Who among us hasn't read a novel?  It is a staple feature of modern literature and can come in a multitude of different forms. But how much do you know about the development of the novel and its key characteristics? Read on to find out more!

Novel Novel

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Table of contents

    Novel meaning

    A novel is the most common kind of literary genre today. However, the term is widely encompassing and can be hard to define. A novel is a fictional narrative typically over fifty thousand words. It focuses on specific and complex characters and explores the human experience.

    The modern novel is considered to have begun in the seventeenth century and was considered to be a revolutionary genre. It focused on ordinary people and their everyday experiences. In comparison, previous popular literary genres tended to focus on those in the upper classes. For example, tales of medieval chivalry rarely included characters living ordinary lives.

    Ian Watt's 1957 book The Rise of the Novel is a key critical text to understanding how the novel came to be over the centuries. He theorised that seventeenth-century philosophy's emphasis on the individual and the importance of unique individual experiences helped the novel as we recognise it today to develop.

    Rising rates of literacy also contributed to the novel's new popularity. Previously, those of lower classes rarely had access to reading and writing skills, but this was changing. Ordinary people flocked to read these new texts that they could often see themselves in.

    Watts additionally makes the point that novels began to promote introspection and texts that were from the perspective of one particular narrator. He also gives the works of Samuel Richardson, Daniel Defoe, and Tobias Smollett as key examples of the early modern novel. Check out StudySmarter's article on The Early Novel for more information!

    To recap:

    A novel is a fictional narrative of over fifty thousand words. It contains complex characters and focuses on a specific part of the human experience.

    Function of the novel

    The main function of a novel is to tell a story. Think of any novel you have read: You likely read it for the story! However, as a genre, there is more to the novel. Many novels try to represent something, often a particular aspect of the human experience. For example, a novel like A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens shows the reality of poverty in Victorian England. Dickens is communicating a specific kind of existence here.

    We may take the novel and its function for granted now, but this was not always the case. When the genre was relatively new, many authors saw its function as representing ordinary people and their lives. Due to high poverty and low literacy rates, this had often not previously been a priority in literature. Many texts focused on the upper classes. In the seventeenth century, the novel gained popularity because people were reading texts that they truly felt they could relate to.

    Characteristics of a novel

    Below are the important characteristics present in a novel.

    Fiction: A key characteristic of a novel is that it is fictional. The stories being told have been created by the author.

    Setting: Novels have a recognisable and defined setting. This may change throughout the story. Settings can also tell readers a lot about the kind of life the characters lead. A setting does not have to be necessarily realistic, but, in a novel, it will be fully developed and, therefore, plausible.

    Plot: As novels are fictional, the plot is central. It creates the story. The plot concerns the various actions and happenings that the author creates in order to propel the story forward. Without the plot, there is no story!

    Characters: Characters are also essential to the novel. They are complex and developed in this genre. Readers can relate to them and characters are often how meaning is communicated by the author. If there were no characters, the plot would have no one to 'happen' to.

    Dialogue: Dialogue is how characters communicate with one another in a story, just as people do in real life. Some novels rely more heavily on dialogue while others do not. Important tip: when analysing novels, be aware that what a character says may not always be what they feel/mean!

    Narrator: Narration is how a story is told. This can be in the first, second, or third person. A narrator can heavily impact our perspective of a story. Remember, certain narrators may not always be reliable!

    Types of novels in literature

    There are many different kinds of novels as the field is expanding all the time. Here, we will focus on some of the most common subgenres.

    Romance novel

    Romance novels revolve around a love story, typically between two people. This relationship is usually beset by struggles along the way that the couple must overcome to find happiness together. Another common feature of romance novels is the love triangle. These novels also typically feature a happy ending. Examples of romance novels include Pride and Prejudice (1812) by Jane Austen and The Notebook (1996) by Nicholas Sparks.

    Mystery novel

    A mystery novel does what it says in the title: it involves a mystery that is central to the story! Characters frequently try to uncover this mystery and usually have done so by the end of the novel. If the mystery is left unsolved, this novel may have a cliffhanger. This means the ending is left unresolved and there may be further novels to read. While not exclusively, many mysteries in these novels are murders or crimes of some sort. Detective fiction is a popular kind of mystery novel. Murder on the Orient Express (1934) by Agatha Christie and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) by Arthur Conan Doyle are two examples of mystery novels.

