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what the confusion

Romance Versus Romantic Fiction: What’s the Confusion All About?

romance vs. romantic fiction

Romance or Romantic Fiction?

In fiction, what genre is romance and what is romantic fiction? It’s not a simple question, as the answer draws confusion. Every month or so, controversy arises on Twitter, with some posters unable to comprehend the difference between the two terms. Besides, why must there be rules for romance?

Romance and romantic fiction are distinct categories. They each have their own set of rules the writer follows. Otherwise, readers may be fooled into thinking a book will tell a particular kind of story and then walk away disappointed–or angry–when their expectations are unmet.

So let’s identify what differentiates the two so you can choose between them accordingly!

When You Think of Romance, What Comes to Mind?

The word romance means a variety of things.

  • Romance can denote a literary form rooted in adventure or specific ideals, like chivalry.
  • It could indicate a quality of glamour, excitement, or mystery.
  • Many people would say romance is an emotional connection, a feeling of love and affection.
  • A romance is a tale about love.

When readers of fiction use this term, they refer to the specific romance genre. These books are based on romantic-erotic love. In addition, these stories abide by a couple of hard-and-fast rules.

If you’re a promising author of a love story that ends with the main characters separated, be sure to market your book as romantic fiction, or at least the first entry in a romance serial, as romance readers will not stand for unhappy endings!

close up photo of wooden scrabble tiles near heart
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Many People Don’t Know the Difference Between Romance and Romantic Fiction



Romance novels depict people falling in love. They can also be about old flames reunited after a separation. Erotic love is essential over merely platonic love.

These books require happy endings. Or, at least, the reader understands the lovers will be united together for the foreseeable future. There must be a sense of optimism at the conclusion of the story.

Romantic Fiction

Romantic Fiction

On the other hand, romantic fiction focuses on relationships–especially between two people–rather than solely the love aspect. There are different elements to the plot besides the romance.

While it can consist of aspects like kissing and sex scenes (graphic or not), romantic fiction doesn’t necessitate a joyful epilogue with babies on page 350–as some traditional romances do! In fact, no kind of ending is mandatory.

Examples of romantic fiction include Gone With the Wind; Romeo and Juliet; The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller; Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick; The Notebook–actually, almost all Nicholas Sparks books are mislabeled as romance. Even Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series veers from genre romance after the first entry.

But the Confusion Remains

Author John Green argues that: “Romantic fictions must be able to describe themselves under one word: ‘love.’ A story becomes romantic when its goal is to show how two characters fall in love with each other.” But that doesn’t make it a romance novel.

All romance novels are love stories. However, not all love stories are romances.

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Rules For Romance

The Rules For a Great Romance Novel:

  • The romance must be front and center. An author can write a science fiction novel where a woman gets abducted by aliens and then falls in love with one of them. But this cannot be a subplot. It should be the main focus. (Just so you know, these books are scorching hot as of November 2022).
  • Characters must be well developed. Because this genre is so character-driven, it helps if they are fleshed out and relatable—even when they’re vampires or werewolves! Readers who identify with characters will likely stay engaged in the storyline longer.
  • The plot needs some shape and direction, even if it has little in the way of twists and turns. So keep things interesting. How do the lovers unite again after being separated for some time? Will one save another from danger? Conflict is essential. Without any obstacles–internal or external– between them, getting together would be kind of ordinary.
  • The absolute must-rule is a happily-ever-after ending. Or at least happy for now, as a teen romance might have.
question marks on paper crafts
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Rules for Romantic Fiction

The Rules

In romance, the story must have a happy ending. It’s the genre’s most fundamental rule. Romantic fiction has more leeway.

  • In romantic fiction, one is more likely to find a bittersweet or unhappy ending—or even no ending at all!
  • Romantic fiction focuses more on interpersonal relationships and plot than on romance itself. These books can involve more action and thematic elements than a romance does.
  • Love-making scenes are not mandatory. For that matter, no physical intimacy needs to be depicted at all.
  • There is a wider variety among works with similar themes but different tones (e.g., comedy romances vs. serious ones).
Romance Vs. Romantic Fiction

The Result

Romantic fiction has received considerable critical acclaim. On the other hand, romance–that is, female-centric novels with happy endings–has always been viewed by critics as several rungs below literary fiction.

Sadly, this may be due in part to sexism. Men write more romantic fiction than straightforward romance. As for romance, female authors far outnumber men. That is likely because ~85% of the genre’s readership comprises women.

There were numerous best-selling male writers in the heyday of bodice rippers. They used pseudonyms like Jennifer Wilde and Janette Seymour to appeal to the majority feminine audience. While men are writing romances today, they still stick to female pennames.

