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 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 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:
- Scott Eagan on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog
- Author Therese Walsh at Romance University
- Agent Kevan Lyon at Romance University
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.