Spells, Swords & Hearts 006: Understanding Contemporary Romance Sub-Genres & Categories

Need help navigating the romance genre?

While romance may seem like a straightforward genre based solely on love and relationships, it’s more complicated than you think. Not all romance books are created equal. In fact, there are countless different sub-genres that a romance novel may fall into, which makes romance nothing more than a basic category suggesting that a novel contains a romantic relationship and a happy ending. Almost every genre – from thriller to science fiction – has a romantic counterpart, which can make navigating the genre difficult for new readers.

To make things a bit easier and offer an introduction (of sorts) to romance in its purest form, this installment of Spells, Swords & Hearts is dedicated to providing an in-depth, explanatory guide to contemporary romance categories and sub-genres.

While the following sub-genres and categories may not technically be considered contemporary (as that’s a genre all on its own), I am using the term loosely to refer to romance novels that are more traditional, in that they are what you would typically find in the romance section of your local bookstore. For works that are truly cross-genre such as science fiction, fantasy and paranormal romance (among others) stay tuned for a future installment of Spells, Swords & Hearts.

Young Adult Romance

As the category implies, young adult romance targets readers between the ages of 12-18 and often features conflicts that showcase trials and tribulations while trying to form a romantic relationship including unrequited love, dealing with attraction, dating, and even the first kiss. Novels that fall into this sub-genre often deal with sexuality, attraction and understanding love as a concept. More often than not, they are sweet tales of first love that fall into the contemporary romance category (complete with awkward, adorable and even angsty moments).

Very rarely do young adult romance novels feature sexual scenes, but they may be implied, and sexual tension is not forgotten in works that are geared toward younger readers, who may use these books to understand their desires and feelings.

New Adult Romance

Much like young adult romance, this sub-genre of romance features younger characters in new, life-changing situations. New adult romance novels follow characters that are between the ages of 18-25, often fitting into the contemporary romance category.  Big firsts are often explored – attending college, becoming more independent by moving into a first house or apartment or starting a new career path.

As characters learn to cope with new responsibilities, they often fall in love – it may be a fling, it may be true love, but where these novels differ from those in the young adult category is that they are often more sensual and emotional. Sex is a given in this genre, and it usually borders on the explicit as characters learn about themselves, their interests, and even their sexuality.

Category Romance

Category romances are perfect for the serial reader – the one who loves a long series, becomes attached to the characters, and loves reading bite-sized novels. Generally, under 200 pages, category romance novels share the same theme and tone as others published in a line, during which a publisher, namely Harlequin, releases a certain number per month.

Readers know exactly what to expect when picking up a category romance – they are often grouped by theme, genre, and sensuality, often making them much shorter variants of the other sub-genres included on this list with romantic suspense and historical romance being the most popular. Romance novels that fall into this category are generally more upbeat and feature a true, compelling romance (rather than one fraught with problems). Don’t fret, however – these novels still feature strong characters and conflicts.

The majority of romance authors get their start writing category romance novels.

Contemporary Romance

The contemporary romance genre is pretty straightforward, but worth mentioning because it is the category that is most often associated with romance aside from erotica. The Romance Writers of America categorize contemporary romance as any novel set later than 1950, but most modern-day contemporary romances occur much later and cover the present day.

Most romance novels that fall into the contemporary category focus solely on the progression of the romantic relationship and vary in terms of sensuality from sweet, innocent romance to sensual, steamy erotica. The elements of the plot serve to drive the romance forward and a happily ever after ending is a must.

Inspirational Romance

Most often referred to as spiritual or religious romance, works that fall into the inspirational romance category feature characters with strong religious convictions. Religious or spiritual faith is integral to the plot as well as the relationship dynamic, meaning these works could not exist without religious, spiritual or cultural contexts.

Inspirational romance novels tend to avoid sex, instead focusing on emotional intimacy over a period of dating or courting. Faith, forgiveness, and hope play a central role in these narratives, which range from second chances at love to (surprisingly) mail-order bride narratives.

It’s also important to note that works that fall into this category are not always Christian, despite the fact that the Christian romance genre is incredibly well known.

Historical Romance

It goes without saying that historical romances focus on the past. Considered by the Romance Writers of America to be anything set before 1950, the historical sub-genre is much more than that and can actually be quite modern. From westerns to war-torn countries, historical romances differ in content and context, making it an incredibly varied sub-genre.

Much like romance in general, not all historical romances are alike. Some simply use the past as a convenient backdrop, while others take the time to establish setting and language, offering a lush history lesson in the process. From Victorian love affairs and country romances in the American Mid-West to secret relationships during the wars of the 20th century, historical romances transport you across cultures, time periods and landscapes.

Similar to contemporary romance, historical romance novels vary in terms of sexual content and even relationship development, with some being a mere dating game, to others being quite explicit.

Regency Romance

Not to be confused with historical romance, regency romance is a category of its own, featuring much shorter narratives that focus on society and dialogue rather than action and intimacy.

As the name implies, regency romances are set during the Regency era of British history and focus on upper-class society – marriages of convenience and false engagements are popular in this sub-genre, which focuses on class distinctions, dialogue and social activities rather than what is expected of romance.  Historical details are the primary focus of works that fall into this category, where relationships are not often formed out of love or even attraction.

Despite the common misconception that Recency novels derive from the works of Jane Austen, they are actually styled after Georgette Heyer, who wrote over two dozen novels of manners set during the Regency era.

Romantic Suspense

Romantic suspense is one of the most popular romance sub-genres according to a study conducted by the Romance Writers of America, which concluded that half of romance readers consume works that fall into the sub-genre.

Romantic suspense novels are full of high-paced action, drama and suspense, which draw out elements of romance – from kidnapping cases and high-stakes crime, to military heroes and espionage, this genre is broad and may be the most appealing to fans of thriller novels. Additionally, while suspense is necessary to the plot, that doesn’t mean intimacy is out of the question – romantic suspense novels vary greatly in terms of sensuality with many being steamy and explicit, featuring loads of sexual tension.


It goes without saying that erotic romance novels feature explicit sex, but that’s not all there is to the genre. While steamy, descriptive sex scenes may be integral to the plot and character development in these works, novels that fall into this category are not just glorified porn. Characters go through dynamic story arcs and they experience real-life conflicts and emotions. Sex just so happens to be a great way to develop a relationship, so long as it is written with emotion.

Erotic romance novels are all about pushing boundaries and exploring fantasies but have depth and unique tropes to bring relationships to life. From BSDM and ménage to historical and experimental elements, there’s something for everyone in this genre as long as you are open to explicit sexual content.

What’s your favorite romance sub-genre?

Share your thoughts and give us a few recommendations in the comments below!

Melissa Ratcliff
the authorMelissa Ratcliff
Senior Staff Writer
Reader, Writer & Translator. Cats, books and video games are my life.