Romance has been derided as mommy porn” or, at best, sentimental fluff. Like detective mysteries, science fiction, and action thrillers, romance can be classified as pulp fiction. But of all pulp, romance gets the least respect.

Until recently–the successes of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, to be precise–Hollywood mostly shied away from adapting romance novels to film. Certainly the big screen.

Meanwhile, romantic fiction like Atonement or Silver Linings Playbook was made into popular Academy Award-nominated films.

The Books Are Romantic Fiction, Not Romance!

These books are romantic fiction, but due to certain factors, aren’t necessarily romances.

Who Doesn’t Like Happy Endings?

Against HEA

Some readers have disdain for romance for its adherence to happy endings. Many stress that love can fail to stand the test of time and still be meaningful. Or they assert that one doesn’t need marriage–or monogamy–to be fulfilled.

A story about an affair that lasts for a short while can be more dramatic and intriguing than a relationship with a fixed, predictable ending.

Moreover, literature must encompass angst to portray the totality of the human experience. Every life ends in death; some deaths are more painful than others. Fiction demanding the erasure of final suffering reduces the stories into fairy tales.

The requirement for positive, optimistic endings is viewed as childish, for the world does not guarantee such perfection. A HEA is unrealistic, immature, feminine, or American. Only in Hollywood movies do we see such idealized conclusions to stories.

But if happy endings exist on screen, surely there is room in genre fiction for them as well? After all, both art forms are make-believe.

romantic fiction
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There are many reasons why we seek out Hollywood-style happy endings.

It would be wonderful to find a beautiful and perfect partner to live with happily ever after. That’s not how things always work in real life—but why can’t we experience that in fiction?

An emotionally satisfying conclusion is an essential component of the romance genre because it allows readers to escape from our mundane world into one where everything works out.

For this type of “escapism” to work, there is usually some mental barrier between reality and fantasy. One way is through narrative framing devices (e.g., time period or setting). These provide a distance between the reader’s personal experience and actual story material. Hence, the popularity of historical and paranormal sub-genres or the abundant number of Dukes and billionaires.

There is a fantastic element to romance, but that should not be a negative mark against the genre.

happy ending
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Why Read Fiction?

Fiction is a way of life. We turn to fiction for many reasons: escapism, entertainment, healing broken hearts, and even clarity.

All types of fiction have expectations to meet.

Science Fiction must involve some form of technological transformation from the present day.

Every mystery novel has a crime that must be solved. In rare cases, the perpetrator may get away scot-free, but the truth should be revealed to the reader for the conclusion to be satisfactory.

Romance Vs. Romantic Fiction
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Conclusion: Romance Vs. Romantic Fiction

So to sum it up: romance novels and romantic fiction are not the same concepts. They are both genres that readers can learn from.

Romantic fiction portrays an emotional story about a relationship that might happen in real life. It need not involve any sex scenes or other explicit content. Romance may play an ancillary part in a larger plot line. Romantic fiction can end unhappily or not, as the primary focus is the character’s growth or downfall.

The Romantic fiction genre deals with romantic relationships–with an emphasis on relationships.

The modern romance genre deals with romantic relationships–with an emphasis on an ideal resolution for the relationship (HEA being the highest of ideals).

Romances must end happily ever after or be happy for now with the possibility of more significant commitment in the future.

Both categories can elicit a variety of emotional responses in the reader. However, romantic fiction uses thematic elements to evoke a specific sentiment, while the idealism of romance inspires optimism.

Your Opinion

How do you stand on the division between romance novels and romantic fiction? Do you think it’s all arbitrary and wonder why these rules matter? Or are you a stickler for certain expectations when you read romance?

As always, please drop a comment, and let’s talk romance (in this case, romantic fiction, too)!

gay romance

Two Gay Romance Firsts: The Happily Ever After Ending and Clinch Cover

gay romance

Gordon Merrick, Victor Gadino, and Peter and Charlie

Gordon Merrick created the legendary and popular Peter & Charlie gay romance series. The trilogy portrayed the first mainstream love story between two men that concluded happily ever after.

The books provided another milestone for same-sex fiction when reprinted in the 1980s. A young artist named Victor Gadino illustrated the iconic clinch covers. Never before had male couples been pictured so intimately on the front of romance novels.

On the front of The Lord Won’t Mind, the blond pair are gazing into each other’s eyes and reaching out to hold hands.

the lord won't mind
The Lord Won’t Mind, Gordon Merrick, Avon, 1980 edition, Victor Gadino cover art

Gordon Merrick, Writer of Gay Melodramas and Romances

Gordon Merrick was born in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, in 1916. The new 20th century was moving on a more socially liberal trajectory. Merrick would be part of that cultural momentum.

