ROMANCE novels emerged in 18th-century England when women found themselves with leisure and little but politics to read. So they wrote their own books - and romance was the favorite. The story line is the same today, but the characters have changed. Here's the formula: Plot: Woman meets (perfect) stranger, thinks he's a rogue but wants him anyway, runs into conflicts that keep them apart, and ends up happily in his arms forever.
Heroine: Gone is the helpless maiden of the '50s, who pined after the cold, dominating brute. The '80s heroine is independent, educated, equal. Readers identify with her, making it important that she be ideal - honest, courageous, faithful - but ordinary, too, not always beautiful. She is the reader's fantasy of herself: having it all - job, relationships, and a perfect man as well.
Some writers have introduced realistic heroines with unpleasant pasts, such as an abused wife or rape victim.
Hero: Strong, sensitive, and kind, the hero is the woman's friend, confidant, and lover. He's rough at first, but only because the heroine misjudges him. Sometimes handsome, he is trustworthy and helpful - willing to cook dinner when she's working late. Heroes today respect the woman's job, and usually don't demand that she quit working when they marry. Fantasy fulfilled. Says one avid romance reader, ``I like [the hero] because he treats a woman the way she ought to be treated.''
Setting: Whether the story is historical or current, details fill every page. Colors, smells, local folklore, historical trivia. Verisimilitude gives flight to the armchair tourist - away from work, laundry, and screaming kids.
Courtship: The reader's favorite aspect, courtship is most women's fondest memory, according to sociologist Margaret Jensen, author of ``Love's Sweet Return,'' a study of the success of Harlequin Enterprises. Explains Margaret Carney, editor at Harlequin's Toronto office, ``Once the hero meets the heroine, it's game over for anybody else.''
Conflict: Today's heroine speaks up if she's treated badly or sees others mistreated. She is less likely to tolerate sexism in the workplace than her counterpart of 20 years ago, who couldn't say no to - and fell in love with - her ruthless boss. As do many women readers, the heroine fears losing her independence if she falls in love.
Resolution: The hero and heroine always realize their love is meant to be, promise to be faithful forever, turn out the lights, and close the door. Says an ardent reader, ``It wouldn't be a romance if they didn't.''