Literary realism refers to both a historical period in the development of the English novel, and a set of literary conventions. Realism in fiction is generally understood to have taken place during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although these boundaries are somewhat pliable. Its early practitioners were novelists such as Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson and Daniel Defoe. These writers believed that books should be about everyday experience, and written in language that the common man could understand. Over the next two centuries, some of the most well-known realist writers were George Eliot, Stephen Crane and William Dean Howells.
The realists believed that literature should be accessible by all, and not just by the educated aristocracy. To this end, writers sought to use regular language that the emerging middle-class in America and England could understand. Importantly, the development and growth of realism thus depended on an educated public with both the ability and desire to read popular works of fiction. This, in turn, was a result of developments in technology, such as moveable type, that allowed books to be printed quickly and in mass quantity.
In addition to using everyday language, realism in fiction is notable for featuring everyday characters in everyday situations. Prior to the emergence of realism, English literature tended to focus on the aristocracy and royalty, producing dramas that were highly interesting, but that had little relevance to the middle classes. Similarly, ancient literature from which English literature drew its influences focused on the world of the gods.
Realism broke with these conventions, depicting middle-class and working men and women, endowed with regular names that gave them the illusion of being real people. Instead of kings and queens involved in high-stakes diplomacy, realist novels showed mothers and fathers engaged in family politics, or workers struggling to make it against an oppressive social system.
Part and parcel with elevating everyday activity to the level of literature was the detail of description that realism sought to register. To make, for instance, factory work seem important, a realist novel might spend page after page describing what such work looks and feels like. The goal of this excessive description was to render scenes, objects and characters as life-like as possible. If readers could feel like they were experiencing the reality of the characters on the page, they would be more likely to approach such material as believable.
Realist literature was also influenced by eighteenth and nineteenth-century philosophy. The dominant thought of the time was the development of the individual as an autonomous being who should be accorded with his own inalienable rights. This doctrine is apparent in realism's preoccupation with the individual as an object of interest. For example, most realist texts are about the development of an individual person as he struggle to overcome social barriers. The central character often engages with some sort of antagonist, whether external or internal, in order to achieve the truest version of self that is possible. To this extent, both character and plot were heavily influenced by the ideas circulating at the time.