The son of a stockbroker, Merrick studied French Literature at Princeton. He then got into acting, performing in several Broadway productions. Later, Merrick became a television screenwriter and journalist.

Merrick made history as one of the first novelists to depict graphic homosexual fiction for a mass audience. His tawdry novels were full of melodrama, sex, and beautiful men. Usually, they concluded in heartache for the main characters. Merrick’s books were tantalizing reads akin to those of Harold Robbins, Judith Krantz, or Jackie Collins, only much gayer.

Modern readers might chuckle at the almost-innocent vulgarity and campy nature of his works. Or they may cluck their tongues at the “outdated” themes and unapologetic preference for ultra-glamorous, gorgeous, continent-hopping, wealthy protagonists. Merrick essentially wrote man-on-man bodice rippers, after all.

Merrick wrote fourteen books over 40 years. He would die in Sri Lanka in 1988.

His final novel, The Good Life, was co-authored with his partner, Charles Hulse, and published after his death. Like most of Merrick’s books, it was a bestseller.

Gordon Merrick
Gordon Merrick

Merrick’s Peter and Charlie Trilogy

The Lord Won’t Mind, the First Mainstream Gay Romance (Sort of)

Merrick’s piece de resistance, The Lord Won’t Mind, came out in hardcover in 1970. The book told the turbulent and forbidden love story of two beautiful, blond Ivy Leaguers–one named Peter and the other Charlie.

It was a graphic page-turner and sold like pancakes at the old World’s Fair. The Lord Won’t Mind spent four months on the New York Times bestseller list.

The mass-market paperback edition was then released by the publishing house Avon in 1971. This was a year before they gambled on Kathleen Woodiwiss‘ slush-pile manuscript for The Flame and the Flower.

The Lord Won’t Mind (from left to right): Bernard Geis Publisher, 1970, first edition hardcover; Avon, 1971, paperback edition; Alyson Publications, October 1995 paperback edition

A Genuine Romance Novel About a Same-Sex Couple

Due to societal changes, there was a hungry audience out there for explicit fiction. Merrick’s work was just that: raunchy and schlocky.

“For the love of God, have mercy on my aching cock. I want you in bed.”

“That, sure lord, is where I want to be.”


Even so, The Lord Won’t Mind was also sweetly romantic. The forbidden lovers vowed to be together forever.

“I say, if it’s love, the Lord won’t mind. There’s enough hate in the world.”

 The Lord Won’t MinD

Readers anxiously hoped for the pair to end happily but were left hanging instead. It would take two more books detailing the erotic, taboo relationship for fans to find out what would happen. The sequel came out in 1972; the final book followed in 1974.

Enter Artist Victor Gadino, Another Gay Icon

The success of the series led Avon to give Merrick the star treatment. His books would now receive extra attention to detail—especially the cover art, an area where Avon excelled.

In 1977, an up-and-coming artist named Victor Gadino landed the job of creating new covers for Merrick’s backlist. He started with An Idol For Others. This mass-market paperback showed two males–one in a suit, the other shirtless–in a positively seductive manner.

“Avon books decided to rerelease the Merrick novels as typical mass-market romance paperbacks. Up until then they had simple covers and were sold in specialty shops or from “under” the counter. The head art director was a strong female with vision and a great eye.

“It was the early days of gay liberation and she recognized the time was right. She saw my talent and gay sensibility and gave me the assignment for the first cover, the most conservative one, An Idol for Others. I never met Mr. Merrick, but I was told he was not happy with the mature model I used and thought he looked too old.

“He was, however, very pleased with the eight covers that followed, all using handsome young models.”


One For the Gods (Charlie & Peter Book #2): More Gay Romance, But No HEA Yet

The sequels to The Lord Won’t Mind documented Charlie and Peter’s glitzy lifestyle as the golden duo engaged in a thrilling, illicit, on-again-off-again relationship. The second book, One For the Gods, introduced a third person into the mix to form a crazy love triangle.

First there was Charlie and Peter.

Their love affair broke a lot of conventions… but it didn’t break them all. For Peter and Charlie are in love–with each other–and with Martha. And Martha is passionately in love with them both.

From St. Tropez to Athens to Mykonos, this powerful, moving novel follows their devastating triangle of romance and desire through a world of sun-drenched pleasure and Mediterranean adventure.

One For the Gods, Gordon Merrick
One For the Gods, Gordon Merrick, Bernard Geis,1971,
One For the Gods, Gordon Merrick, Bernard Geis,1971, hardcover
One For the Gods, Gordon Merrick, Avon,1972, paperback edition

The Gadino cover art is more intimate than the previous one, with the couple holding hands. However, the third wheel in this romance is prominently pictured, showing all is not well in paradise.

