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Romance Novels: What’s the Difference between “Trope” and “Subgenre”? | #amwriting

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Friday, we looked at what we romance authors/reviewers mean when we speak of tropes in romance—certain types of characters or storylines that have gained popularity throughout the romance genre. But then there’s another word that we use a lot which needs to also be defined: subgenre.

As a reminder the Romance Genre is defined as books that follow this basic outline:
1. Meet: H & H have significant encounters.
2. Lose: H & H are separated.
3. Get: H & H reunite
4. HEA (HFN): H & H have a “happily ever after” (“happily for now”) ending.

Beyond this basic structure, though, there are infinite possibilities for variety—and for creating “hybrid” novels that incorporate elements of more than one genre.

But aren’t tropes the same as subgenres?
Subgenres, at their most basic level, are actually categories that we can easily sort romance into (historical vs. contemporary, sensual vs. sweet). But there are some tropes that have become so popular, so common, that they have gained the distinction of subgenres.

Some of the most basic classifications through which we can start breaking the genre down into subgenres are:

  • Historical Romance: stories in an era prior to the current, usually prior to the Vietnam Conflict—such as my Ransome and Great Exhibition series
  • Contemporary Romance: stories set in the current timeframe in which they’re written—such as my Bonneterre and Matchmakers series
  • Inspirational Romance: romance novels, contemporary or historical, which incorporate a spiritial element, traditionally a Christian worldview, ranging from “moral” to “evangelical”
  • LGBTQ Romance: romance novels featuring lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or “questioning” characters as the main romance couple
  • African American, Asian American, or other specific ethnicity: romance novels featuring characters from one or more ethnicities other than white European/American which incorporate specific cultural traditions into the characters, settings, and storylines

And those are just a few of the basic subgenre classifications.

To start differentiating tropes and subgenre, let’s look at the four books of mine that we looked at in the tropes post:







Book Trope(s) Subgenre(s)
Stand-In Groom
Trope 1: Wedding planner falls in love with “groom”
Trope 2: Hidden identity
Trope 3: Older main characters (contemporary = 35+)
Trope 4: Large, friendly, meddling family (southern)
Trope 5: Big Misunderstanding
Subgenre 1:
Contemporary Romance
Subgenre 2:
Inspirational Romance
Subgenre 3:
Southern Romance
Ransome’s Crossing
Trope 1: Girl disguised as boy, excels at boy stuff
Trope 2: Hero (almost) immediately sees through disguise
Trope 3: Cliffhanger ending (series novel)
Subgenre 1:
Historical Romance
Subgenre 2:
Regency (1800-1820) Romance
Subgenre 3:
Royal Navy Romance
Subgenre 4:
Inspirational Romance
A Case for Love
Trope 1: Forbidden romance
Trope 2: Enemies to lovers
Trope 3: Romance opens hero’s eyes to his/his family’s flaws
Trope 4: Romance trumps duty/obligation
Subgenre 1:
Contemporary Romance
Subgenre 2:
Inspirational Romance
Subgenre 3:
Southern Romance
Follow the Heart
Trope 1: Must marry for money/falls in love with someone relatively poor
Trope 2: Must decide between two suitors
Trope 3: Poor relations depending on wealthy relatives to help find marriage prospects
Trope 4: “Sense & Sensibility” siblings (one with all the reason/responsibility, the other giving into the whims of romance with no sense of responsibility)
Subgenre 1:
Historical Romance
Subgenre 2:
Victorian (British, 1830s–1900ish) Romance
Subgenre 3:
Inspirational Romance


As each of the categories mentioned above has expanded, new subgenres have popped up as certain tropes/settings/historical periods/etc. have gained popularity. For example, within the Historical Romance category, we’ll find these subgenres:


Medieval Romance

  • Medieval Romance: usually set in England from the 11th–15th centuries (or between the Normal Conquest of 1066 up until the end of the War of the Roses/dawn of the Tudor era in the mid- to late-1400s), with varying degrees of historical accuracy.
  • Highlander Romance: usually also set between the 11th–15th centuries–though some may stretch this into the 18th century and the era of Bonnie Prince Charlie—but set in Scotland featuring a powerful warrior/clan laird as the hero.
  • Colonial America: these can be romance novels featuring characters involved in the American War for Independence, or set even earlier, during the earliest decades of settling the North American continent—17th–18th century.
  • Regency Romance: the most popular time period of the last two or so decades; though the actual British Regency period was 1811–1820, in the romance genre, it’s generally accepted as from around 1800 into the early 1820s, and always set (at least partially) in Britain (since it’s the British Regency that gives this era its name).
  • Victorian Romance: set in Britain—or one of her colonies—during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901)—or, again, stretching it for the Romance genre, from about 1830 to around 1900. Does not include American-set novels from the 19th century—there was so much else going on in the US during this time that it needs to be designated differently. Plus, again, it’s an era named for a British monarch; therefore, the category name connotes it’s going to be a British setting.
  • Prairie/North American Frontier Romance: set in North America during the 19th century—usually deals with at least one of the two main characters traveling west from the more civilized east to settle in the Untamed West as pioneers. This is different from Western Romance, which usually features cowboys, ranches, Indian attacks, cattle/livestock drives, gunfights, etc.
  • Gilded Age Romance: usually set in a big city (New York, Boston) or high-class resort area (think: the Hamptons) on the east cost of the U.S. during the 1890s.
  • Edwardian, or Titanic-/Downton Abbey-Inspired, Romance: set, you guessed it, during the Edwardian age—or from around 1900 through World War I.

