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.
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).
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.
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.
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
Published in two parts between 1605 and 1615, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes is widely considered the first modern novel. The realism in the satirical view of chivalric mentality is Cervantes' response to the romanticized fiction that had been in-vogue throughout Spain and Europe in the centuries prior. In this way, he develops a new literary form that is also unique in that Don Quixote is actually two interlocking tales: the story of Don Quixote's adventures and the story of the process of writing that story.
In 1719, author Daniel Defoe sparked the creation of desert island fiction with the publication of his classic Robinson Crusoe. During the century following Don Quixote, the popularity of the adventure novel continued to grow. Defoe innovated the genre by introducing the element of being marooned on an island without immediate hope of rescue. Ever since, novels and other forms of fiction of this sort have been known by the French term 'Robinsonnade'.
20,000 Leagues under the Sea
By the time this work was finished in 1870, the career of its author, Jules Verne, was already well underway. Influenced by the scientific knowledge of his day and his own fascination with travel, Verne took the adventure novel even further, from the deepest oceans to the Moon and back. His novels (like 20,000 Leagues under the Sea) have frequently earned him notoriety as the 'Father of Science Fiction.' This novel earned its place in the history of science fact, however, when it inspired the launch of the first successful modern submarine in 1898!
Though it might be classified as science fiction, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, written in 1950, is a far cry from foreshadowing technological advances. Instead, it imagines a future in which science has made the forecast not very sunny at all. Known as apocalyptic literature, novels and other works like these predict a world-altering catastrophe: an apocalypse. With Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, the book predicts its own demise as a medium in an apocalyptic world where government officials known as 'firemen' track down books and burn them.
World War Z
When an apocalypse is all over, stories center on humanity's chances at survival and recovery in a world that has become foreign to them. And here, the post-apocalyptic novels, such as World War Z by Max Brooks, come in. Published in 2006, Brooks' work taps into the public's fear of and fascination with a zombie apocalypse that will cause humankind to rebuild civilization. Novels of this sort have been motivated by the same events, namely World War II and the Cold War, that drove Bradbury's generation to produce its apocalyptic fiction, and this novel's title certainly reflects that inspiration.
A novel can be identified as an extended work of fictional prose, typically between 60,000 and 200,000 words in length. As a whole, novels are representative of ongoing innovation in literature; pushing the boundaries of literary experience is an often unspoken trait of the form. The notion of realism (such as that found in the satirical portrayals used by Cervantes in Don Quixote) is crucial to how a novel functions, providing a framework that is relatable to audiences.
Novels are generally rich in character and plot development, often focusing extensively on individual reactions and interactions. We typically find novels published as independent, self-contained works, either as individual volumes or in the various digital media now available.
Classic novels such as Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, and Fahrenheit 451, or newcomers like World War Z, depend greatly on their shared traditions while continuing to revolutionize the literary scene.
When you have finished, you can:
- Define a novel
- Describe the characteristics all novels share
- List a few notable novels and summarize their significance