Women’s Fiction vs. Romance: What’s the Difference?
10/1/15 — Women’s Fiction and Romance: Mutually Exclusive or Mutually Confusing?
Genres exist for a reason. Readers like to know what to expect, at least in general terms, when they pick out a book. And publishers want to accommodate them. As many budding writers learn during the querying process, the way they characterize a novel can be key to finding the right agent or publisher.
But what if a book doesn’t quite fit into one of the standard categories, or if it fits into too many? Or what if, to complicate matters even further, those categories aren’t all that different to begin with?
Such was the case with my second full-length novel, The Troublemakers, a story about recovered cancer patients who become their own brand of superheroes. Not only did the book have the unlikely combination of an all-woman cast and an action-packed plot, but each character had her own romance thrown into the mix as well.
So how can a reader navigate these branding terms if even writers are confused about where the lines fall? According to the research I did after completing the book, the following list highlights the similarities and differences between two similar but different genres: Romance and Women’s Fiction.
In Romance, a romantic relationship drives the plot.
Think of films based on famous romance novels―we would be pretty disappointed if we popped on The Notebook and ended up watching anything but a romance-centered flick, wouldn’t we?
In Romance, the romantic relationship is pretty much guaranteed to form the arc of the story. In Women’s Fiction, relationships that drive the plot could be any kind: mother and daughter, childhood friends, or even a woman and herself. Romantic relationships can also be incredibly important in Women’s Fiction, but they are not always the driving force.
Romance must have a happy ending.
Women’s Fiction can have a happy ending too, but for Romance, the happy ending is required. This might get predictable for readers, but it’s also comforting to know that no matter what the obstacle, everything will work out in the end.
Without a happy ending, a romance novel would be like Cinderella if the prince never showed up with that slipper!
Women’s Fiction must have a protagonist who is a woman.
Romance often has a main character who’s a woman, but there are also other kinds of Romance. For example between two gay men or a straight couple where the man is the protagonist (this last one is rare, but it can be done). There are no other types of Women’s Fiction where the main character is not a woman―it’s in the name, so there’s not a lot of wiggle room there.
Women’s Fiction novels tell a story of what it’s like to be a woman.
This last qualification is the most confusing. Generally, Women’s Fiction stories should tell the tale of at least one woman and her struggles using deep characterization so that readers (assuming these readers are women) can identify with the main character in some way.
But what does that mean, exactly? Can’t a romance tell the story of what it’s like to be a woman? Can’t men enjoy a book that falls under the Women’s Fiction genre?
Of course they can.
In my own experience, portraying a woman in Women’s Fiction differs from Romance because the woman herself is the most important part of the story, not her relationship with a man (or anyone else, necessarily), even when a relationship is the driving force of the plot. Readers grow to deeply understand this woman, and while they may not share most (or any) of the experiences this woman has during the novel, somehow they can still relate to them or learn from them in a very important way.
Think of Romance as the Disneyworld of fiction, where we go to fantasize about prince charmings and damsels in distress. No one comes home from Disneyworld expecting to find Prince Eric waiting in their living room with a dozen roses, do they? (Okay, I’ll admit, I do sometimes wish real life worked a bit more like a romance novel… but that’s besides the point.)
Women’s Fiction, on the other hand, is a microscope. The story is the lens, and it helps readers look at one life closely and examine its parts, which could include anything from how to deal with loss to what it’s like to send a child off to college and face an empty house.
Just to make matters more confusing, although these four rules have few exceptions, there is also a huge amount of variety within a genre or within each publisher’s requirements for that genre. Romance can have deep characterization of the main character, and Women’s Fiction can have a romance as the subject of the plot.
These genre-bending books can be hard to sell as an author, but they can also be the best selections for an adventurous reader. Challenging book stereotypes is important for the growth of the industry—after all, if people still thought all action heroes had to be men, The Troublemakers would still be sitting, unread, in an abandoned folder on my desktop—and for keeping readers on their toes.
Also, keep in mind that publishers must choose tags for books in order to sell them, but these tags are just words that may or may not accurately portray what’s inside the book. These tags could say more about the projected reader than the writing itself—for example, a publisher who wants to appeal to Romance readers might select that tag even if the novel breaks one of the cardinal Romance rules.
So if you’re a writer, try picking a genre and turning it on its head. And if you’re a reader, try picking up a book with contradictory taglines like romance/thriller. Sure, the journey might get bumpy or unpredictable at times, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? To journey into a world you’ve never explored before, or to look, from a new perspective, at the one you have?
Kelly Ann Jacobson
Kelly Ann Jacobson is a fiction writer, poet, and lyricist who lives in Falls Church, Va. She received an MFA in Fiction at Johns Hopkins University, and she now teaches as an Adjunct Professor of English. Kelly is the author of the novels, Cairo in White and The Troublemakers, as well as several other books of poetry and prose. Her work can be found here.
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