What exactly is women’s fiction?

Do you know what women’s fiction is?

Agents and editors seem to be showing more interest in this subgenre. Does it focus on a female protagonist who is dealing with relationship stuff other than romantic? I’m curious to see if it might be a direction for me to grow as a writer, but I’d like to understand exactly what it is first.

Wikipedia says it’s “women centered books that focus on women’s life experience that are marketed to female readers, and includes many mainstream novels.”

Wikipedia goes on to include a 2011 definition from RWA. The cited link no longer works.
“a commercial novel about a woman
on the brink of life change and personal growth.
Her journey details emotional reflection and action
that transforms her and her relationships with others,
and includes a hopeful/upbeat ending
with regard to her romantic relationship.”

I’ve gone back through lists of RITA winners to find some examples. My TBR list now has The Haunting of Maddy Clare by Simone St James, which won the RITA for Novel with Strong Romantic Elements. Is that another way to view women’s fiction?

If you have a good definition for “women’s fiction” or some examples you would recommend, please leave a comment and let us know.


13 responses to “What exactly is women’s fiction?”

  1. I always thought of women’s fiction as a story that deals specifically, in depth, with emotional issues and which didn’t necessarily need a relationship with a man nor have a happy ending, unlike romance.

    I know more mystery and thrillers have been crossed with the genre. I think they’re labeled domestic thrillers./mysteries.

    I’ll be interested to see what others have to say.


    • Elizabeth Langston says:

      My agent *strongly encouraged* me to read some women’s fiction and consider if that might be something I would enjoy writing. One of her suggestions was a Women’s Fiction/Magical Realism novel called THE SECRET INGREDIENT OF WISHES. I read it this weekend and it was very good. But it was a quiet book. There was an understated romance in it, but a mystery and some identity issues were really what the book was about. The romantic relationship ended hopefully but not as clearly as you would see in a romance.

      I write YA, which is more of a demographic group than a genre–and the subgenres can be anything: thriller, sci-fi, historical, fantasy, contemporary. I wonder if that is a good way to think of women’s fiction.

      Would THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN be women’s fiction?


      • I would say Girl On A Train is a Psych-Thriller. At least, that is where I would classify it if working at bookstore.


        • I’m with Autumn — GOTT would be shelved with mystery / thrillers, not women’s fiction, in my opinion.

          I actually don’t think women’s fiction is a good umbrella category — I really do think if it as a separate beast. Like, maybe you could have a women’s fiction / cozy mystery, but … not really. Same for women’t fiction / sci-fi.

          I like the first part of RWA’s apparent definition, but I also don’t think romance has to play any role in a women’s fiction novel. I think it really can just be about a woman’s evolution, particularly if it’s sort of mid-life or later. (Hormones do have a way of forcing us to take notice of romance when we’re younger!)


      • I don’t think thrillers and mysteries would be classified as WF, Beth. They’re exactly what they are: thrillers and mysteries, which would appeal to male readers.

        Think of movies or TV shows that aren’t romances, but that men call chick-flicks, and there you have Women’s Fiction. Here’s some examples that spring to mind.

        The new TV show I love: All About Us
        An older one: Brother’s and Sisters
        Steel Magnolias
        Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants


        • Elizabeth Langston says:

          Thank you, Laurie. The TV shows and Steel Magnolias examples help.


        • Liz Talley says:

          yes, this is what I would call WF. It deals primarily with the struggle/ephiphany/growth of a woman/women and could include some romance or mystery but that’s not the primary goal of the story.

          Steel Magnolias is a great example, Imo. Or something like Stepmother, Thelma and Louise, Fried Green Tomatoes.


  2. I read quite a bit of Women’s Fic, and I like your comparison to YA as WF targets (but certainly isn’t limited to) a specific demographic.

    For WF/Magical Realism, I love Sarah Addison Allen, particularly GARDEN SPELLS. Kristin Hannah (THE NIGHTINGALE) has also penned some rich and complex contemp WF. For WF with humor and suspense, try Liane Moriarity (BIG LITTLE LIES is fantastic!). And for a bit darker and heavier WF that leans well into domestic suspense check out authors Mary Kubica, Kimberley Belle, Gilly MacMillan, Heather Gudenkauf, Diane Chamberlain, etc. Oooooo, you may also want to take a look at Megan Miranda’s wonderful domestic suspense, ALL THE MISSING GIRLS. Megan is another YA author who made the jump into adult WF/suspense.

    Happy, happy reading!!


    • Elizabeth Langston says:

      Thanks for all of the examples.

      Diane Chamberlain used to be in my local RWA chapter and she gave the best worship on characterization that I’ve ever attended. I think it was called “Write Characters So Real that You List Them As Dependents on Your Tax Return. So I’d expect her books to be very character-centric.


  3. I believe Women’s fiction focuses on relationships OTHER than a romantic one. Although, there is a lot of Romantic Women’s Fiction out there, too, which are really BIG romances with lots of subplots.

    My first GH winner and second release, A Little Bit of Deja Vu, falls into that category. I market it as a romance, but it contains a lot of family conflict in the story between the parents, the kids, the H/h’s ex’s etc. and a heroine facing an empty nest and emotional growth with her own mother.

    Jodi Picoult is an example of tear-jerky women’s fiction. Personally, I can’t read her work because it depresses me, but she’s a brilliant author.

    To me, Women’s Fiction is basically relationship stories that go beyond just romantic love, but can also include it.


    • Elizabeth Langston says:

      I entered a YA in the RITAs once that was mainly about a teen girl struggling with a serious disability which would make it difficult for her to go to college or get a job. The book was all about relationships with parents and friends. There was a very light flirtation that evolved into a romance near the end.

      One judge marked it as “Not a romance” and the romance scores from the others were on the low side. So maybe that could be my model for WF. Struggling through a major life change and how it impacts relationships–with romance light or optional.


  4. Rita Henuber says:

    Beth, I really get wrapped arounf the flag pole when it comes to defining WF. One house says this. An agent says that. Readers and writers have different opinions. The definitions IMO are ambiguous and change. Sigh. A couple of years ago I was told a book of mine had too much romance to be considered WF. Then I was told it didn’t have enough to be considered romance.


    • Elizabeth Langston says:

      I think I’ll need to read some more WF books to see if I can get a feel for the pattern. The Novel With Strong Romantic Elements examples I read this weekend really did feel like romances to me.


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