What is Historical Fiction? - Definition, Characteristics, Books & Authors

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 1:26 Examples
  • 2:36 Books & Authors
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bryanna Licciardi

Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

Learn about a genre that takes our actual past and mixes in fictional elements. This lesson breaks down the definition of historical fiction and describes popular examples in literature.

Definition of Historical Fiction

Does reading about the past interest you? What if it was a make-believe past? If you are interested in a re-imagined history, historical fiction is probably for you. A genre in literature, historical fiction is a work of writing that reconstructs the past. Often inspired by history, writers of this genre will incorporate past events or people into their fictitious stories. In order to do this successfully, the story's details need to feel authentic.

If you were reading a story that takes place in the 16th century, what would you think if one of the characters picks up a cell phone? The story would lose its believability because we, as readers, know that cell phones did not exist during that time. In order to avoid losing the story's believability, writers of historical fiction need to research the story's time period. The writer should know things like what the people ate and wore, and how they talked so readers are willing to believe in the story and keep reading.

Now, some works of historical fiction mean to be incredible, in which case the improbable or absurd details would be used purposefully. For example, in Seth Grahame-Smith's parody novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) the story takes place in the 19th century, and while the characters sound and read as authentic for the time, the casual interjections of man-eating zombies, while not historically accurate, are written in for the incredible effect.

Examples of Historical Fiction

In literature, historical fiction's purpose can be both to entertain and to help readers reevaluate a past society. There is some debate, however, about how much distance is needed to make the story historical fiction. Some consider it to be anything written at least 50 years after the story's events, while others say 25 years. Regardless, the idea is the same - that there needs to be noticeable distance between the time the story is written and the events written about in order for it to be considered historical.

Historical fiction will have one of three techniques. First, some will use real events, but with fictional people. A good example would be a novel about World War II, with fictitious military leaders as characters and invented scenes and dialogues. Second, some historical fiction will use fictional events, but with real people. A good example would be a novel about President George Washington that explores a fictitious affair he had with a Native American. Finally, a story may include both real events and real people. In this case, the writer must be make up the scenes, dialogue, and overall plot, otherwise the story would become nonfiction.

Books and Authors

Let's take a look at some examples of historical fiction. First, we have The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written in 1885 by Mark Twain. Set in the South long before the Civil War abolished slavery, this novel is told from the perspective of a young teenage Huck Finn. After running away from his drunken father, Huck hides out with Jim, a slave, who has also run away to find his long-lost wife. Twain's use of slang and authentic yet harsh vernacular helps to situate the story in an era that no longer existed. Twain's depiction of slavery and racism forced readers to reflect on the racism still plaguing the country during the late 19th century, despite the abolishment of slavery.

Next, let's take a look at Memoirs of a Geisha, written in 1997 by Arthur Golden. This novel incorporates real Japanese towns and real events during World War II to set up the fictional story of a woman named Chiyo who was sold into the geisha ring as a child. Golden uses the character Chiyo to depict the secretive, upper-class Japanese society, as well as the struggles women were facing. Though Chiyo's story is fictional, the novel itself was inspired by a real woman who helped provide Golden with the background information of geisha life. Unfortunately for Golden, the woman eventually sued him for disclosing her identity, as she began receiving death threats for breaking the geisha's code of silence.

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