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Historical Fiction

Historical Fiction is a genre that fictionalizes real places, people, and events. It takes place in the past with accurate historical details in regard to customs, technologies, people, and events.

These stories might involve recognizable characters from history, such as Cleopatra, William Churchill, etc. Alternatively, they might tell a fictional story with fictional characters in a real place and time. 

Some subgenerae of historical fiction are alternate history, historical fantasy, and speculative history. These explore what might’ve happened if one event was different or an important historical figure made a different choice. 

Historical Fiction pronunciation: His-tor-ee-cull fick-shun

Historical Fiction definition


Definition and Explanation of Historical Fiction

Historical fiction is concerned with fusing real places, events, and people with fictionalized accounts of those features. This might mean that a character is inserted into a place or time in which they didn’t exist, but they’re there to live and relay the events occurring. For example, a servant in a country house, a doctor during the Black Death, or a family in the Great Depression. These people didn’t exist, but the events around them did. This allows writers to tell clear and compelling stories about the past without being constrained to only that for which there is a historical record. 


Elements of Historical Fiction

Historical fiction can be broken down into five elements that make it interesting and well worth reading (and even writing). These are:

The setting is the most important of the five. It should be somewhere in the past, in a place and time that’s authentic. Without that authenticity, the “historical” aspect of the novel will be lost. The plot and characters might be fictitious or combine elements of fiction and reality. They might do things they did in real life with fictional characters the author created or face difficulties, then, in reality, they didn’t. It’s important to consider how far to push this feature. If a character murders someone or does something completely, unlike what the real person did, again, one might lose touch with the historical aspect of the novel.

Also important are dialogue and conflict. The dialogue should, like the setting, feeling authentic. The characters should use words fitting their time period. The conflicts they encounter should be similarly fitting for the time period.


Best Historical Fiction Novels 

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall is one of the most popular historical fiction novels of the last decades. It was published in 2009 and is set between 1500 and 1535 in Wolfhall, in Wiltshire. The novel follows Stephen Gardiner, master secretary to King Henry VIII, Princess Mary, the only surviving child of Henry and Catherine, Mary Boleyn (Anne Boleyn’s sister), Jane Seymour, Thomas Boleyn, and more. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2009 as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award. 


The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett 

The Pillars of the Earth is a well-loved, masterful story that takes place in the 12th century in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, England. It follows the development of a cathedral, the builder, his family, surrounding romances, murders, and more. It’s the first novel in the Kingsbridge Series. The second and third were published in 2007 and 2017. 


All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel published in 2014. It is set in France during World War II and follows a blind French girl and a German boy. When France is invaded by Germany, the young blind girl, Marie-Laure and her father flee to the coast. Marie reads out broadcasts of her favorite novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, while Werner, the German boy, listens through the radio. 


Best Historical Fiction Films

Braveheart (1995) 

An epic film featuring Mel Gibson who portrays William Wallace, a Scotsman, and warrior from the 13th century. It follows his fight against Edward I of England, his losses and eventual death, and martyrdom at the hands of the English. 


Cold Mountain (2003)

A film based on a novel of the same name. It’s set in North Carolina after the state secedes from the Union in 1861 and follows the lives of Ada, played by Nicole Kidman, and Inman, played by Jude Law. Their love affair, his time in the army, and how she works while he’s away are the central features of the novel and film. 


The Duchess (2008) 

The Duchess is set in the late 18th century and follows Georgiana Cavenish, an English Aristocrat played by Kiera Knightly. It explores her upbringing, her role as a woman in society, her true love, and her marriage. The film won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design.  


Related Literary Terms 

  • Horror: a genre of fiction that plays with human fear, feelings of terror, dread, and repulsion to entertain the audience.
  • Gothic: that which deals with themes of death, the supernatural, sorrow, fear, loss, and more.
  • Fantasy: a literary genre that includes talking animals, magic, and other worlds. It includes plots that couldn’t take place in the real world.
  • Science Fiction: a literary genre that focuses on imaginative content based on science.
  • Genre: a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.
  • Protagonist: the main character of a story, generally considered to be the hero or the force for good.
  • Antagonist: a character who is considered to be the rival of the protagonist.


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