Romance Novels 101

Valentine’s Day is coming up, and what better time to learn about romance novels!

There's something purely visceral about being able to read countless stories of people falling in love, no matter their life story, no matter what their past or future might look like (unless they're evil. Evil people don't make good romance protagonists.). Romance covers people of all walks of life, all jobs, all universes, all marginalizations. Because love can be a universal thing. Even then, even if you don't feel romantic love, you can still be the protagonist in a love story, and the love stories of others can still have great value. (Also, regarding the "no evil people in romance" can be a villain and not evil.) (But we'll talk about that some other time.)

First thing’s first: there is a difference between a love story and a Romance Genre romance novel. You can call something romantic, but it doesn’t make it a romance. A romance novel has two basic and essential elements:

A Central Love Story 

The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as they want as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending 

This is also called an HEA (happily ever after) or HFN (happy for now). The lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

Romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality—ranging from sweet to extremely hot. These settings and distinctions of plot create specific subgenres within romance fiction.

Also to be noted: Sex is not a requirement for a book to be considered a romance. Not only are there people who don't feel sexual attraction, but can still fall in love, the sexual relationship isn't always at the center of the love experience...and sometimes it is, but the characters close the door on the reader, allowing us to pick up the story afterwards. 

Since romance can be set in any time, place, or situation, though, there are a number of subgenres that exist. Here are some of the most popular:

Contemporary Romance

These novels are set in the here and now, and often involve twenty- and thirty-somethings dealing with extenuating circumstances while also looking for love (or trying to keep the one they have). They can range from sweet and low-conflict to super angsty. Common tropes include workplace relationships, fish-out-of-water stories, and famous flings.

Take the Lead

Romantic Comedy

Technically, this is a sub-trope of the contemporary subgenre, but it’s becoming more and more important to distinguish them. Not all contemporaries are romcoms, but most romcoms are contemporaries. The situations are not always more ridiculous, but the execution makes even the most stressful situations funny. 

The Worst Best Man

Romantic Suspense

Romantic Suspense, like romcoms, are often contemporary novels. There is an element these books. There’s often someone who is on the run or in hiding or just has a secret, and often times there’s someone assigned to protect them, or help them discover the truth. There is a lot of range to this subgenre.



The vast majority of historical romance, thanks to Romance Icon and OG Georgette Heyer and Our Lady of The Romantics, proto-romance novelist Jane Austen, are set during the English Regency period, which is the short 30 years between the death of George III and the reign of Queen Victoria. There are a lot of dukes; far more than have ever existed in British history. But there are also historical romances set at different times: primarily Medieval and the height of the American West and Reconstruction, though there are more popping up in different periods as well.

Brazen and the Beast



Paranormal romance covers a great deal of ground, but can most prominently be said to cover creatures of the night. Does it have vampires? Paranormal. Are there people who can shift into animals? Paranormal. Ghosts? Paranormal. Angels? Same. There is a fine line between paranormal romance and urban fantasy; mostly, the former involves one couple or group finding love in each installation of the series under a shared universe, whereas urban fantasy follows a single character or group throughout the series.

Hot and Badgered

Morrigan's Cross

There are romances essentially about everyone and everything, including cowboys past and present, dystopias, sci-fi and fantasy, and Steampunk. There are also what can be more considered denotations, like inspirational romance and—yes, they still exist—Amish romances. There are Amish suspense and historical romances, and multicultural and LGBTQ+ romances in every category. It’s basically the equal-opportunity genre. 

Interested in some fun facts?

  • The average romance reader is 30-54 years old
  • Romance accrues nearly $2 billion per year and accounts for over 30% of the publishing industry’s annual sales
  • Amazon Kindle Services, Createspace and Smashbooks allow for self-publishing as a secondary revenue stream, and several authors choose to skip the middleman and publish their own books
  • The Big Five publishing companies (Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Hachette, and HarperCollins) all have romance imprints
  • Other publishing companies, like Bold Strokes Books and Entangled, are dedicated wholly to romance
  • Romance’s primary media are ebook and mass-market paperback, though there are more romance publishers venturing into the larger trade paperback size
  • Fabio Lanzoni has not graced the cover of a romance since the '90s

Want to know more? Here are some great links:

NoveList will help you find books you like and tell you about genres and trends. 

Similarly, Books and Authors can help you find the perfect romance novel. 

Do you like series? You need Fantastic Fiction

Want to read more? Start here:

Get Started with Romance

More Romance at the Library

Romance on OverDrive

Romance Book Cloud

So dive in! The water’s fine!