Comprehensive Guide to Romance Genres and Sub-Genres
When you think of romance novels, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Do you envision yourself with a Hallmark-esque holiday love, surrounded by snowflakes and mistletoe kisses? Is your romance set in Victorian England, complete with horse-drawn carriages rides? If these are your favorites, you’re not alone; Victorian and holiday romances are two of the most popular romance subgenres around. But you might be surprised to find that there are more than 30 romance subgenres.
Let’s dig into each of them and explore the wonderful world of romance in all its various shades. (Dare we say… Fifty Shades?) These subgenres range from clean and sweet to steamy and/or kinky to paranormal and otherworldly.
The Making of a Romance
Before we dive into subgenres, let’s look at what most romance novels (regardless of sub-genre) have in common. And no, it’s not sentimentality or nice, handsome men. There are a lot of elements in well-written romances that can vary such as location, time period, universe (our own or an alternative) but all romances contain at least these two basic elements.
- A Love Story
The plot can have a lot of other things going on in the background, but to be classified as a romance, the primary focus is a love story, usually involving two main characters (or sometime three as in the ever-intriguing love triangle).
- A Happily Ever After Ending also known as HEA
You know that saying, “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end?” I’m pretty sure that was made for romance novels. Because no matter what else happens in the story, no matter how much the lovers suffer along the way—be it at the hand of evil stepparents or sea monsters or fate—to be a “real romance,” the novel has to conclude with the love working out in the end. After all, that’s what we signed up for! If we wanted tragedy, we’d read The Fault in Our Stars.
Additionally, romance novels can fall into one of two formats:
- Series, Serial or “Category” Romances
Category/series romances are typically 250 pages or less and they are the hallmark of publishers such as Harlequin and Mills & Boon which publish these books on a monthly basis. The word “series” can be misleading as these books are not always focused on the same characters or places. Series are sometimes released with numbers identifying the order of their publication. Some serial romances do stick with the same cast of characters following their stories over time. Other types, however, are only series in the sense that they’re released monthly under a common brand name, usually with the same amount of publications each time.
- Single-title or Stand-alones
Stand-alones tend to be a bit longer and are released individually. Unfortunately, however, as with all single-titles, once you fall in love with the characters and are dying for one more chapter, there’s no sequel around the bend.
Comprehensive List of Romance Subgenres
But aside from those must-haves, every other part of a romance is fair game! And that’s why we have genres and subgenres. If that sounds a little confusing at first—wait, isn’t romance the genre? —it’s because it kind of is. But actually, romance is so diverse, we need multiple categories to accurately describe it. (Point that out the next time someone says romance is all fluff!) So, let’s take a look at all the different genres out there.
All romances are pretty sweet in one way or another, but “sweet” romances are so called because they are clean. That is, there is no sex or it happens off the pages. Oftentimes sweet romances can have a Christian theme to them as well. Think of sweet romances as the opposite of steamy. (To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before vs. Fifty Shades of Grey.)
Christian romances are a natural fit for a sweet romance subgenre because they’re unlikely to be steamy, instead focusing on a slow-burning emotional connection that centers around the main characters’ shared Christian faith. Popular authors in this subgenre include Janette Oke and Karen Kingsbury, with Oke’s stories typically featuring prairie romances and Kingsbury’s a bit more geared toward present day).
Affectionately dubbed “bonnet rippers” by their publishers, Amish love stories are the ultimate in sweet romance. Though there’s rarely any sex, and the characters live in a culture that bans everything from birth control to television, the works of authors like Beverly Lewis are still treasured for their tender love stories and depiction of a simpler way of life.
From office flings to online match-ups, contemporary romances are the ultimate romance genre for the modern age. The time period is usually categorized as post-World War II to present day, so they might not all be ultra-modern, but the scenarios they feature are definitely ultra-relatable. Popular contemporary romance authors include Debbie Macomber and Nora Roberts.
Billionaire romance typically feature a humble heroine and billionaire who has some character flaws. Sometime BDSM is involved sometimes it’s not. To satisfy your “I won the lottery!”, “in love with my boss,” and “vacation to a private island” fantasies in one swoop, check out a billionaire romance.
This one’s pretty self-explanatory; who doesn’t fall for the bad boy? The theme here tends to center on taming the bad boy before committing to them.
ROCK ‘N ROLL
With plotlines ranging from badass rock ‘n roll couples to crushing on a celebrity to sweet starlets falling for bad boys, the rock ‘n roll romance has it all.
Everyone loves a good rom-com! Giving extra attention to the lighter side of romance, these stories will make you laugh and root for the characters to fall in love. Oftentimes they have with plot lines featuring adorably awkward characters, mismatches, and wacky first dinners with the parents.
Similar to a “coming of age” novel, the new adult romance usually focuses on ‘firsts’ in the lives of protagonists from 18-25. First time in college, first real job, first time away from home… It all has the potential for a romance!
PREGNANCIES & SECRET BABIES
Maybe it’s the element of suspense that draws us in, or maybe we just like the mix of hot guys and cute babies, but these stories have long been a popular favorite. Though the circumstances differ depending on the story, these plots always have a little surprise.
