novels, more than any other genre, affirm love conquering all odds.

In romance novels, the lovers are intricately developed characters, people with foibles and flaws as well as heroic motivation. Romance characters go beyond the ordinary to achieve an extraordinary love, but the journey to happiness isn’t easy, and depends upon the actions they take throughout the book. Heroes and heroines earn their happiness. In every romance I’ve read, both the hero and heroine have goals which reflect their personal values. Underlying a heroine’s quest for vengeance is an honorable desire for justice, to see right prevail. A hero has sacrificed himself for his family, or given his life’s blood to defend his country in war. Characters in romances are defined by their strong aspirations and values, something which makes them special, & isn’t necessarily the case in other genres.

The adventure and drama in a romance novel fill the same entertainment needs as movies and other genres of fiction. It’s fun. But to me, the popularity of romance means people value love, marriage, passion, and enjoy reading adventures that include falling in love, something that’s a great adventure in most of our lives. We want to see people overcome obstacles inside themselves and in the world around them to earn the life they want.

Actually, I wish more people would read romance, because I think they’d find it enjoyable. Often, people have a stereotype of large-breasted vixens and overly-macho men tearing at each other. Most romances are delicate portrayals of loving, passionate relationships, where lovers find a way through turmoil, inside themselves and in the world around them, to end the book with a believable commitment to a good life together. It’s not the fairy tale ‘happily ever after.’ It’s a workable relationship between two people who have come to terms with themselves and each other.

Jo Beverley ([email protected]):
For me, a romance novel is a story about the development or repair of a mating relationship. It focusses on an intense period within a long-term relationship, usually courtship. This is why it is not the same thing as a romantic saga – a story about a couple going through life together, or a sequence of such couples; and why it’s intensely focussed on the relationship, not the history, the cause, the crime etc. which forms the context – because people in courtship mode are obsessed by the beloved and the progress of the relationship.

Dara Joy ([email protected]):
A definition of romance. . . interesting. . .because in Tonight or Never (Dara’s latest release), a question is posed in the beginning and answered at the end. The hero’s name is Lord John Sexton and he is dubbed “Lord of Sex” by the ladies of the ton and the heroine’s name is Chloe Heart. One of the secondary characters poses the question when they wed (a kind of marriage of convenience) “What do you suppose will come of it when Heart and Sex come together?” This naturally causes a frenzied round of wagering. At the end of the story, he tells the hero that when heart and sex come together you have “romance. ” Which is indeed what these two characters find; as well as being what the reader has (hopefully) experienced along with them.

Casey Claybourne ([email protected]):
At the risk of oversimplifying, in my opinion, a romance is about a happy ending. I love the happy ending. I love that two people can come together amid all the world’s craziness – shades of Casablanca here, huh? – and create their own world. A place of joy and giving and growing. A place where love is unconditional and true.

For me, that’s it in a nutshell.

Mary Jo Putney ([email protected]):
I would define a romance as a book where the love relationship is the absolute heart and soul and center of the book. This differs from something like romantic suspense, where there might be a great romance, but the core of the book is the suspense. (Contrast “romantic suspense” with “suspenseful romance” – i.e., which is the noun (the heart) and which is the modifier.

Lisa Kleypas ([email protected]):
Romance novels are affirmations of all that is meaningful in life – and these affirmations are just as important to our emotional well being as exercise and nutrition are to our physical health.

The ideals of love, fidelity and positive feminism are explored more thoroughly in romance novels than in any other genre. In reading and writing romances, I have discovered my own value as a woman. I believe most avid readers of romance novels have more strongly developed ambitions for themselves, their partners and their families than the average woman. We have spent more time considering the meaning and implications of love, and we recognize (in spite of our general liking for spicy love scenes) that physicality is really a minor feature of a relationship. Emotion, and all its intricacies, is what draws us . . . and that is why romance novels define what is best about being human.

Stella Cameron ([email protected]):
Definition of the romance: A story about a man and a woman, each of whom are essentially heroic. This man and this woman each bring to the table (story) 100% of their desire and their talent for forming a lasting relationship. A romance is the story of one man and one woman. Everything that happens in a romance relates to this couple, has some impact on this couple. We may call this a convention yet it allows for infinite variety. The convention from which the romance does not vary even remotely, is the happy ending – thank goodness!

