Your Romance Novel Glossary: A-to-Z Terms You Need to Know
If you’ve read enough romance novels, you might start to notice some recurring themes: a relationship emerges under false pretenses but quickly evolves into a real-deal love affair. Or two people have an instant, unmistakable, earth-shattering chemistry. These tried-and-true tropes are hallmarks of the genre and so pervasive that fans have given them proper titles. Labels like “insta-love” or “secret romance.” Here, we’ve compiled all the terms you need to know to get the most out of your reading experience,whether they’re descriptors of common character types or plot devices within the novel, or the phrases the romance community uses to discuss the books amongst their fandom. Read on for more about beta heroes and heat levels.
Alphahole: The kind of alpha male who’s a textbook example of toxic masculinity. And he’s also a bit of a…well, we’ll let you connect the dots.
Arranged marriage: Many a romance novel starts with an arranged marriage, or a marriage demanded by a will or inheritance.
Book boyfriend: Everyone in the romance community has one. The fictional hero, like Mr. Darcy, they can’t help but crush on.
Bodice ripper: Romance novels that were published in the early 1970s to the mid-1980s. Prior to the early ’70s, the genre consisted of short and serialized novels. But when Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower was published in 1972, the bodice ripper was born—ushering in a new era of sexually explicit, mass-produced romances.
Beta hero: A leading man who isn’t known for his looks. Rather, his power of persuasion is his humor, brains, and emotional intelligence. If we’re talking Legally Blonde he’s an Emmett, not a Warner.
Cinnamon roll: Men who, like the breakfast pastry, are gooey on the inside. They’re in touch with their feelings and are there for their partner emotionally. Think Ben Wyatt from Parks and Recreation, Jim from The Office, or Seth Rogen’s character in Long Shot.
Enemies to lovers: When two arch nemeses find themselves falling in love. Much as in When Harry Met Sally, where our heroes couldn’t stand each other when they first met.
Erotic romance: Novels in which explicit sexual interactions are an inherent part of the love story and relationship development.
Fake relationship: Where a couple pretends to be in a relationship for various reasons, but then they actually fall head-over-heels in love. Looking at you, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
F/f: A subgenre of romance novels, in which two female romantic leads fall in love. Some popular titles include And Playing the Role of Herself, Nightingale, and Waiting in the Wings.
Gothic romance: Currently experiencing a comeback in popularity, this subgenre of novels dates back centuries to 18th century England. They often blend together mystery and horror elements, and feature a ton of nightgowns.
HEA: The principle on which the genre is built—happily ever after.
Heat level: How romance die-hards will describe how much sex is in a book to their friends. Levels include clean, sweet, spicy.
Insta-love: No, it’s not finding love on Instagram. It’s that instant, love-at-first-sight connection common amongst characters in these novels.
Mary Sue: A goody-two-shoes. A character who’s absolutely perfect, with no flaws. She’s beautiful, good at everything, probably a philanthropist—but super boring and not always fun to read about.
Marriage of convenience: It’s just until this date or that event, and then we’ll go our separate ways because this is a marriage in name only. Spoiler: It never works out like that.
Mighty wang: Shorthand for how the story’s heroine will describe the sexual prowess of what romance novelists often call a male’s “throbbing member.”
Mommy porn: A derogatory term people outside the romance community will use to describe the genre. It perpetuates the stereotype that romance novels are only for lonely, horny housewives.
M/m: A subgenre of romance novels that follows the love story between two men. Popular examples include Red, White & Royal Blue and Call Me By Your Name.
Paranormal romance: Novels set in a fantasy world where fantasy or science fiction elements are essential to the story.
Regency romance: A popular subgenre set in England during the early 19th century.
Second chance at love: A heroine finds love after loss (or a divorce), as in Eat, Pray, Love or How Stella Got Her Groove Back.
Secret romance: For whatever reason, the heroine’s relationship needs to be kept under lock and key.
Sexy billionaire: A Christian Grey–type businessman, who falls in love with an unassuming—and often naive—younger woman and sweeps her off her feet. These stories have fallen out of popularity post–Me Too.
Slow burn: How romance fans will describe a story in which it takes a while for things to get steamy. The build up is there, and the payoff is great. Or to put it in terms of heat levels: It goes from clean to spicy.
Taboo romance: A love affair between two people who really shouldn’t be sleeping together. Whether it’s because of their age, prior re
lationships, or other extenuating circumstances. The hot priest romance in Fleabag is just about as representative of this type of entanglement as you can get.
Thanks to Samantha Leach for this blog - the associate culture editor at Glamour. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @_sleach.