The epistolary novel, even the very term, smacks of anachronistic formality—one might expect characters to “call upon” one another in such stories. But the letter form offers fiction writers all kinds of fascinating angles through which to not only observe characters but to present them. If I begin reading a novel and the first thing I come across is a salutation, I immediately have to figure out: who wrote the letter? To whom are they writing? What is their relationship? And why is the person writing? These are dramatic questions for a reader to be asking, and all this just from the sight of “Dear…”
Moreover, the epistolary novel is commonly defined as a novel made of letters, but it can include any kind of documented communication pertaining to the characters. And so with each variation of the “letter” comes a new set of implicit usage guidelines (e.g., we write very differently in an email to a friend than in, say, a formal resignation letter or a note-to-self reminder), which we the readers, as cultural participants ourselves, understand and completely relate to and which knowledge the author exploits for the sake of intricately and practically revealing character through a notion called “discrepant awareness,” which really just means dramatic irony, which really just means that some characters are aware of things while others aren’t, but the reader knows everything except for how the story unfolds and thus creates the tension of which great stories are made.
To show you what I mean, here are seven variations on the “novel in letters,” from diaries to Instant Messenger, from yearnings to God to notes in the margins of a library book. (Technically, there are only three types of epistolary novels—mono-, dia-, and polylogic, i.e., one character’s documents, two characters’, or several, respectively—but those are narrative POV distinctions and I’m interested in the forms these works use, which is totally different and so screw the academics—here’s my list.)