Aimee Thurlo (72640,[email protected]):
Romance is falling in love – it’s the only real magic left in the world. It’s a refletion of God, and something that is blessed because of what it brings out in people. It’s life at its shining best.

That’s what I portray in my work as an author and I feel extremely fortunate to have been given the ability and the gift to do so.

Lorraine Heath ([email protected]):
A romance to me, is first and foremost, a love story – a love story with a happy ending (you can have love stories without a happy ending, example: Gone With the Wind). It’s a story that weaves hopes and dreams throughout.

Kathleen Eagle ([email protected]):
Romance celebrates the power of love and the nobility of the human spirit.

Judith O’Brien ([email protected]):
Ah, romance. I believe romance is when two of the most unlikely souls imaginable turn out to be the most perfect of mates. Alone, the hero and heroine are incomplete – their faults shine like beacons. Together, they are complete – they fit together like the proverbial pieces of a puzzle. Of course, both take some growing and self-examination to reach their ultimate destination – and it is that very journey romance writers chronicle, and readers savor. . . .

Colleen Faulkner ([email protected]):
What’s romance? Romance is that aura that surrounds falling/being in love.

It’s that light-headed, stomach dropping, lump-in-your-throat feeling you get when the man you love says something sweet, does something silly that touches your heart. It’s the excitement of the chase and the capture. . . and later the eternal imprisonment of your heart.

Sharon Ihle ([email protected]):
Romance is a sharing of the souls, of going to the trouble of overlooking all the things a lover dislikes about his/her partner – and especially those traits he/shedoes like – long enough to discover and come to love the genuine person within.

Patricia Rice ([email protected]):
I’m not certain I can express what romance means to me as well as I should.

Yes, it’s always the happy ending, but that’s not the be all and the end all. Romance is love, in all its forms: between parents and child, man and woman, brother to brother, love of God or religion or whatever. Two characters cannot develop satisfying, romantic relationships between each other unless they have some understanding of love, whether from lack of it or desire for it or full knowledge of it. As the song says, love truly does make the world go around– when one strips basic human behavior to its barest form. So, to me, romance is what makes the world tick, it’s the trigger that shoots the gun, the reason roses grow in spring. I know that’s a rather liberal definition, but no one ever accused me of a narrow mind.

If romance is love, then romance is human behavior. That describes the genre better than bubble baths and champagne.

Cheryl Biggs ([email protected]):
Wwhat makes a romance a romance? A heroine and hero who create sparks when they come together, a compelling plot, and a satisfying wrap up of that plot and the romance between the two main characters. That’s my idea of a romance novel. Whether it’s a touchy feeling story, a murder mystery, a cops and robbers, a rodeo setting, the sultry bayou, Civil War, old west, whatever the time or place, it has to have the above elements.

Gone With the Wind, Bridges of Madison County, Sommersby, and My Best Friend’s Wedding were just a few stories/movies I can think of that have been touted as romances, but in my opinion fell short of what our present day publishing industry accepts as “romances”. None had a happy ending with the hero and heroine ending up together – forever, something our industry and readers expect, and always get.

Rosalyn Alsobrook ([email protected]):
A romance novel is an escape that allows the reader to return to her/his real life with a renewed hope.

Rachelle Nelson:
Romance is a gift to the senses; it is a need fulfilled.

Victoria Alexander ([email protected]):
A romance novel is a story in which, in spite of all obstacles, the hero and heroine end up together.

DeWanna Pace:
A romance novel is the story of characters, challenged by change and empowered by love, to overcome personal obstacles to their growth

Historical fiction author Ann Chamberlin ([email protected]):
A romance novel emphasizes the relationship between a man and a woman with a majority of the scenes devoted to sorting out their emotions. I think it must have a happy ending – happy ending meaning that the hero and heroine commit to a life together. “Love conquers all” is the theme.

I see romance, as Debbie Macomber once told me, as literature that fantsizes about “taking an alpha male and making a sensitive woman out of him”.

Most cultures in the world have cultural constraints to instill the support and protection of a man in to the child-mother diad – ie, honor, bride price, etc. Our male-centered society has done away with these. I see romance as a desperate attempt to recreate these constraints.

Valerie Taylor ([email protected]):
To me, a Romance is a story which focuses primarily on a developing relationship. Other than that, I’m unwilling to put limits on it.