One For the Gods, Avon,1981 reissue, Victor Gadino cover art

Forth Into Light (Charlie & Peter #3): A Gay Romance with a HEA

Finally, in 1974, Forth Into Light concluded the romantic series.

In the final chapter of the bestselling epic love story of Peter and Charlie, the two men are forced to fight for their relationship like never before

For two men with the looks of Adonis and Narcissus, it’s no surprise that Greece was the destination for a romantic getaway. Once there, however, the two men fall into the beds of others, with the duplicitous Martha striving to steal Charlie away from Peter after he has a moment of infidelity.

For the final installment of the Peter & Charlie Trilogy, Gordon Merrick widens his focus on the couple to include the village in which they’re staying, creating a web of deceit and lust that comes to a head in unexpected and satisfying ways, while the love between Peter and Charlie is tested repeatedly with the emergence of a passionate young man named Jeff. The bond between these two has spanned the years and the globe, but it could well meet its end here on the lush Greek shores. 


Below is the original cover for the conclusion to Charlie and Peter’s epic romance. The artwork is neither overt nor titillating. The two hands reaching out to touch the other appear reminiscent of Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel.

Forth Into Light, Gordon Merrick, Avon, 1974

Gadino Masterpiece: A Gay Romance Clinch Cover

Gadino’s clinch cover for the monumental gay romance Forth Into Light is more emotional and evocative than the original. The two men have their arms around each other’s shoulders. Their backs face the viewer as they stare out at an ocean sunset.

Readers knew this was not just another sex adventure by looking at the cover. This was a true romance novel, one for gay men.

Forth Into Light, Gordon Merrick, Avon, 1982, 6th printing, Victor Gadino cover art

The Peter and Charlie Trilogy by Gordon Merrick was monumental mainstream gay fiction. Unlike the slashy melodramas of the pulp era, the love story finished on a positive note. The protagonists got a joyful ending.

Merrick’s audience-pleasing, optimistic conclusion, and Gadino’s sensual clinch cover make the Peter and Charlie series–and Forth Into Light especially–pivotal in gay romance history.

Your Opinion

Have you heard of or read Gordon Merrick and the first gay romance novel with a HEA? Did you know about Victor Gadino’s history-making 1980s clinch cover art for the reissue of the series? What do you think about these romances and covers?

As always, please drop a comment, and let’s talk romance.

broke the hea rule

Why Did They Do That? Romances That Broke The HEA Rule

broke the hea rule

Warning: Here Be Spoilers on HEA in Romance

The HEA in romance has always been a none of contention with detractors. But a book must have a happy ending to be considered a romance. Just as every detective novel must include a mystery to solve. That’s the only rule for the genre.

Some older romances played fast and loose with expectations, especially ones published during the bodice ripper heyday. In the past, some novels–and even many today–attempted to defy that inviolable law. Doing so inevitably angers readers because if there’s one thing writers are not supposed to mess with, it’s The Happy Ending.

Not all romances end with the couple–or whatever permutation–married with a dozen babies. Regardless, there’s an expectation of a committed relationship that will last the test of time.

But what about those romances that broke the HEA rule? What are those books, and what is their legacy? Let’s examine some pre-2000s novels that did the unthinkable.

Actor Joaquin Phoenix from “Gladiator,” 2000; Directed by Ridley Scott; Produced by DreamWorks & Universal Pictures

Jennifer Wilde’s Marietta Danvers Trilogy

Jennifer Wilde broke the romance rules all the time, never quite letting the reader know who the book’s hero was until almost the end. Her first book, Love’s Tender Fury, definitively had Marietta Danvers ending up with Derek.

But in the second book, Love Me, Marietta, she spends a lot of time with a new man, Jeremy Bond. By that book’s denouement, it’s revealed that Derek is a no-good-nick, already married to a pregnant wife! He still wants Marietta as his sidepiece, though. Love Me, Marietta has a cliffhanger ending as Marietta rides in a carriage, racing to reunite with Jeremy.

When Love Commands will have Marietta engage with other sexual partners. In the end, she does settle down with one man. There s a HEA in this romance series, just not with the man you expect.

Roberta Gellis: The Roselynde Chronicles

Roberta Gellis was a stickler for being historically accurate. The young heroine, Alinor, of her novel Roselynde is married to Ian, a man 30 years her senior, which isn’t unusual for a medieval setting. In romance novels, sometimes we overlook issues caused by age differences, like the much older partner leaving his partner widowed while she’s still young. That’s what happens in the second book of the series, Alinor.