    Sci-fi novel

    Since the mid-twentieth century, science fiction novels have become increasingly popular. The genre essentially takes science and stretches it as far as the author's imagination will take them. The ideas in many sci-fi novels are based on real science that has been creatively expanded. This subgenre often includes space, aliens, or similarly fantastical creatures. A key thing to remember about sci-fi novels is that they regularly use these imagined concepts to critique real society. These novels can be highly metaphorical. Examples of the genre include Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert.

    Fun fact! Frankenstein is often considered to be the first ever science fiction novel to be published.

    Thriller novel

    Thriller novels are active and intense. They are named as such because they aim to invoke thrill and suspense in their readers. This may come from the novel's plot revolving around the characters' need to solve or discover something. Thrillers attempt to surprise their readers, characterised by their many narrative twists and turns. Psychological thrillers are particularly popular. Gone Girl (2012) by Gillian Flynn and Misery (1987) by Stephen King are both thrillers.

    Historical novel

    Historical novels are set in a previous time to the one they are written in. This gap can be twenty years, or two hundred. An important element of these novels is historical accuracy. Authors of this genre make extensive efforts to accurately capture the period they are writing about. It may be one that happened long before they or their readers were born. Authors often use historical fiction to subtly criticise their present-day society. Examples of historical fiction are Atonement (2001) by Ian McEwan and Markus Zusak's The Book Thief (2005).

    Novel examples

    Below are two examples of texts that fit into the novel genre.

    North and South (1854) by Elizabeth Gaskell

    North and South is a romance novel that explores life in the town of Manchester during the Industrial Revolution. It is a romance between the protagonist Margaret Hale and a local factory owner, John Thornton. At first, the two do not see eye to eye and disagree on how workers should be treated in this new industrial world. Margaret takes a much more benevolent view than John does. However, as time passes, the two grow to understand and respect each other, eventually marrying.

    North and South is not just a romance, it is also a novel of social realism.

    Social realism is a sub-genre of realism. Realism is a literary genre that deals with everyday life. It has a plausible plot and is usually set in real or realistic places. Social realism is realism that deals with social issues, eg. in North and South, in which Gaskell addresses the issues that arose in England as industrialisation progressed.

    The plot of Gaskell's novel is pushed along by the budding romance between Margaret and John. Margaret's character growth also propels it. She learns much about poverty and inequality in northern industrial towns. Being from the rural south, her privilege had kept her hidden from this world. North and South is narrated in the third person by a narrator that is aware of all goings-on in the novel.

    Atonement (2001) by Ian McEwan

    Atonement is a historical novel. It was published by McEwan in 2001 and is mostly set in the mid-twentieth century, with much of the plot revolving around the Second World War. This novel also features a romance between the characters of Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner. They are from very different classes: Cecilia is wealthy while Robbie is not. Regardless, the two have an intense affection for each other. The two are ripped apart when Robbie is falsely accused of sexual assault and then forced to fight in the Second World War.

    Atonement complicates the form of the novel as it is a story within a story. It is revealed later in the text that the narrative is being told by an adult Briony, Cecilia's younger sister. Briony is the one who falsely accused Robbie of assault, permanently splitting the couple up. She has felt deep guilt ever since so, as a famous author in her later life, she writes a book entitled Atonement that gives the couple the fictional happy ending that they never had in real life. However, when McEwan's readers initially come across this happy ending, they are not yet aware it has been fabricated. Briony can be considered an unreliable narrator as what she writes is not actually true. This complex narration is an example of metafiction, a common feature of postmodern literature.

    Metafiction is when an author acknowledges the fact that a literary work is a literary work. The author shows self-awareness in doing this.

    Novel - Key takeaways

    • A novel is one of the most common literary genres.
    • It is a work of narrative fiction with a developed plot and complex characters.
    • Setting, plot, and dialogue are also key features of the novel.
    • Romances, mystery novels, sci-fi novels, thrillers, and historical novels are subgenres of the novel.
    • North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell and Atonement by Ian McEwan are two examples of a novel.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Novel

    How many words are in a novel?

    Novels are usually over fifty thousand words.

    What is a novel?

    A novel is a work of narrative fiction with complex characters that says something about the human experience.

    How do you write a novel?

    There is no one way to write a novel, but it should be fictional and have a plausible setting, complex characters, and explore the human experience.

    What is a graphic novel?

    A graphic novel is a text that includes comic strips.

    What is a light novel?

    A light novel is a Japanese novel written for young adults.

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    Team Novel Teachers

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