I started out a genre writer of speculative fiction, with a specialty in urban fantasy. One of the things I had to negotiate early on was how to differentiate between a romance story with an urban fantasy subplot, such as a shifter romance, and the straight-up fantasy stories I wrote before, which might have romance subplots but tend to have an entirely different focus.
What it boils down to for me, besides the use of various romantic tropes in the plotlines, is threefold: where the focus of the story is, how much prominence romance has in the characters’ lives, and what kind of power their romance has to change their circumstances.
In my new bear shifter series The Hunting Club, the theme of the “fated mate” gets tackled head-on, as characters start to question whether the instinctive draw to a specific human is entirely positive or romantic. Yet the central romance between Jake and Anna grows stronger over time not because of this instinct, but rather because of the choices they make to trust in and support each other, to love and be loved, and to accept the bond instead of rejecting it or losing it with one member’s death. Because of this, they can endure when powerful forces are striving very hard to tear them apart.
Yes, there’s a survival horror plot going on the whole time too, but ultimately it serves as a backdrop for a story where love may not conquer all, but it has tremendous power to heal us and shore us up.
The redemptive-love theme runs through the series as planned. Certain characters, such as the embittered hunter Mark, and even the misbegotten Graypaw, will find themselves touched by this in their lives, as romance allows them to regain, or gain for the first time, a greater grasp on their humanity. The trappings of their urban-fantasy world and circumstances are less important than this central theme, and that more than anything shows the difference between a romance subgenre and the genre it draws from.
Finally, I have noticed that all in all, even when dealing with dark themes, romances tend to be optimistic. Even if the world itself is crapsack, the existence of a strong love relationship gives the central characters something to live, strive and hope for. This is a strong contrast to much speculative fiction, where there is less social contract with the reader, and less reason to provide any kind of feel-good closure. Ultimately this is one reason I have chosen to focus on romance as my central genre right now. I may engage in character torture as much as any author (aside from George R. R. Martin), but it’s good to have something joyous and healing for the poor characters to go home to eventually.