Publishers Playboy Press had initially pitched the Roselynde series as an “Angelique” type series set in the middle ages. The heroine would find romance with a new man in each book. Fortunately, the publishers limited the idea to only two novels. The rest of the books in the series deal with Alinor’s many children finding love.

Elaine Barbieri’s Amber Series

In Elaine Barbieri’s Amber trilogy, the first book, Amber Fire, seems like a typical bodice ripper. Melanie has various men in her life as lovers and husbands. The first book culminates with Melanie finding happiness with Simon.

However, Simon passes away in book two, Amber Treasure. Amber finds consolation with his best friend, Worth, but another man still has her heart.

Their love story is told in the second half of Amber Treasure and concludes in the final installment, Amber Passion.

Aleen Malcolm’s Cameron Trilogy

Aleen’s Malcolm wrote a fierce yet tender bodice ripper romance with her first outing, The Taming. Free-spirited, 15-year-old Cameron became the handfasted bride of the older Alexander Sinclair. Ride Out the Storm, its follow-up needlessly separated the young heroine from her stubborn husband for years.

What occurred in the third book, Daughters of Cameron, floored me. Far from having had many years of happy marriage together, Alex and Cameron are separated by war as Alex fights in the American Revolution. When he returns home, he finds his wife is bone-thin and suffering from consumption. Cameron dies early on in the book, before the age of 40.

The rest of the novel is about her two daughters, Kestrel and Rue, finding love. Alex remains a widower, remembering his short time with Cameron fondly. THE HEA in this romance is for her children, not Cameron.

The Pirate’s Captive by Dana Ransom

The Pirate’s Captive by Dana Ransom is a romance I’ve been putting off reading for years. Why? Because I accidentally read its sequel, Alexandra’s Ecstasy, first. In Alexandra’s Ecstasy, I discovered that the main couple from The Pirate’s Captive only had a few happy years together before tragedy struck. That book’s heroine, Merry, died soon after giving birth to a son, who also passed away.

Nicolas, the hero of The Pirate’s Captive, spends Alexandra’s Ecstasy in perpetual mourning for his lost young bride and son. He’s also emotionally distant from his and Merry’s daughter, Alexandra. Nicolas finally reunites with Merry in the ever-after when enemy pirates murder him.

Ena Halliday’s Marielle, Lysette, and Delphine Series

Ena Halliday is a pseudonym for an author whose works I adore, Louisa Rawlings, aka Sylvia Baumgarten. I have loved almost all her books. Even the best writers can create stories that displease their fans, however.

Not only did she break romance’s hard-and-fast rule by denying her protagonists a happily-ever-after-ending. She also gave the hero another woman to love! In Marielle–which had the privilege of being Tapestry romance #1–the heroine of the same name is imprisoned during the reign of Louix XIII. Marielle is a gentlewoman who endures much hardship. To her delight, she is paired with her hero, Andre, supposedly for a long life of happiness.

Book two of the trilogy, Lysette, stars an anti-heroine who has eyes for Marielle’s husband. Before she falls in love with her man, Lysette does her best to destroy Marielle’s & Andre’s marriage.

Finally, poor Marielle passes away a year before the beginning of book 3, Delphine. Her husband Andre finds it hard to move on, but indeed he does, with Delphine. Delphine is 19 years old to Andre’s 43.

That’s not a happy conclusion to a trilogy. It’s a wonder why the author chose this route.

Mary Gillgannon’s Dragon Duo

Mary Gillgannon did something similar in her Dragon series. The first two books focused on a Gaelic King. In Dragon of the Island, the hero, Maelgwn the Great, is a feared warrior fighting against the Romans. The Welsh warlord enters into a marriage of convenience with Aurora.

The heroine is dead in the book’s sequel, Dragon’s Dream. Maelgwn has become a recluse in a monastery, mourning her loss. Then he finds love again with a new bride, Rhiannon, a Celtic princess.

Maelgwn’s love life is based on actual events. The author wanted to tell two tales of romance while being historically accurate. The books have received much praise, especially the second entry. Nevertheless, it’s surprising that the Pinnacle editors allowed Gillgannon to take such a risk with her series.

Sandra Brown’s Coleman Saga

Sandra Brown’s Coleman duo makes for rather gritty western romances. In Sunset Embrace, Lydia Bryant finds love with Ross Coleman on a wagon train ride out West. He has a motherless son who needs a wet nurse. Lydia is a childless mother who can help his son. Ross is a rough, cruel man, but Lydia wins him over with her grace and grit.