Usually set against the backdrop of exotic locales or harsh climates—maybe with a life-or-death twist thrown in—characters in these stories fight their feelings for each other while they investigate a mystery or try to survive whatever ordeal they are in.
If leather-clad, hot men on bikes rev you up, you’ll find your perfect match with these stories. Often referred to as MC romance, these stories mix bad boys, bikes, gangs, drugs, and occasionally violence and with innocent women who, against better judgement, are willing to go along for the ride. Membership in the motor cycle gang, like marriage, is forever and anything is possible when you straddle a big engine.
You might think there’s nothing sexy about amnesia, but the allure of losing your memories— and waking up to a hot guy who says he’s your husband/boyfriend/lover—is strong for lots of readers, especially when you throw in the challenge of falling for him all over again.
Falling snow, mistletoe kisses, and the smell of gingerbread… These cozy holiday romances will have you believing in Santa and all that is good about this world.
Usually featuring a tropical getaway that turns into an unexpected romance, vacation love stories are the perfect blend of sun, sand, and hot surfers.
A sweeter twist on the secret baby story, single dad romances highlight the leading lady falling for a sweet, sexy guy who comes with a family of his own.
There’s something irresistibly sexy about a little touch of magic. So, whether you’re looking to dive into a love story with angels, vampires, ghosts, humans that shift into animals, faeries, aliens, or monsters, these stories have it all. Popular authors in this genre include Larissa Ione and Christine Feehan.
In shape-shifter romances, love takes many forms. Literally. The hot males in these novels are typically part of a clan, and often they must choose love over loyalty to their clan. The men typically shift back and forth between human and dominant forest dwelling creatures such as dragons, bears, panthers, wolves and tigers. Though there are some novels that stray from the norms and have their men shift into rabbits, hedgehogs, otters and alligators.
If normal guys aren’t sexy enough for you, try the new and improved model with vampire and werewolf romances! Because nothing beats a deep, dark secret and the allure of a full moon…
Is there such a thing as hot and sexy alien abductions? Yes, but only in alien abduction romance novels. They may be green and live on space ships, but these men are hard to resist. Try a genre that’s truly out of this world.
Whether the leading lady has known about her powers all along or discovers them through a magical romance, these bewitching love stories will put a spell on you.
If you’re searching for the angelic boyfriend of your dreams, it doesn’t get more celestial than these romances. These angels are magical and human at the same time, some are guardians and some are fallen, but all have powers and they are usually tasked with major and urgent.
For those who prefer a bad boy with a twist, there’s always the ultimate boyfriend from hell…
This unique subgenre allows you to reach beyond the boundaries between life and death to find a romance that’s truly spirited.
Romance is a common subplot in works of epic fantasy, but the fantasy romance genre has arisen thanks to fans who want the fair maiden to be more than just a side-quest. Popular fantasy romance authors include C.L. Wilson and Deborah Harkness.
If elves and knights in shining armor aren’t your thing, dark fantasy romance allows a foray into the mystical macabre where humanity is threatened and our heroine must overcome long odds to save us all. Focusing on the darker elements of fantasy—like curses, murder, and pacts with the enemy—this genre is a blend of fantasy, horror and romance. The romantic relationship can be the A plotline (the main one) or the C or D (ancillary) plot line in dark fantasies.
Usually set in the real world in a bustling city—think London or New York—these stories contain typically just one element of fantasy, such as people or objects with magical powers or coexistence/conflict between humans and paranormal beings. Oftentimes narrated in the first person these novel feature law enforcement, investigation or vigilantism. Not all urban fantasies feature romance, and when they do not all of them have an HEA.
The primary characteristic of an erotic romance is hot, steamy, passionate sex. While there may be a strong love story involved, that’s not necessarily a requirement; sometimes, these stories are simple steamy romps. When they are just a gratuitous sex romp and they don’t have an HEA ending, they are termed “Erotica.” However, if they have a plot that follows the arc of the relationship and they do have an HEA ending, then they are termed “Erotic Romance.” And because this genre has the freedom to explore every facet of sexuality, it can take you to some very exciting or taboo places (and maybe give you a few tips!) Popular erotic romance authors include (of course) E.L. James and C.D. Reiss.
If whips and chains excite you, you’ll love putting a little extra kink in your read with BDSM romances. Featuring the darker side of erotic romance, BDSM stories tell sadomasochistic tales that are sure to have you begging for more (or less).
In these books the doctor is so hot and sexy that sex often starts on the exam table.
MENAGE A TROIS
Two’s company, and three’s… exciting! Love triangles can be awkward, but adding a third person in the bedroom just brings three times the fun.
Erotically quirky, reverse harem romances are like love triangles… but with more men and more excitement. A spin on the popular “one girl likes multiple guys” trope, reverse harems present a universe where multiple heroes fall for the same attractive heroine.
Erotica novels tend to have lots of erotic passion and explicit sex scenes without much relationship building. Often it’s just an encounter of series of encounters, designed to turn the reader on. Don’t expect a happily ever after in the sub-genre.
