Characterisation of Novels
An explanation of the roots of the novel and the features that distinguished it, and continue to, as a literary form
How are novels characterised?
The ‘novel’ form is usually agreed to have first generated in 18th century Europe – the term was used to refer to fiction texts entering the market which exhibited distinct and new, or indeed novel, characteristics – they were often shorter than the extended romance sagas of before, and maintained closer adherence to what would later be called literary realism. For example, amidst the early novels:
-There is a general lack of fantastical or magical events as part of their narratives
-They present the passage of time in a focused fashion, without skipping or glossing over large stretches of it
-They go into careful descriptive detail regarding characters, scenes and objects
-Some told stories set specifically in the contexts they had been written in, without recourse to the distant past, exotic distant lands, or fantastical otherworlds
-Several of the above factors meant that they often presented mundane and unsavoury aspects of reality, like the specific details of poverty, the precise actions followed by the protagonist to gain sustenance or money, and legal or medical processes.
Discussion of the distinguishing features of the novel from its 18th century origins has been saliently undertaken by Ian Watt in The Rise of the Novel (1957). Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) is often touted as one of the first novels, and the above features are quite visible in it and its immediate successors: this approach to realism was followed even more strongly in the novels of the 19th century, and it has remained the default mode of prose fiction writing to this day. Even when dealing with pointedly un-real subject matter like in modern fantasy novels, thorough descriptive detail and focused attention to the passage of time typically remain present.