In its sequel, Another Dawn Banner Coleman, their daughter, engages in a love affair with Jake Langston, a longtime family friend. Jake has had a longing for Lydia for many years. Yup, he goes from wanting the mom to getting it on with the daughter. This book is particularly egregious because it ruins Sunset Embrace‘s happy ending by prematurely killing off that book’s hero, Ross.

Anne Stuart’s Maggie Bennett Series

Anne Stuart broke all sorts of romance rules with her Maggie Bennett series. Book one in the romantic suspense series is Escape Out of Darkness, with the eponymous heroine finding love with Mack. They get married.

Shockingly, Mack is murdered at the opening of book two, Darkness Before Dawn. In this new chapter, Maggie teams up with Randall to discover who’s sold out national security secrets.

Frustratingly enough, book #2 doesn’t end happily ever after, either. You must wait to read At The Edge of the Sun to find out if Maggie will finally ride off into the sunset with her forever man.

Your Opinion on HEA in Romance

There are a few other novels and series that play partner switcheroo or kill off the hero or heroine before they reach old age. This always causes controversy.

When the romance genre only has that sole requirement, it’s curious to discuss why a writer would break that rule. Why do you think the authors made that decision? Does it ruin your reading experience when you know the HEA is not guaranteed to last long? Do you demand a HEA in your romance?

As always, please drop a comment, and let’s talk romance.

old school historicals thumbnail

15 Old School Historical Romances That Revolutionized the Genre

list of best 15 old school bodice ripper novels

15 “Best” Old-School Historical Romances

Best Bodice Rippers or Just Old School Romance?

Sweet Savage Flame has compiled a list of “the best romance novels/ bodice rippers,” demonstrating the genre’s evolution in the last third of the 20th century. These are 15 old-school historicals we consider to be must-reads for those who wish to understand the roots of the romance industry.

Detractors of these novels may disparage them as mere bodice rippers. To us, a “bodice ripper” romance is a term of endearment. We embrace it without shame. Moreover, we appreciate how pivotal that (unfairly maligned) subgenre was in the era’s early years.

There are books on this list that, indeed, are “hardcore” bodice rippers–i.e., romances where the hero forces himself on the heroine. Such was the nature of the early years of the old-school romance era. But as the list goes into the late 1980s and the 1990s, they have disappeared.

This List Has Only Some of the Best Romances; There Are Many More

Sweet Savage Flame’s position on such controversial matters is never to shrink away from the past. We look back head-on and try to investigate, analyze, reflect, and understand.

Most of our picks are seminal works that transformed the industry’s evolution. A few are so notable or unforgettable we feel they merit special appreciation.

Links to our opinions and ratings are provided in the descriptions, but five of the fifteen listed are yet to be reviewed by our staff. We have read all of these and consider them essential reads. We aim to review all books on this list in the upcoming year.

Please note this is not a complete compilation of essential works. This is just a small sample of relevant texts from the thousands of paperback romances published from 1972 to 2000.

The List of 15 Romances to Read, in Chronological Order

#1 The Flame and the Flower

best romance novel flame and flower

Kathleen E. Woodiwiss radically transformed the concept of the romance novel with The Flame and the Flower. Before its 1972 publication by Avon, romantic novels with happy endings never included “explicit” sex scenes between protagonists.

After the hero of The Flame and the Flower, Brandon Birmingham, mistakes the heroine, Heather, for a prostitute, he forces himself upon her. Too late, he discovers the girl is–was–a virgin.

Throughout this doorstopper of a book, Brandon violates Heather several more times before they mutually consent to make love. This is due to Brandon’s transformation into a kinder, more decent man, all to be worthy of Heather’s love.

Contemporary perspectives would consider Brandon’s behavior to be criminal. Nevertheless, fifty years ago, millions of readers were drawn to this love story, viewing the actions as part of the fantasy of “forced seduction.” This was ostensibly a plot device that allowed unmarried virgins to be sexually active without guilt.

The closed-door love scenes for “good girls” were now relics of the past. Although today we categorize The Flame and the Flower as old-school, it marked the start of the “modern era of romance.” The bodice ripper was born.

And the romance genre–and books overall–would never be the same.

#2 Sweet Savage Love

best bodice ripper  novel sweet savage love

Capitalizing on the success of The Flame and the FlowerRosemary Rogers first book ratcheted up the melodrama and sexiness to a new level of extreme. Rape, forced seduction, multiple partners, cheating, and violence were prevalent parts of the story.

Women couldn’t get enough of it, catapulting Rogers to fame and riches.

Sweet Savage Love sold millions and millions of copies, resulting in several sequels and spinoffs.

This revolutionary Western told the tale of Ginny Brandon and Steve Morgan. Here, Rogers’ depicted a heroine who could enjoy sex with men besides the hero.

