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What is Historical Fiction?
Historical fiction is considered by many to be a genre best left in the domain of historians. Many of the best and greatest novels were written by historians who took the knowledge they garnered from research and study. They create stories to relate those events, and publish the book so others can enjoy learning about history with a twist.
It is a sad truth in today’s world that historical fiction is one of the least read and most underrated genres available to readers. This lively, interesting, and riveting genre is most often beat out in popularity by books that are of the realistic fiction genre, or those that are more fantastical such as the science fiction, fantasy, and thriller genres. If you were to walk into a bookstore you would probably find an abundance of these other types of books right up front, visible to you the moment you walk through the doors. Meanwhile, you might be hard-pressed to find a historical fiction novel without the help of staff.
Focus groups have consistently shown varying degrees of interest among readers when it comes to accounts of historical deeds. For many, historical fiction is a genre people may think will be so boring it isn’t even worth the read. The question then that begs to be answered is, what is historical fiction, really, and why do so many readers incorrectly judge that it is stuffy and boring without venturing into the genre?
Clarifying Historical Fiction
Historical fiction books contain stories that happened in days long gone. These stories are filled with details about our past; stories detailing the lives of real people just like anyone alive today. In many cases these people lived through events that dramatically changed not only their lives, but the lives of people all over the world, forever. These people were heroes, villains, leaders and followers.
They experienced issues in their lives that may well have changed the course of history, and their stories relate life-altering situations and how they dealt with them. They experienced the same feelings uncertainty, anxiety, guilt, elation, joy and despair that people today would feel in a similar situation.
Historical fiction is a literary genre whose content is based upon certain events in human history but whose characters are produced by the writer’s imagination to better illustrate the events being portrayed.
How Does Historical Fiction Differ from Realistic Fiction?
Historical and realistic fictions are not the same genre, and it is no surprise that readers are confused about what sets these two genres apart. One reason for this apparent confusion is that both of these genres have many similarities. F irst, both types of fiction tend to have plot lines that are incredibly realistic and plausible. Second, they tend to have settings that are exceedingly familiar for readers. Third, and most importantly, they have characters that the reader can identify with, understand and empathize with; making them more ‘real’ to the reader and therefore someone the reader wants to find out more about the story.
Where they differ is the most important point. Historical fiction tells a story related to history, with either actual historical characters or characters invented to interact with those who lived through the actual historical events. This genre presents the reader with facts such as actual times, places and characters from true events that were important to our past.
Realistic fiction, on the other hand, is considered realistic due to the believable settings, events, and characters that are a part of the story. These stories are highly plausible, but are complete works of fiction, with characters that never existed and events that never actually happened.
How Do We Separate Historical Fiction from History?
To determine how the genres of historical and realistic fiction differ, it is important to look at the events being portrayed and to then determine what event is truly historical and what is historical fiction. Can the events be determined to have actually occurred? Or is the account about something that ‘could’ have happened and that is being depicted by fictional characters?
When it comes to history, both the historical fiction writer and the historian have a similar task. Both are charged with cutting through the tangle of individual perception and delivering the truth. Of course, the biggest difference between these two individuals performing this task is just how close each may get to the truth, and how much of that truth they are willing take artistic liberty with in order to relate their story. The historian undoubtedly will seek to get as near to the truth as possible, clearly and accurately depicting how historical figures reacted to particular events and through extensive research they try to collect every fact about those historical events so that they can relate them with accuracy.
The historical fiction writer focuses more on the events that took place in a given place and time but will create fictional characters who then became interwoven in those historical events. This may be accomplished by a fictional relationship with an actual person from history, or through a vicarious involvement in the events unfolding. If that isn't entertaining material, what is? Historical fiction writers tell a story within the greater framework of the actual past.
Ultimately, the historian and the historical fiction writer are answering different aspects of the same question. The historian wants to relate the details of exactly what happened, and when possible, how the actual people involved in those historical events thought and behaved. They tell us what history was like for those who lived through it. The historical fiction writer tells a story about humanity and what it may have felt like to those who experienced dramatic and life-altering situations, helping us to relate to the story on a more emotional and visceral level.
Realistic fiction writers relate a story that could have happened, but which actually did not. They too elicit an emotional response, but for different reasons. Realistic fiction departs from historical facts and gives us a situation that is similar to an actual historical event but which never really transpired. The characters may be living in an era when it is possible for the situation to have occurred, making the story plausible and interesting, but not historically accurate. The reader can be caught up in the story for the human interaction, tribulations and trials or triumphs of the fictional characters, but will garner no knowledge about actual historical events.