The Old and the New: Defining the Term “Novel”

Getting to the heart of what defines a ‘novel’: reading a book is like reuniting with an old friend for the first time. In its most basic definition, a novel is a fictitious literary work over a thousand pages long. Beyond that, though, books are no longer as straightforward as they once were.

Egyptian compositions from approximately 1200 BCE might be considered some of the first novels if they are interpreted in this way. Even among the ancient Greeks and Romans, extended works of prose fiction gained a loyal following, with authors such as Heliodoros, who produced Ethiopian Romance, and Apuleius, who wrote The Golden Ass, generating remarkable works that are still in print today.

Nonetheless, literary preferences, as well as the forms that they later influence, change with time. A distinct collection of qualities has emerged throughout the novel throughout its thousands of years of existence, features that help separate it from the numerous other literary forms.

Characteristics of a Literary Work

Like so many other themes in literature, the issue of what exactly makes a novel usually devolves into a savage battle of words. Fortunately, a few characteristics of books are universally recognized and appreciated.


Novels as a whole constitute a shift in literary culture, even if this is not a strict rule for each specimen or even explicitly stated by many writers. They represented a break from the customary verse epics and lyric poetry for the Greeks and Romans, and they have signified something new to each successive age since then. Even the name of the literary form (derived from the Latin Novellus, which means ‘young and fresh’) suggests that the novel’s contents should be on the cutting-edge of literature’s progress. Many adaptations of the book have indeed occurred over the years. The story itself continually changes, in contrast to several other literary styles that have remained stagnant in their evolution (i.e., haikus or Shakespearean sonnets).


So, how long does it take to complete a ‘work of great length?’ The length of a book, like the length of its cousin, the short story, is something that researchers in the field debate regularly. Fortunately for us, there is a fairly normal range, with the lowest being between 60 and 70,000 words, except the very largest containing somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 words on average.


Of course, simply referring to a novel as “a large book” isn’t adequate. The stories described in novels are made up entirely of fiction. Nonetheless, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the genre is the realism with which they are shown. In this case, authenticity is represented through the interactions between characters in a novel and their interactions with one another, their environment, and themselves. Whatever the circumstances, there will always be an underlying logic to the events that take place and the reactions of those who see or experience them. Fortunately, this type of realism does not exclude genres such as fantasy or more imaginative science fiction from offering material for novelists to work with.

Another distinguishing feature of a novel’s content is that it is written in prose rather than poetic form, but there may be lines of verse inserted for various purposes. Even when this occurs, however, it is evident that the poetry component of the tale is separate from the remainder of the narrative in some manner.

Development of Characters and the Plot

As a result of the novel’s length and realistic features, the characters and their situations are given thorough development. Books, in contrast to short stories, are long enough to include many players, or even groups of participants, in the story’s action. Novelists have a great deal more leeway to flesh out each character in more detail, which allows them to add endless levels of viewpoint and analysis to their work.

In addition, the situations in which these individuals find themselves are often more complicated and convoluted. These storylines usually have two points of view on the action: one depicting the exterior situation itself and the other indicating the interior conditions that coincide with, arising from, or were the cause of this chain of events (either directly or indirectly).

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