Inevitably, it seemed this type of ultra-sexual romp would mark the course of historical romances for the foreseeable future.

#3 Moonstruck Madness

best old-school romance novel moonstruck madness

Moonstruck Madness was Laurie McBain‘s second outing. This novel cemented her status as an Avon “Queen of Romance.” (Although–supposedly–McBain co-authored her romance novels with her father.)

This swashbuckling old-school historical romance was a huge best-seller and the first in a popular trilogy about the Dominick Family.

The plot differed from Woodiwiss’ and Rogers’ works in that lovemaking was consensual. There was no bed-hopping, and the violence was not gratuitous.

Moonstruck Madness was a kinder, gentler offering with no bodice-ripping in sight.

Fans flocked to the more tender romantic style. It ultimately produced long-term success.

#4 The Silver Devil

best bodice ripper novel the silver devil

The Silver Devil’s Duke Domenico is possibly the most extreme anti-hero ever to appear in an old-school romance novel. 

Over 45 years after its publication, many readers frequently discuss this book still highly-talked about and consider it one of the best bodice rippers ever written. Teresa Denys’ first-person-POV romance with an Italian beauty is a gripping read from the very first lines.

The powerful and megalomaniacal Duke sees the heroine Felicia at her window, desires her, and soon purchases her from her brother. Domenico’s obsession over her reigns supreme; he goes into murderous rages at the slightest hint of jealousy.

The prose in The Silver Devil is magnificent. The scenes of violence and brutality are intense. The hero is…a complicated man. The novel ends with the typical HEA. Even so, it’s hard to see a happy ending lasting beyond the pages of this book.

If you’re fortunate enough to find the Ballantine edition with the H. Tom Hall cover, it could cost you up to several hundred dollars.

#5 Fires of Winter

fires of winter

Johanna Lindsey‘s third novel, Fires of Winter, was a Viking romance about a captive Welsh woman and her Nordic owner. Marauders raid Lady Brenna’s home, kill the men and enslave and ravish the women. They spare only Brenna from ravishment and violence as the Viking leader has plans for her. She is a valuable prize that he plans to gift as a slave to his youngest son.

Just over 300 pages long (half the length of Woodiwiss’ and Roger’s fat epics), Fires of Winter is a lean, action-packed lean, bodice ripper.

The theme here is all about the battle between the sexes. Although there is forced seduction/ rape, this romance has no cheating. That made quite a difference to many readers looking for monogamous love stories.

However, the couple does argue–a lot. This was a common trait of many of Lindsey’s earlier works.

Johanna Lindsey cemented her status as one of romance’s top best-selling authors with this bodice ripper. The Robert McGinnis romance novel cover design is legendary, featuring the first naked man on a romance cover.

#6 Skye O’Malley

skye o'malley

Skye O’Malley is “The Queen of Erotic Romance,” Bertrice Smallpiece de resistance–her magnum opus. She wrote over 50 novels, and this is her finest work.

In this Tudor-era romance, the beauteous Irish lass Skye O’Malley amasses numerous husbands, lovers, children, and enemies.

And many true loves.

This is the lustiest of bodice rippers. Skye experiences the most rollicking adventures any heroine in Romancelandia could only dream of.

#7 Savage Ecstasy

savage ecstasy

Janelle Taylor’s Savage Ecstasy wasn’t the first historical bodice ripper published by Zebra books. It wasn’t even the first best-seller out of Kensington’s flagship imprint. It was, however, the one that firmly marked the largest US independent publisher on the map as a major player. 

In the decade that followed, Zebra would be a dominant force to be reckoned with in the romance field.

Savage Ecstasy sold over a million copies, as did its sequel, Defiant Ecstasy. It spawned a long-running series that told the love stories of Gray Eagle and Alisha and their children and their spouses.

Savage Ecstasy was one of the first publications of the enormously popular Native American romance subgenre. Readers consumed these romantic novels in droves until well into the 2000s.

#8 Stormfire

old-school best romance novel stormfire

Christine Monson’s Stormfire is perhaps one of the genre’s last hardcore bodice-rippers. Stormfire made some romantic novels of the 1970s appear tame in contrast.

This tale of vengeance is extreme in its brutality. Set in Regency Era England, Ireland and Napoleonic France, it keeps hitting the reader with action and insanity.

From the moment the heroine is kidnapped and violated by the hero, we can see this is not a romance for the faint-hearted.

Like The Silver Devil, Stormfire transcended its seemingly sordid content through thoughtful, superb writing and intense characterization.

Like that other romance, this is considered one of the best bodice rippers ever. Plus, it, too, is hard to find and expensive if you do!

