“Fiction is the truth inside the lie”
-Stephen King

Historical fiction is a genre of imaginative narratives set in the past, whose authors make a deliberate effort to convey chronologically remote settings, cultures and personages with accuracy, plausibility, and depth.

Imaginative: In order to be considered historical fiction a work has to come from an author’s imagination. In other words it needs to be made up, it needs to be fiction. Now, this isn’t to say that history writing isn’t imaginative in its own way. The best history writing is every bit as full of imagination and creativity as the best historical fiction. But it is to suggest that part of what distinguishes the writing of historical fiction from the writing of history is the author’s effort to tell a story he or she knows is fiction. Plausible fiction maybe, but fiction nevertheless. If a historian’s job is to reconstruct and interpret the past accurately and truthfully, the job of the historical fiction writer is to deceive the reader, into believing the false world created in a novel or a story is a real world.

In order for a novel to be historical fiction rigorously understood the audience should not have lived through the era in question. Or at least most of the audience shouldn’t have. Historical fiction thus entails a lack of lived familiarity with a novel’s setting and its characters. Others feel differently, suggesting that any novel set in a somewhat unfamiliar past deserves to be conceived as historical fiction.   Historical fiction conveys its settings and its characters with a high degree of accuracy, plausibility, and depth. For scholars and fans alike Plausibility is the measure of great historical fiction. If a certain scene or chapter in a historical novel just doesn’t seem like it could have taken place at that time and in that place and under those particular circumstances, it fails the test of plausibility. Keep in mind that there’s a crucial difference between plausible on the one hand, and accurate or true on the other. There probably isn’t a single conversation between two characters in all of historical fiction that actually took place in the way it’s portrayed, or a room that looked and smelled exactly like it corresponding room described in the pages of a novel. But the test of plausibility lies in convincing your reader that that conversation could have taken place or that room could have looked and smell the way it’s described. I think most historical novelists would agree that plausibility is a much higher bar than accuracy. It’s easy to look up the architectural specifications for say an 18th century country house, and describe it accordingly in a piece of fiction. But it’s much more difficult to imagine and write a human interaction that could have taken place in that house, and convey it convincingly and plausibly enough that it maintains the novelistic illusion. Because in many ways that’s what historical fiction is really about. Building and maintaining a sustained illusion about the past that’s convincing and plausible enough to keep your reader turning the pages.

A historian writing history never has to create character. He allows it to emerge from the evidence. He never needs to guard against the inconsistency of his character’s traits. Nor does he need to invent ways in which one character influences another. Historians reveal human interactions through examining the evidence for a man’s words and deeds in relation to that other individual. Creating fictitious characters that interact with one another goes beyond just imagining the past. It requires you to imagine it, and then to change it, gradually and believably, in the reader’s imagination. This is why historical fiction is so difficult, it doesn’t matter whether you base it on reality, or make it all up, you still have to create another believable world. Something that can pass for the past in the minds of readers. Given that your readers might well be other historians, the deceit has to be pretty damn good.
-from Ian Forrester, “Why historians should write fiction”

Other factors that need to figure into our definition of the genre include, for example,gender. For a long time, historical fiction was seen as a very masculine domain, with its founding father and Sir Walter Scott, writing about war and rebellion in the Scottish Highlands. But for a generation before Scott, women were writing historical fiction while also experimenting with its narrative structure and creating hybrid forms, like the Gothic novel. And the novel of sentiment. Many of which have equal claims to being understood as significant historical fiction in the modern development of the genre.

Three shaping elements of historical fiction:

  • Multiple temporalities, historical fiction as a diachronic genre:
    Historical fiction entails the juxtaposition of two or more different time periods. Although it’s set in the past, it’s written in the present. And while this is an obvious point in some ways, it also introduces levels of complexity into the interpretive process that only increase the more we push on them. As readers and interpreters of historical fiction, we’re often contending with three different time periods. Our own moment, the present of the author, who might have been writing two or three centuries ago, and the present of the text, the historical time period in which the novel or story is set. And even that is too simple, the historical novel about the middle ages written in 1789 is going to be read and interpreted very differently by someone living in 1790. Then by someone living in 1850, or 1950, or 2013. So we also have to think about changing readerships as they influence the meaning and interpretation of the text of historical fiction over time. In this sense, historical fiction is a diachronic genre. It’s a genre that reaches across time and changes over time, and challenges us to think about the beautiful clash of historical moments. Created every time we pick up a work of historical fiction.
  • Generic hybridity, historical fiction as a mixed genre:
    Historical fiction is a hybrid form, halfway between fiction and nonfiction. It is a pioneer country without fixed laws, to some, if it is fiction, anything is permitted. To others, wanting an invention when facts are to be found, or the worst contradiction of well known facts, is a horror, or violation of an implicit contract with the reader. And a betrayal of the people written about. Ironically, it is when those stricter standards of truth are applied that historical fiction looks most like lying. It is in some ways a humble form. There are limits to the writer’s authority, she cannot know her character completely, and she has no power to alter his world, or postpone his death. But in other ways, it is not humble at all: she presumes to know the secrets of the dead. And the mechanics of history.
  • Historical mimesis historical fiction as an imitative genre:
    Mimesis is a Greek term that has an important place in the history of philosophy and literary criticism, beginning with Plato and Aristotle. It’s a complicated notion that can mean imitation or representation of reality, and it can also imply the kind of self-presentation performed by an actor or an orator, taking on the persona of another individual. Historical mimesis then, at least the kind I see entailed in historical fiction, is the imitation, or representation, of historical reality within narrative. It’s that attempt in historical fiction to represent both the full complexity of the individual and the totality of the historical moment in culture being depicted. Now, just because historical fiction attempts historical mimesis, or realistic imitation of the past, doesn’t mean it always succeeds. And that gap between imitation and reality is where the reader, or critic, comes in. But one of the things that distinguish historical fiction as a genre is what we might call the will to historical mimesis.  The effort to imitate, and thus re-create, the real past as understood by the author.


MOOC thesis by University of Virginia

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