Types of Prose Fiction

The following definitions are based on Barnet/Berman/Burto 1964, Cuddon 1998, Hawthorn 1986, Fowler 1987.

The novel can be defined as an extended work of prose fiction. It derives from the Italian novella (“little new thing”), which was a short piece of prose. The novel has become an increasingly popular form of fiction since the early eighteenth century, though prose narratives were written long before then. The term denotes a prose narrative about characters and their actions in what is recognisably everyday life. This differentiates it from its immediate predecessor, the romance, which describes unrealistic adventures of supernatural heroes. The novel has developed various sub-genres:

In the epistolary novel the narrative is conveyed entirely by an exchange of letters. (e.g. Samuel Richardson, Pamela.)

A picaresque novel is an early form of the novel, some call it a precursor of the novel. It presents the adventures of a lighthearted rascal (pícaro=rogue). It is usually episodic in structure, the episodes often arranged as a journey. The narrative focuses on one character who has to deal with tyrannical masters and unlucky fates but who usually manages to escape these miserable situations by using her/his wit. The form of the picaresque narrative emerged in sixteenth-century Spain. Examples are: Cervantes, Don Quixote; and in the English tradition: Thomas Nash, The Unfortunate Traveler; Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders.

The historical novel takes its setting and some of the (chief) characters and events from history. It develops these elements with attention to the known facts and makes the historical events and issues important to the central narrative. (e.g. Walter Scott, Ivanhoe; Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)

The bildungsroman (novel of education) is a type of novel originating in Germany which presents the development of a character mostly from childhood to maturity. This process typically contains conflicts and struggles, which are ideally overcome in the end so that the protagonist can become a valid and valuable member of society. Examples are J.W. Goethe, Wilhelm Meister; Henry Fielding, Tom Jones; Charles Dickens, David Copperfield; James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The gothic novel became very popular from the second half of the eighteenth century onwards. With the aim to evoke chilling terror by exploiting mystery and a variety of horrors, the gothic novel is usually set in desolate landscapes, ruined abbeys, or medieval castles with dungeons, winding staircases and sliding panels. Heroes and heroines find themselves in gloomy atmospheres where they are confronted with supernatural forces, demonic powers and wicked tyrants. Examples are Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto; Ann Radcliffe, Mysteries of Udolpho; William Faulkner, Absalom! Absalom!

The social novel, also called industrial novel or Condition of England novel, became particularly popular between 1830 and 1850 and is associated with the development of nineteenth-century realism. As its name indicates, the social novel gives a portrait of society, especially of lower parts of society, dealing with and criticising the living conditions created by industrial development or by a particular legal situation (the poor laws for instance). Well-known examples are: Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton; Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist; Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil and Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke.

Science fiction is a type of prose narrative of varying length, from short-story to novel. Its topics include quests for other worlds, the influence of alien beings on Earth or alternate realities; they can be utopian, dystopian or set in the past. Common to all types of science fiction is the interest in scientific change and development and concern for social, climatic, geological or ecological change (e.g. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; H.G. Wells, The Time Machine; Aldous Huxley, Brave New World; George Orwell, 1984; Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange).

Metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. It concentrates on the phenomenological characteristics of fiction, and investigates into the quintessential nature of literary art by reflecting the process of narrating. (e.g. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinons of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman; John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman; Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook)

A romance is a fictional narrative in prose or verse that represents a chivalric theme or relates improbable adventures of idealised characters in some remote or enchanted setting. It typically deploys monodimensional or static characters who are sharply discriminated as heroes or villains, masters or victims. The protagonist is often solitary and isolated from a social context, the plot emphasises adventure, and is often cast in the form of a quest for an ideal or the pursuit of an enemy. Examples: Anonymous, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Sir Philip Sidney, Arcadia; Percy B. Shelley, Queen Mab; Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables.

A short-story is a piece of prose fiction marked by relative shortness and density, organised into a plot and with some kind of dénouement at the end. The plot may be comic, tragic, romantic, or satiric. It may be written in the mode of fantasy, realism or naturalism.


epistolary     novel
picaresque     novel

gothic novel
social novel

short story