#9 Whitney, My Love

regency romance novel whitney my love

Whitney, My Love by Judith McNaught is the story of a gawky, coltish girl in love with a charming young man who barely notices her.

She goes off to finish school and returns a beauty. Then Whitney Stone finds herself forced into marriage with the dark Duke of Westmoreland. After a tumultuous beginning, they slowly learn to love one another.

Whitney, My Love is a beloved classic to this day. It reinvented the Regency romance by making it more sensual and increasing the page length and scope.

#10 A Knight in Shining Armor

old-school best romance a knight in shining armor

Jude Deveraux‘s A Knight in Shining Armor is a tear-jerker of a travel romance. Take note of the book’s cover. It was not Deveraux’s typical stepback or clinch cover but a simple design showing an encircled gauntlet holding a flower.

This was a sign of “respectability” for Deveraux, signifying that she was one of Pocket Books‘ most successful authors. A Knight in Shining Armor had been released in a hardcover edition in 1989 before being printed in paperback, extremely rare for romance writers, who had always been associated with with “pulp” genres.

The heroine, Douglass, is transported back to Tudor-era England and falls in love with an Elizabethan knight. Things take a twist when she returns to the future.

And so does the hero! But now he doesn’t recognize her.

The pair fall in love both in the past and the present eras. Will they ever find their forever somewhere in time?

#11 Gentle Rogue

best bodice ripper romances gentle rogue

Yes, Johanna Lindsey appears twice on this list–for a good reason.

Lindsey’s Gentle Rogue might not be historically accurate as for a Regency romance. Yet it’s so whimsical, romantic, witty, and the best of her Malory series; it’s a gem!

James Malory is an absolute cad. The tables are turned on him when he falls in love with a beauty disguised–quite poorly–as a cabin boy. Then Georgina abandons him at a port.

He’ll have to deal with the wrath of her five older brothers to get things straightened out.

#12 Outlander

best bodice ripper romances outlander

Although Diana Gabaldon has said that Outlander is not a romance novel, it does qualify as one–if you consider it a standalone.

It has the two elements required for the genre: a central love story that ends HEA. Although the subsequent books in the series would separate the lovers through time and space, the first entry is pure romance.

Outlander–or Cross-Stitch as it’s known elsewhere–is, at its core, a historical romance that features time travel. The married-in-the-future heroine, Claire, comes off as improbably perfect (in one scene, she fights a wolf and kills it with her bare hands!).

Jamie Frasier, however, is a favorite hero of many romance readers.

Outlander has been adapted into a popular television show, introducing new fans to this already successful novel.

#13 Flowers from the Storm

best bodice ripper romances flowers from the storm

Flowers from the Storm by the talented Laura Kinsale is an absolutely unusual yet stellar romance. Kinsale’s writing is superb. Romance is at its intellectual best here.

The plot is this: a disreputable rogue of a man succumbs to a stroke.

The Earl of Jervaulx is mainly paralyzed and incapable of speech. A prim Quaker mathematician takes on the daunting task of rehabilitating him. Soon, they discover that he has a secret baby from his married mistress when the child is dropped off at his home.

How can such two disparate people be happy together?

This emotional, exquisitely written book is one of the 1990s best romance novels and deserves a look.

#14 Dreaming of You

best romance books DREAMING OF YOU

Although we prefer its predecessor, Then Came You, the Regency-era romance Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas is a monumental book that catapulted the author to superstardom.

Readers adore the hero, Derek Craven. The sexy, snaggle-toothed London rough pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He now runs a gaming hall and brothel.

Craven falls for a curious, bespectacled young woman named Sara. She turns his entire world asunder with her wondering innocence.

#15 Lord of Scoundrels

best romance novels LORD OF SCOUNDRELS

In Loretta Chase’s old-school Regency-era romance, Lord of Scoundrels, The Marquess of Dain was abused as a child for his ugliness and grew up thinking himself worthless. So he now engages in a life of debauched chaos.

Dain meets his match in Jessica Trent, who initially seeks vengeance against him. She then changes course and fall in love.

However, after he dishonors her, Jessica shoots Dain. This makes Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels a controversial romance in some eyes and a must-read in others.

While the rippers of the 1970s were now a remnant of the past, the power dynamics between males and females remained paramount in the genre.

Your Opinion

Again, this is not a complete syllabus of the best historical books in romance. We could have made this list much longer, but we settled on only 15 books. Now we want to hear from you.

What old-school historical romance do you think we left off this list? Do you agree or disagree with our choices? Do you think any of these books rank as the best in romance?

How do you feel about bodice ripper romances? If you were creating a list of best contemporary romances, which books would you choose?

As always, please drop a comment, and let’s talk romance!