The romance genre has been around for as long as people have been falling in love. Some of the earliest surviving snippets of romance stories date back to ancient Greece. We can follow the trail from there. Love and romance are reflected in artwork, mythology, poetry, music, photography, and of course in novels.
While the genre has undergone many changes, the core elements have always been there: love, drama, heartbreak, reunion. Why? Because who hasn’t known that first blush of attraction? The pining when it’s unrequited? The thrill of a kiss returned, or of an “I love you” whispered at an unexpected moment? To be human is to love. Most novels, at their core, are about the human experience.
The shape and feel of the romance novel has certainly altered over time. As societal mores have blossomed, faded, and been replaced, these changes have always been echoed in published romance.
If we were to write a blog post on the history of romance novels we’d need far more space than is allowed. Instead, we turned to our All The Kissing community members, asking about the changes they’ve noticed since they picked up their first romance novel. Some of us have been reading romance for 30-plus years. Others are new readers to the genre but if anyone knows the world of romance, it’s our dedicated community-member readers.
5 Changes to the Romance Genre
By far in our informal poll, the biggest tide changes members have noticed fall into these five categories:
Let’s take a look and see what our community had to say!
There is an ongoing discussion about diversity, equality, and inclusion in the romance industry. At the annual Romance Writers of America conference in July of this year, there were several workshops and open discussions on DEI and for the first time in its 37-year history, RITA winners included authors of color. These observations are from our community discussion on the topic:
- There’s more inclusion and diversity, a lot more attention paid to the supporting character cast, and a lot more genuinely strong female main characters. Also, the pure fantasy aspect of romance seems thinner, as more real-life situations become echoed in the work.
- Only in the last few years has diversity shown up in the pages of our favorite romance novels. Prior, you could only read about 20s-something, hetero-cis-white couples, and only a handful of publishers have/had a diversity line. Luckily the demands are increasing and we’re (slowly) starting to this reflected in available titles.
- Take a stroll through #MSWL and you’ll find agents hungry for diverse stories by diverse authors (#ownvoices).
- Who doesn’t want to envision someone like themselves in a story? Whether as persons of color, on the Autism spectrum, LGBTQ, and more, it’s getting easier to find ourselves reflected on the pages of romance novels.
Anyone who’s been reading romance for any length of time knows that consent hasn’t always been approached in our genre. Lately, consent has been a topic of discussion in the romance-writing community. Here’s some of what our All The Kissing members have observed with regards to the books they’re reading:
- The appearance of condoms seems recent since before it wasn’t mentioned. Consent has been around a while unless you go back to the 80s or early 90s, even though people act like it’s brand new.
- All iterations of the rape trope are dead.
- On Twitter, if you search #romancelandia + consent, you’ll see the majority believe “consent is sexy.” Our ATK members also agree, and many feel it needs to be explicit rather than implied in order to “model the behavior we want to see.”
- Modeled behavior we want to see (and are reading) also includes mature discussions regarding safe sex, condoms, birth control.
- Readers are savvy enough to know if there’s no mention of condoms, there’s a good chance of a surprise baby later on.
Just as there have been evolutions in romance in other areas, there have been with our heroes and heroines. As the world of romance moves to expand and include a more diverse and wide-ranging cast, some old character standards have fallen by the wayside (sorry, Fabio) and new ones have risen to take their places.
- Heroes are not the Fabios they always were in the past. Romances now encompass every kind of hero. It’s awesome!
- And the women are not all damsels in distress!
- We’re seeing a lot more non-toxic heroes.
- There’s a focus on safe, positive sex.
- We see heroes and heroines from all walks of life. Billionaires to bikers, bakers to swashbucklers.
- Seasoned romances with main characters over 35, 45, and older, dealing with grown children, death of a spouse, and finding love at any age.
- STEM careers are a recent trend too. Heroines used to be like cupcake bakers or lawyers and now we’re seeing a lot more scientists and mathematicians.
The romance genre, generally speaking, is written by women for women. That’s not to say that men can’t or shouldn’t write it, but it’s primarily a female-dominated field. At its core, this is also a genre about female empowerment.
As one of our All The Kissing community members put it: “I feel like romances have become more feminist.”
We also asked our community members about other trends in romance that they’ve been noticing lately.
- What’s new in romance that I’ve noticed? Straight women writing and reading m/m romance. It’s very surprising to me. When I was a young woman, m/m romances were written by gay men for other gay men. It had nothing to do with women, regardless of their sexuality.
- Since I started reviewing in 2013 I’ve seen romance trends go from small towns, to paranormal, to BDSM 50 Shades copies, to edgy contemporary with tattooed bad boys, sexy New Adult about college girls and bad boys, and now to the rom-com trend.
- So. Many. Cowboys
- And so. Many. Billionaires. Where have they been hiding for so long?
- Back to illustrated covers like the chick lit of the mid-2000s. The stuff I read before I was a writer! I do think covers have changed a lot. Historicals seem to still lean toward the swashbuckling covers.
- Authors write 4-5-6 sequels instead of one 500-pager where all the supporting characters hook up and marry. Instead you get a series.
- With self-publishing as an option, we see a lot more cyborgs, robots, aliens, and shapeshifters. Dark romance: mafia, criminals, and so on.
The world of romance writing sometimes takes a while to catch up to the point where it reflects today’s society, but the trends are pointing in that direction. These days, we’re seeing a far wider variety of romance novels being published with far more inclusion and diversity than ever before.
If you’d like to get in on the discussion, leave a comment below or better still, come join our All The Kissing community. We’d love to have you!
Thanks to all the members of our Facebook group for their input into this discussion! And huge thanks to Shannon Caldwell, who helped aggregate the information for this article.