Dating back to the 1800s, gothic romances have a long and popular history of combining elements of horror, fantasy, and the supernatural, all usually against a historic backdrop. Early authors of gothic romances include literary ladies such as Jane Austen and Emily Bronte, while their contemporary counterparts boast writers like Sarah Waters and Eve Silver.
Turn a page and travel back in time with a dazzling historical romance! Because this genre encompasses everything from Ancient Egypt to the Gatsby age, it’s spawned multiple subgenres. Popular historical romance authors include Mary Balogh and Lisa Kleypas.
If your real life is lacking in the courtly elegance of regency-era England, give yourself a little extra glamour with a regency romance.
Lose yourself in the era of sophistication and decorum where family fortunes—and curses—abound, and where the governess can fall in love with the heir to the throne.
LORDS AND LADIES
Remind yourself that chivalry isn’t dead when you get swept away with a romance in the age of lords and ladies.
WORLD WAR II
From romance on the battlefield to secret love affairs among spies, this tempestuous time period is full of romance and intrigue.
If you’ve ever watched Outlander, you know how sexy men in kilts can be, so take it to the next level with a novel of highland romance. (Hint: the books are always better than the movie.)
You might not think there’s anything sexy about the age of Vikings, but if you’ve ever fantasized about being carried off by a rugged knight in shining armor (who’s also probably invading your village), these romances are for you.
Get carried away with love on the high seas in a swash-buckling pirate romance!
Cleopatra and Marc Antony, Paris and Helen of Troy… some of the greatest love stories ever told are set in ancient times.
Representation matters, especially when it comes to romance, a genre that has long been overpopulated by blonde-haired, blue-eyed protagonists. For romances that embrace diversity, take a look at some of these, popularized by authors like Beverly Jenkins and Sara Farizan.
Interracial romances aren’t trying to say any one race is sexy… but overcoming obstacles, prejudice, and conventions to be with the person you love is totally sexy.
African-American romances are full of love, spice, steamy sex, and everything else that makes a romance great, but with one added bonus: they also celebrate the culture and values of African-Americans.
How do you define the LGBT romance genre? By understanding that a romance is a story in which the central plot revolves around two people who fall in love. And sometimes, those people happen to be lesbians, gay, bisexual, or transgender. There you go. That’s all that matters. Popular authors of LGBT romance include Becky Albertalli and Benjamin Alire Sáenz
What’s hotter than one guy? Two guys who love each other.
Women fall in love with women in these novels which feature tropes such as two women, one child and hot, smart lady doctors or strong lady cops.
Fall in love with a medical romance—stat! Featuring a cast that ranges from MDs to EMTs, these stories depict the danger and drama of everyday life in the medical profession with the added complication of hot doctors and finding love. Popular medical romance authors include Amy Ruttan and Meredith Webber.
If you’re a good old-fashioned country girl just looking for the right man, dive into a Wild West romance and lasso yourself a cowboy! Though westerns can be contemporary or historical, you can still snag yourself a good old country boy—with a ranch to boot! —, as these stories will show you. Popular western romance authors include B.J. Daniels and Jodi Thomas.
Yes, this is actually a subgenre, and yes, the plot centers around exactly what it says.
COWBOY NEXT DOOR
What’s cuter than the boy next door? The lovable cowboy next door! (And his horse, of course).
Usually set a little further back in the real Wild West, these stories feature rugged sharp-shooters willing to defend their ladies from outlaws, bandits, and whatever else they might face.
MAIL ORDER BRIDE
The match.com of olden times, mail order bride stories connect girls from faraway places with lonely bachelors looking for a wife. But though they often start out in a marriage of convenience, the characters usually find more than they bargained for when they fall in love.
If ordinary romance isn’t thrilling enough for you, add some extra drama with romantic suspense! With adventures ranging from kidnappings to espionage to serial killers, these stories are as exciting as they are hot. Popular romantic suspense authors include Sandra Brown and Melinda Leigh.
The danger may vary in these romances, but the there’s always a sexy, buff guy around to keep the heroine protected and to save the day.
She might be a secret agent. She might be a spy. Maybe the president’s in danger. Something thrilling is always going on in these stories, and you’ll find yourself becoming one with the daring heroines (and the badass guys they fall for).
WOMEN OR BABIES IN JEOPARDY
What’s more exciting than a secret baby romance? One where the characters save a baby!
For everyone who loves a guy—or girl— in uniform, military romances have it all: suspense, sexiness, and soldiers.
Science Fiction Romance
Sci-fi romance is the perfect marriage of one genre that explores new worlds and another that explores hearts. Though all sci-fi romances may not take place in outer space, their stories are sure to be out of this world. Popular science fiction romance authors include Kit Rocha and Alyssa Cole.
Time Travel Romance
Whether it happens through a magic device, a hole in the time-space continuum, or some other method, these women fall through time and then fall in love with someone from another era. Popular time travel romance authors include Audrey Niffenegger and Larissa Brown.
If you like your romance in comic-book form, get ready to binge-read manga romance! Though the location, circumstances, and ages of the characters can vary wildly from story to story—think everything from high-school romance to monster-battling adventures—romance manga always has a love story at its center. Popular romance manga artists include Io Sakisaka and Kazune Kawahara.