You know the big fat things with all those pages that your English teachers keep assigning to you year after year? Yeah, those are novels. But you already knew that. Still, strictly speaking, we have to tell you that a novel is a long piece of fiction with a narrative structure. Because a novel is, first and foremost, a story, you'll (usually) find lots of characters and a plot.
Now that we've got the definition out of the way, let's get to the good stuff.
Where did the novel come from? Some say it derived from continental (mainland European) works like Cervantes' Don Quixote, or from story collections like One Thousand and One Nights (or, as it's commonly referred to, Arabian Nights). Others argue the novel was descended from the genre ofromance, you know, those old tales of knights and damsels in distress. And hey, considering the fact that the French word for novel is roman, that last theory is sounding pretty good…
Regardless, most agree that what we now know as the novel really came into its own during the 18th century when early novelists like Daniel Defoe and Eliza Haywood were churning out the goods and selling books like crazy.
It's no wonder then, that since those days, it has become the most dominant form in all of literature. Take that, poetry.