What’s the Difference Between Romance and Women’s Fiction?

Sometimes authors of romance and women’s fiction face a conundrum. They’ve written a novel, or they’ve got an idea for one, and they’re not sure which of the two genres it fits into.

One reason for this confusion is that a single novel can meet the definitions for both. As defined by the Romance Writers of America (RWA), romance fiction includes

  • A central love story
  • An emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending

Novels that meet this definition might be romance, or they might be women’s fiction. Both are relationship-driven, which sets them apart from other genres. But there are critical differences between the two.

Romance

Romance novels feature a hero and heroine*, each with their own plot and character arc, which are interwoven to form the main arc of the story.

Romance is unique in fiction because it has two protagonists, who each serve as the other’s antagonist. It can also have a villain, but the villain is not the antagonist. If the romance is the central storyline, then it’s the love interest, not the villain, who forces the protagonist to change.

Women’s Fiction

Women’s fiction is relationship-driven but focuses on the journey of the female protagonist. The central relationship can be romantic, but it doesn’t have to be—nor does the genre require a happy ending as romance does. Women’s fiction often explores the protagonist’s family ties, friendships, and career.

Often, women’s fiction includes multiple relationships as subplots. For instance, a novel with a central romantic storyline might feature a mother-daughter struggle as a secondary plot, or a novel focusing on the relationship between sisters might have a romance subplot.

Women’s fiction, unlike romance, generally has a single protagonist. In romantic women’s fiction (that is, it meets RWA’s definition of romance), the love interest is the antagonist, even if the story also includes a villain. But the love interest is not on par with the female protagonist, who is clearly the main character.

Beach Colors by Shelley Noble is my favorite example of a women’s fiction novel that reads like a romance, but the strong subplots push the hero into a more secondary position. He’s got a strong character arc, but it’s subordinate to the heroine’s.

There are also romance novels that feature strong subplots and family relationships, giving them the feel of women’s fiction. Two of my favorite examples are Virginia Kantra’s Dare Island series and Melissa Cutler’s Catcher Creek series.

Industry professionals don’t all agree on the exact definition of women’s fiction, so if you’d like to read more, here are the links to a few articles on this subject:

How do you define women’s fiction? Do you agree with how I distinguish between women’s fiction and romance? Leave a comment! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

* The central couple in a romance novel can also be a same-sex couple or a menage grouping. In a menage, one pair may predominate, or all three characters (or more) may play equal roles. Note that this definition is not intended to exclude any LGBTQIA or MOGAI relationships not specifically mentioned.

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About AndreaJWenger

Andrea J. Wenger is an award-winning writer and editor in Raleigh, North Carolina. She specializes in the fields of creative, technical, and freelance writing.

Posted on June 24, 2015, in Blog Posts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I find the debate between romance and women’s fiction exhausting and something only writers spend time arguing over–readers don’t care. Readers–our audience–rarely dissect the genres or care about the distinction. They simply want a good story well told. It makes for interesting debate among writers and booksellers, and as an indie author, I solve the problem by labeling my books both and move on. I do appreciate your take on the subject and the book recommendations! I’ll definitely check those out!

    • Christy, I agree that the debate is largely academic and mostly relevant to writers marketing their books. If the book has a central love story, it makes sense to put it in both categories. Problems can arise when authors or publishers try to market women’s fiction with romantic elements as romance, though. Some romance readers don’t want the subplots and other relationship elements of women’s fiction. They just want the love story. That’s why I think the distinction is important.

  2. Great article, Andrea!

    This is a subject near and dear to my heart–or heartache. My fist novel toes the line between the two genres. It is more WF, because the female protagonist’s journey IS the main story. But, romance comes into play about a third of the way in and carries through to the HEA. I recently had an agent express interest, but then she suggested it would sell better as romance. If I would be interested in rewriting as a romance, we could talk some more. Easier said than done!

    • That’s a tough call, Kerry Ann. Romance sells better than women’s fiction, so I understand the agent’s perspective. But that doesn’t mean we should all be writing romance instead of women’s fiction, right? It sounds like the question you’re facing is whether the information from the first third of the novel needs to be dramatized, or if you can weave it in some other way. Good luck!

  3. I’ve seen the genre title of “romantic women’s fiction”. I like that one! Solves the issue – sort of. I suppose it depends on who you are talking to and if they wish to argue the points.

    • Romantic women’s fiction is a great term for women’s fiction that meets RWA’s definition of romance. In that case, you get the best of both worlds!

  4. Finally a clear delineation that makes sense to me. My WF has no romantic elements at all and trying to explain that to my acquaintances is exhausting. Once we get an agent and publisher it won’t matter as much. Until then, we’ll have to define ourselves.

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