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Novels: Definition, Characteristics & Examples

Novels: Definition, Characteristics & Examples
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  • 0:01 The Old & New:…
  • 0:56 Characteristics of a Novel
  • 5:10 Examples of Novels
  • 8:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

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

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!

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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