As I write this, I’ve been seeing more discourse online about the differences between “fantasy romance” and “romantic fantasy” as subgenres. This discourse has largely been between readers, which I think is amazing! It can really help the Bookstagram and BookTok communities as they continue spreading the word about so many amazing books.
But I think it’s also important that we talk about it as writers. I’ve got a quick breakdown post over on Instagram, but let’s dive into it more deeply here.
So… fantasy romance vs. romantic fantasy: what are these subgenres and why are they different?
Both romantic fantasy and fantasy romance novels have a few things in common:
- Fantasy setting and worldbuilding
- Romantic tension between two or more characters
- Romance tropes
- Fantasy tropes
Painting these in very broad strokes, fantasy romance is a romance story set in a fantasy world. The romance is the focus of the plot, and if you take that romance away, the story basically breaks down. Fantasy romance utilizes some fantasy tropes but is ultimately a romance story set within a fantasy world. This means they tend to utilize standard romance beats, which you can read about in this great post over on Dabble. This includes ending in a “Happily Ever After” (HEA) or “Happy For Now” (HFN) like more contemporary romance novels do.
On the other hand, romantic fantasy is a fantasy story with a romantic subplot. Even if you take out the romance, the overarching plot will still make sense to readers and work. Thematically, romantic fantasy books focus more on things like a character coming to grips with their power (often magical) and their place within the world. They often have an emphasis on personal relationships as well, including romantic ones. In fact, the romance can be quite important, but it’s not the core of the story. HEA/HFNs are not required, as you can have a love story without a happy ending.
Blurry Genre Boundaries
Those short definitions are all well and good, but when you really dig into it, the line between fantasy romance and romantic fantasy can get blurry quickly.
If a romantic fantasy starts to heavily focus on a character’s romantic relationship, when does it stop being a subplot and become a core piece of the story? When do the story structure, themes, and tropes cross too far into “romance” territory? And vice versa: when do a fantasy romance’s fantasy tropes stray too far into “fantasy” territory?
Honestly, there’s no exact moment you cross over. There’s no genre authority out there that says, “Oh, you use five romance genre beats in this book? Well, that’s too many, so now you’re fantasy romance instead of romantic fantasy.”
The reality is that even if you try to place your book into a neat, distinct genre category, you’re going to find that nothing is the perfect fit. In fact, you’re likely to have elements from other fantasy subgenres. Most authors bend and blend genres, combining elements of epic fantasy, sword & sorcery, high fantasy, etc. in their stories. I bet you do, too.
Genre is important. It’s important to know how to position your book in the marketplace for readers, and it helps you decide how to structure story, character arcs, and so forth.
Fantasy romance and romantic fantasy are separated by a pretty thin line, and you might find yourself crossing the boundary between the two multiple times, especially if you’re writing a series.
Maybe your romantic fantasy series opens with a slow burn romance that’s part of a subplot rather than the main storyline. As that romance becomes increasingly important over the course of your series and you rely more on romance tropes and story beats, you may be shifting more toward fantasy romance. If that shift is natural and makes sense within your world and for your characters, readers probably won’t mind too much.
In the end, think about setting reader expectations. While the boundary does blur between these two categories, readers sometimes want one over the other. This can be especially crucial when promoting the first book in your series.
Fair warning here: content about your book created by others on social media might mislead new readers. Some of this confusion is because readers on social media often use “fantasy romance” and “romantic fantasy” interchangeably, then create content focused on the romance aspects of the books they read.
For example, I’ve seen lots of people disappointed by The Cruel Prince by Holly Black for this reason. They see fan art or posts depicting some epic enemies-to-lovers storyline when really, this book is more of a YA political fantasy with a romance subplot. That enemies-to-lovers storyline absolutely exists! But this trilogy is about so much more than the romance, so some readers have the wrong expectations going in.
There’s only so much you can do about that as the author. You can’t control how other people talk about and promote your book.
But if you know which side of the fence your book falls on, you can control things like:
- How you personally promote the book on social media
- Which categories you list the book in on retailers like Amazon
- How you describe your book on your website, in interviews, etc.
- How you pitch the book to ARC readers
- How you write the book blurb, which is a big part of your marketing
There’s so much you can do to set your story on the right path in readers’ minds. This will help ideal readers find your books. It’ll also help your ARC and street teams know how to talk about your books online.
Good luck and happy writing!
Need help with your fantasy novel, regardless of the level of romance? Fantasy is one of my favorite genres to edit! Get started on your free consultation here.
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