For instance, I wouldn’t require a happily-ever-after ending. I do consider Gone With the Wind a romance, even though Scarlett remained confused about which man she loved until the very end, even though the ending was not the traditional romance ending.

LLB responds: Valerie, thanks for your answer, and for bringing up the HEA ending, and in your view, the lack of a need for it. If you are interested in reading other comments on the HEA ending, click here.

Debra Dier:
What is a romance novel?

A romance novel focuses on the developing relationship between a man and a woman. Characters should be the main focus. The protagonists must display worthy characteristics such as loyalty, bravery, and honesty. It is essential for readers to care for a hero and heroine and root from them to reach their goals.

The time period can be anything from the dawn of history to the future. The setting can range from Australia to the American West, and all points in-between. Romances are supple, they can be molded from nearly any category of fiction, such as fantasy, science fiction, mystery, suspense, thrillers, even horror. In terms of style, romances range from light to dark, from comedy to drama. They may be sensual or sweet, gentle or intense. They encompass a wide variety of writing styles and creativity.

Although elements of romance can be found in most popular fiction, in a pure romance, there is always a satisfactory ending, with the couple having the promise of happily ever after. A true romance celebrates life and expresses an ultimate optimism.

Al Garratto ([email protected]):
A romance novel is the story of two people who struggle to find a common ground of committed relationship, other than the sexual chemistry that first ignites their desire to be together.

A good romance novel is one in which the two main protagonists are people the reader can identify with in some fashion and whose inner lives are as interesting as their professional occupations. The plot line must be substantial enough for the reader to maintain interest from chapter to chapter. In other words, the reader must be able to say when reading the book, “I care about these people and what happens to them. I want the best for them, despite the personal and circumstantial obstacles that war to keep them apart.”

(NOTE: I’ve deliberately avoided gender to allow for the broadest application of the above statements.)

Eileen Charbonneau ([email protected]):
I like a definition that encompasses the older meaning of Romance. . . a larger than life adventure story with its feet on the ground and its heart in the clouds, combined with what has become the heart of the genre of romance – the transforming love story. As for that happy-ever-after ending. . . it’s the one I love, but, again, being inclusive, I’d hate to leave Romeo & Juliet and the lovely center of Titanic (the movie) out, so I’d like to recognize that sometimes a story needs a good happy-ever-after, and sometimes it needs a good cry. I think romance readers are wise enough to embrace both. . . and I know they have the heart!

Judith Ivory ([email protected]):
A romance novel is a relationship book with a happy ending. A man…I don’t know, I suppose you could have other romances besides heterosexual ones. But generally, it’s a man and a woman in a relationship that grows…I don’t know. I like to think of it as growth in human beings through love.

A romance novel has to have a happy ending. I think that’s part of the pleasure of it, believing that, in fact, love will make life happier.


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Patricia Rice:
The complaint about books labeled romance not really being romantic is probably generated by two factors. As you mentioned, publishers will market anything with a relationship in it as romance because romance has the biggest market out there. And some of the authors you mentioned have a huge romance audience that might not follow them if the books were mainstreamed with general fiction.

The other reason is a little more difficult to explain, but is generated from within the market itself. Readers – and authors – of romance often have wider reading habits. We’re the ones who grabbed every historical fiction book on the market before romance came out. We gobbled mysteries, science fiction, general fiction, anything we could get our hands on. When romance made it big, we devoured huge chunks of the market. Now we’re looking for more. As both an author and a reader, I keep looking for books with something a little extra, an interesting new theme, more than one relationship, a wider setting, a little action, some mystery, anything to add a spice to a market that is growing a little stale. So within the romance market itself, authors are broadening their spectrum. They’re writing historicals with relationships, generational sagas with romances, romantic mysteries, whatever strikes their fancy. Since you’re more of a newcomer to the area, you have a right to resent anything that infringes on your romantic fantasies, but the publishers have no way of warning you that one book is pure romance and another is a little different. The only solution would be to eliminate all genre markets and dump everything in general fiction. I’m not at all certain that will work very well.

As a reader, I want to find Emilie Richards’ and Kathleen Eagles’ (authors who have written some books some readers found to be not “pure” romance in reader mail last winter) latest. Chances are good I wouldn’t search for them over in general fiction. Maybe the problem here is how do we force romance readers to go look for women’s fiction authors over in the slots with all those men and their action stories?

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