You’ve Got Your Romance in My Fantasy! – You’ve Got Your Fantasy in My Romance!

Continuing my series exploring subgenres of fantasy, in this post I’ll compare and contrast—the best I can since this one confuses me—romantic fantasy and fantasy romance.

A3: Age of Sovereign by Artist UnknownRegardless 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

Tidus and Yuna by Jean TayA 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.


The Little Mermaid by Elizabeth SherryMagic 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.


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?

This article was originally published on December 9, 2011.

Title image by Matt Iviatt.


By Marsha A. Moore

Marsha A. Moore is a writer of fantasy romance. The magic of art and nature spark life into her writing. Her creativity also spills into watercolor painting and drawing. After a move from Toledo to Tampa in 2008, she’s happily transforming into a Floridian, in love with the outdoors. Crazy about cycling, she usually passes the 1,000-mile mark yearly. She is learning kayaking and already addicted. She’s been a yoga enthusiast for over a decade and that spiritual quest helps her explore the mystical side of fantasy. She never has enough days spent at the beach, usually scribbling away at new stories with toes wiggling in the sand. Every day at the beach is magical! She is the author of the novel, TEARS ON A TRANQUIL LAKE, the first in a trilogy available through MuseItUp Publishing. Part two, TORTUGA TREASURE is scheduled for release in January 2012. Look for her first Indie publication of an epic fantasy romance series, SEEKING A SCRIBE: ENCHANTED BOOKSTORE LEGENDS ONE, to be available late 2011. Learn more about Marsha at her website: and chat with her on Twitter @MarshaAMoore.

8 thoughts on “You’ve Got Your Romance in My Fantasy! – You’ve Got Your Fantasy in My Romance!”
  1. I was at a panel at AltFiction in June (in the audience, not as a panelist) where this very topic cropped up, and I suggested that it was all about the reading experience being sought. Romance readers want to vicariously live out an idealised romance, whereas fantasy fans want to immerse themselves in a vivid, magical world. Hence the genre your book falls into depends very much upon which of these primary motives you satisfy.

    Personally, I think that for a fantasy with romance to satisfy a wide audience, the romance has to be confined to a subplot. It could be a major subplot that binds the main characters together and enables them to succeed in the main plot, but if it starts to take centre stage then many of your fantasy readers are rightly going to wonder if they wandered into the wrong aisle of the bookshop.

    I too prefer fantasy with a side order of romance – I’m not very keen on romance with a thin veneer of fantasy “window-dressing”, as the fantasy elements tend to be flimsy and cliched. Even in “true” fantasy, the balance has to fit the story – one of my main gripes with “The Court of the Midnight King” by Freda Warrington was that I read it expecting a lot more alternate history focusing on Richard III, and was disappointed when the romance took the viewpoint characters away from the political arena for great stretches of the story.

    Beware messing with your readers’ expectations!

  2. I think the difference has to come down to the plot of the story. Just like with Paranormal Romance the Romance/Relationship has to be the main part of the story. So I would call the Mercedes Lackey 500 Kingdom series a Fantasy Romance but the Anne Bishop Black Jewels, C. L. Wilson Tairen Souls, and Maria V Snyder Study series are all Fantasy with romantic elements. Except maybe the very first Tairen Soul book. I would classify that one book as a Fantasy Romance but the other books in the series arent a romance story. They are a fantasy story with romantic elements – the romance aspects are all secondary to the main plot.

    I can’t comment on the other series because I haven’t read them.

  3. There’s all sorts of room to debate on this but for me, it boils down to a fairly simple question. What is the primary conflict of the story? What is the climactic resolution of the piece? If the story is about two lovers who are torn apart by some sort of conflict and the climax of the story is their being reunited, it’s a romance. If the central conflict is something outside the romantic liason and the climax involves a resolution to that conflict, then it’s a fantasy.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts, Anne. I agree with your perspective. Since much of life is a theme with romance added as a constant subplot, it seems most natural to take that orientation. Fantasy as “window dressing” would make a lifeless story to most fantasy readers.

  5. Hi Marsha,

    I guess from my perspective “Fantasy” is what it says: “Fantasy”: out of this world as we know it.

    I’ve read modern contemporary romance novels where a fictional Kingdom/Princedom exists along with kingly island or a ludicrous principality, which is nothing but a fairy-tale plot. That in my book is Fantasy, because it sure as hell ain’t convincing as being of this world!

    Yet, “Fantasy” tends to be regarded as other worldly: as in strange creatures, bizarre places, and often exotic, or undersea worldly. Either way, if it’s a fantasy romance or a romance in fantasy setting, it’s a fantasy!

    Hee hee, if that ain’t confusing nothing is. 😉


  6. This is a great topic of discussion. Lately, I think the line has blurred especially with the popularity of the paranormal popularity. I think Dan really stated it as best as can be stated. You must really determine what is the primary conflict in the storyline.

    For me, I enjoy a little romance in my fantasy, but I also don’t mind some fantasy in my romance. It all depends on what kind of mood I’m in. Really great topic!

  7. I also prefer my fantasy with romance, the romance with fantasy is always too watered down.

    On the ‘is it fantasy-romance or romance-fantasy?’ debate, I think it will always come down to the quality of the fantasy vs. the amount of romance. After all, love can be a huge motivator or weakness for a character. Fantasy without any romance at all (or without meaningful romance) almost feels empty to me.

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