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  • 0:01 The Old & New:…
  • 0:56 Characteristics of a Novel
  • 5:10 Examples of Novels
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Novels: Definition, Characteristics & Examples

Lesson Transcript
Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Expert Contributor
Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

We've all seen shelves full of them. We've all read at least one in our lifetimes. But could you give a definition of 'novel'? Keep reading to find out more about the novel's characteristics and encounter some examples of this literary form! Updated: 11/18/2019

The Old and New: Defining 'Novel'

Getting to the bottom of what makes a 'novel': a novel is like meeting an old friend all over again. In the simplest terms, a novel is a fictional prose work of considerable length. Beyond that, though, novels aren't so simple anymore.

By this meaning, Egyptian works from around 1200 BCE could be designated as some of the first novels. Extended works of prose fiction also found fans among the ancient Greeks and Romans, with such authors as Heliodoros, who wrote Ethiopian Romance, and Apuleius, who wrote The Golden Ass, producing memorable pieces still in circulation today.

Nevertheless, literary tastes and the forms they subsequently shape evolve over time. And in the millennia since its inception, the novel has developed a unique set of characteristics that help distinguish this literary form from the many others.

Characteristics of a Novel

Like many other topics in literature, the discussion of what exactly constitutes a novel frequently becomes a heated debate. Thankfully, however, there are a few generally agreed-upon qualities that novels possess.

  • Innovation

Though perhaps not a hard rule for each specimen or even mentioned by many novelists, novels as a whole represent literary change. For the Greeks and Romans, they were a departure from the traditional verse epics and lyric poetry, and they have meant something different to every generation afterward. Even the name (from Latin novellus, meaning 'young and new') of the literary form indicates that its contents should be something on the cutting-edge of literature's evolution. Indeed, the novel has seen countless adaptations over the years and continues to evolve constantly, unlike some other literary formats that have become frozen in their development (i.e., haikus or Shakespearean sonnets).

  • Length

So just how long is a 'work of considerable length?' As in the case of its cousin, the short story, the length of a novel is something scholars in the field argue about constantly. Fortunately for us, though, there is a fairly standard range, with the shortest containing somewhere between 60-70,000 words and all but the very longest coming in around 200,000.

  • Content

Of course, calling a novel 'a long book' just isn't enough. The stories told by novels are fictional pieces. Nonetheless, one of the defining attributes of the form is the realism they depict. In this instance, realism is conveyed in the ways in which characters in a novel interact with one another, their surroundings, and themselves. However skewed it might be, there will always be an underlying logic to the events taking place as well as to how people react to them. Luckily, this sort of realism does not exclude genres like fantasy or more fanciful science fiction from providing content for novels.

Another important characteristic of a novel's content is that it's written in prose rather than poetic format, though there may be lines of verse inserted for various effects. Even when this does occur, however, it is clear in some way that the verse portion is distinct from the rest of the narrative.

  • Character and Plot Development

The length and realistic elements of the novel allow for deep and broad development of characters and their circumstances. Unlike the short story, novels are long enough to support numerous participants or even groups of participants in the story's action. Novelists have much more room to flesh-out each individual more fully, adding innumerable dimensions of perspective and analysis to their work.

The situations that these people find themselves in are also typically more involved and complex. These story lines frequently involve dual perspectives of the action: one representing the external situation itself, another the internal conditions that coincide with, result from, or caused this series of events.

  • Publication Practices

Historically, one of the most popular ways to publish one's work has been either to collect it together with similar works in anthologies, or to print it in another medium (i.e., magazine, newspaper, or other periodical) as a serial, or sequentially segmented piece distributed over time. Before the advent of the novel, shorter works like poems, hymns, short stories, or even dramatic dialogue could be collected in relatively slim volumes because they are not very long individually. Some magazines of the 19th century still serialize novel-length works. But the size and complexity of many novels makes it infeasible to publish them in any other way than as their own independent, self-contained works. Individually bound volumes are most common to find, but digital versions are becoming more and more prevalent.

Now that we've gotten to know the novel a little more intimately, let's take a look at the literacy form in action!

Examples of Novels

Don Quixote

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Additional Activities

Writing Projects and Activities about Novels:

Writing Projects

1) Choose a novel with which you're already familiar. This might be a novel you've read in class or one that you have enjoyed on your own. Consider the element of point of view used by the author. For your writing project, rewrite a brief section or a scene from a different point of view than that used by the author.

2) Theme is an important aspect of a novel's impact on the reader. Choose a common theme found in many texts, such as family relationships, jealousy, or the struggles of growing up. Then find three contemporary novels dealing with that theme. Write an essay discussing how the same theme is developed differently in each novel.

3) As you learned in the lesson, novels have evolved in subject matter and format over the course of history. Choose a novel that you have read written prior to the twentieth century. Begin your search starting in the eighteenth century with novels like Robinson Crusoe or The Castle of Otranto, moving through the many novels of the nineteenth century. Write an essay discussing how the same basic story might be updated or changed to appeal to a twenty-first-century reader.


1) Choose a novel you have read and reviewed the plotline. Using poster paper, draw a story arc. The shape will look something like a hill (or a bell curve) except that the highest point is slightly to the right on the paper. This high point represents the climax of the novel. Mark each of the important plot points: exposition, complication, rising action, climax, and falling action. Then write a description of each of these points as they occur in the novel.

2) Working with a familiar novel, pretend that you are creating a film version of the book. Make notes and jot down ideas for the planning of the film project. Decide where filming will take place, what actors to cast in each role, and any changes that will need to be made to make the story come alive on the screen. If your novel has been made into an actual film, then change the time period and the location of the original story to create a new film version. For example, move the basic plot of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the year 2075 in a colony on the moon.

3) If you and a group of students are all studying the same novel, here's a game you can play to review the characters. This is especially useful if the novel has multiple characters easily confused. Using index cards, write the name of each character on one side and three facts about that character on the other. Use things like physical appearance, personality, important actions, etc. Then have another student try to name the character using the clues.

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