And on and on it can go. As certain time periods gain in popularity, usually influenced now by popular media (see Titanic/Downton Abbey reference above), we see a proliferation of books set in that era which can be a flash in the pan (such as the multitude of books set on the Titanic which were published around the 100th anniversary of its ill-fated voyage in 2012) or which can become its own subgenre with its own conventions and expectations.

How do subgenres develop out of tropes?
As mentioned before, there are some tropes that become so popular that they become subgenres in and of themselves, with their own conventions and reader expectations. Such as:

  • Medical Romance: one or both of the main characters is a medical professional, and there is some kind of medical issue that is integral to the plot of the novel
  • Marriage of Convenience (as discussed in the tropes post)
  • Professional Sports Figure: as it suggests, these feature a professional (or semi-professional) athlete, someone who makes his/her living from participating in that sport; such as Harlequin’s NASCAR line or certain authors’ series featuring specific sports: Susan Elizabeth Phillips with professional football, Rachel Gibson with ice hockey, or Jaci Burton’s Play by Play series which features a different sport in each book
  • Military Romance (again, described in the tropes post)
  • Time-Travel Romance: one of the main characters travels back in time to the era of the other main character—the book will then incorporate elements of that historical setting while also keeping some of the contemporary elements through the time-traveling character; unlike Outlander, which is an epic fantasy with a strong romantic thread, true Time-Travel Romances keep the traditional romance novel structure—like Jude Deveraux’s Knight in Shining Armor.

For a trope to become a subgenre, first authors must incorporate that trope into several (if not all) of their stories—such as a Royal Navy captain (rather than a titled gentleman) as a main character in a Regency romance and then setting all/most of the story aboard his ship. If readers fall in love with that trope and demand more and more books featuring that trope, it eventually gains the status of a subgenre. In other words, it’s no longer a Regency romance that happens to have a Royal Navy captain—it becomes a Royal Navy Romance (yes, I’m really trying to make this happen!)

What about romance novels that incorporate elements from other genres?
When talking about romance, we cannot ignore the fact that over the past twenty or thirty years, authors have become quite successful at creating hybrid stories that have created some of the most popular subgenres. For example:

Romantic Suspense: There is a suspense element (one or both the hero or heroine is personally in jeopardy) that is almost to equally important as the romance plot. Take out either thread, and the story falls apart. These are usually contemporary settings (historical romantic suspense tends to fall into the “Gothic” category–see below), and one of the characters may be involved in law-enforcement in some manner (an FBI agent, a police officer, a homeland security agent, etc.).

Paranormal Romance: These are stories in which one of the characters is a vampire, werewolf, sorcerer/ess, shape-shifter, ghost, angel (or former angel), or someone with supernatural talents, such as magic or psychic abilities. These are set in the real world (contemporary or historical), though the actual location (city, country) may be fictional. Not to be confused with fantasy.

Fantasy Romance: These are romances that have an other-worldly setting. The characters may or may not have special/supernatural abilities. While the fantastical setting is important, the romance is still what takes center stage.

Futuristic Romance: Can be science fiction or dystopian/end-times—but, again, the romance/relationship is the focus of the story, not the setting or events, which differentiates it from the regular sci-fi/dystopian genres.

War Romance: Just like it sounds, these are historical romances set during a real war: one of the World Wars, the American Civil War, the Napoleonic war. It isn’t just set during that time period, though. The war must have an effect on the storyline/relationship.

Gothic Romance: In these historicals, the heroine’s life is in jeopardy from someone very close to her—usually a close relative—but the suspicion usually falls squarely on the hero. These are most often written only from the heroine’s POV (1st or 3rd Person), and are set in gloomy climates (lots of storms, fog, cloudy skies, cold, etc.) in mausoleum-like houses/castles. They very often appear to have paranormal elements that are usually explained to be of perfectly natural origins at the end.

Again, this is not an exhaustive list, but those I could come up with easily, just looking through the titles on my own bookshelves (or thinking about what authors I know are writing). For a much more exhaustive list, complete with examples of specific titles, visit this great site: http://www.magicdragon.com/ROgens.html.

The most important thing to keep in mind about all of these subgenres is this: if you take the romantic thread out of the story and you still have a story (no matter how weak it is), it’s not a romance novel. No matter the trope or subgenre the story is built around, the developing relationship and ultimate happy ending are integral to it as a romance novel.

For Discussion:
What is your favorite subgenre of romance? What subgenre(s) have you written/are you writing? Do you have a tendency to read mostly one subgenre over others? What are some of the advantages of writing in a subgenre that crosses over to another genre (such as suspense, fantasy, or science fiction)? What are some disadvantages?

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