Regardless of how we use those terms, romance works well with fantasy. Novels must have conflict to engage a reader. Love is filled to the brim with conflict. Maybe two characters are afraid to admit their feelings, or can’t let their feelings be known outside of the two of them if their families dislike each other. Plenty of tales are woven with a prince falling in love with a milkmaid, or a princess escaping her ill-tempered, intended royal husband to be with a stable boy. These difficulties add a sense of reality to fantasy novels, a lifeline for readers to be able to identify with those characters.
This is the subgenre of my own writing, so I’ve obviously given a lot of thought to these categories. But, it seems the longer I look, the more confused I get. Maybe I’m in the forest too deeply to see the trees. I’ll list characteristics to aid discussion, and then would appreciate some interaction to make the distinctions clearer.
Houses have published romantic fantasy in fantasy lines, as well as the expected placement in romance lines. That fact alone is enough to confuse writers and readers alike.
The protagonists of both subgenres often begin their journeys by escaping abusive or oppressive environments. But because of the romance element, their goals are not to become free from all social ties. Instead, most characters search for a new community or social group where they truly belong, and eventually love blossoms. A true loner protagonist does not exist in either romantic fantasy or fantasy romance.
Common plot archetypes of both subgenres:
A teenager from an overly strict or abusive family runs away and discovers he/she possesses magical or psychic powers. These newly-found powers open the character to a hope-filled destiny. Typically, the character finds ways to earn his/her place in a new society, through saving a city, kingdom, or other large group from harm by a dangerous villain or monster.An adult who is a minor noble or someone who has recently lost a loved one strikes out in search of a new life. The character may already be magical or discover his/her abilities as in the above example. Their powers enable them to save a world from outside invasion. In the process, he/she falls in love. The book or series is expected to have a typical happily-ever-after ending for the couple, following accepted romance form.A group of adolescents are drawn together through circumstance and destiny to form a collective that is larger than the sum of its parts. These young people are often outcasts, orphans, or somehow on the fringes of society. Each possesses magical powers, which complement different abilities of the others in the group. The bond which holds them together allows them to experience a new sense of belonging. The characters mature as they find friendship and love. The group ultimately overthrows some threat no one else is able to face in the larger community.
Magic is often handled differently in the two subgenres. In romantic fantasy the magical abilities are typically innate and simple to use. An example of this would be precognition, oriented towards affinity for or control of a particular natural element, commonly the four Greek elements of fire, air, earth, and water. This difference in the magical system is because more story time is taken by the romance. Less is spent developing a complex, secretive body of customs which requires long study and great personal sacrifice. Fantasy romance would be expected to have more complex magical systems, approximating more closely what we see in high fantasy.
Some publishers claim romantic fantasy is the correct label where the romance is most important and fantasy romance where the fantasy elements are most important. Others state that the division between fantasy romance and romantic fantasy has essentially ceased to exist.
From my personal experience, when a work rides the line, with the romance and fantasy elements being of near equal importance, publishers are often stumped. I submitted such a manuscript over and over, answering detailed follow-up questions so the editors could determine if one outweighed the other, to guide their acceptance. Being equal, they were stymied. Those extended reviews by numerous houses took plenty of time. In the end, I didn’t wish to rewrite, making one element sing louder as I was requested. I like my heroines to work hard to become good at their magic craft, spending as much time as they do falling in love. The first book of that series, Enchanted Bookstore Legends, will be released next March, as my own publication.
Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels Trilogy
C. L. Wilson’s Tairen Soul Series
Maria V. Snyder’s Poison Study Series
Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses Series
Catherine Asaro’s Lost Continent Series
Mercedes Lackey’s Five Hundred Kingdoms Series
I would attempt to categorize these examples as romantic fantasy or fantasy romance, but the line is a subjective one and subject to debate.
I prefer my fantasy with romance rather than my romance with fantasy. What is your preference?