7 Great Historical Fiction Characteristics, From Where I Sit

My book journals are full of historical fiction books.

Years ago a friend talked with me about a wonderful historical novel she had read. Excited, I asked its name, only to learn it was a Louis L’Amour western.  Well, yes, it was about the past but historical fiction it was not.  And just lately I critiqued a selection supposedly of historical fiction.  Again, it seemed to be a novel simply set in the old west.  The question, then, is what exactly is historical fiction.

I can best answer this with my own preferences.

7 Characteristics of Great Historical Fiction:

  1. The books must exhibit a high level of writing, be literary even.
  2. The setting is a real slice of history.
  3. Fictional characters interact with real characters and events and the historical timeline is absolutely correct.
  4. The plot may be focused on the fictional characters but it is intertwined with real events in an in-depth, complicated, yet seamless way.
  5. The fictional characters are so well drawn and integrated into history that the reader almost believes they are real.
  6. At the end of the novel the reader wants more of the story.
  7. During and after reading the novel, the reader does more research of actual historical events because her curiosity has been piqued and she isn’t ready to let the novel end.

These are factors which make historical fiction popular.  I also believe the genre is just a little bit closer to reality so many of us can relate that much easier.  Studying history in school was not real to me as it entailed memorizing a lot of dates and facts.  The story was missing.  Now I have learned to envision the story behind the facts, and love to read actual history books.  Weaving my own stories around those facts is a delight.

Are you a lover of historical fiction?  What do you like most about it?  Or, heaven forbid, dislike about it? Consider leaving a comment about your own favorite genre.

26 thoughts on “7 Great Historical Fiction Characteristics, From Where I Sit

  1. I, too, am a fan of historical fiction. Each of my novels takes place in a particular time in history and I strive to make it historically correct. I hope my novels contain most of the characteristics you list but some will have to be confirmed by the readers themselves.


  2. Okay, please don’t throw me in the same category as the woman touting L’Armour as historical fiction. I really don’t read much of it.

    On a related note, I thought it was interesting that I read a YA steampunk novel by Scott Westerfield called Leviathan. This story is an alternate history of WWI (steampunk version). The afterward explained what was real history and what was fiction for someone who couldn’t tell the difference. I thought that was pretty interesting. It might pique a young person’s curiosity to read more about the real Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Charles Darwin, and World War I.


  3. Are you saying that in order for a novel to be considered “historical”, fictional characters have to interact with historical characters? What does that make a novel that takes place in a historically accurate setting but involves only fictional characters? Or what if there are historical personnages but only in the background – i.e. not interacting with the fictional characters per se, but carrying out actions that impact the fictional characters down the line? This is the category that my novel falls into. This is also the category I like to read, for if book has a historical personnage as a main character you know your history at all, it tends to take away a bit of the mystery of what’s going to happen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Janna! Not really. I just like there to be something that links some element of the story to actual history. All of your examples are wonderfully valid. Thanks for commenting as your points show your knowledge of the subject.


      • Ah, I see. I thought it was some genre convention I didn’t know about, like how a capital-R Romance always has to have a happy ending. I am still a relative newcomer to this genre, having started out writing in fantasy before it occurred to me that with all the research I was doing to make my fantasy world seem true to history, I might as well just write straightup historical instead.
        BTW, you and I know someone in common. Last year, I met an editor named Irene, who blue-penciled my work. She said she met you at a writers’ conference (I think) and referred me to your blog. I like what you’ve got going on here.


      • Some of the best stories are written in popular non-fiction histories. I use them as inspiration. I think a well-drawn character and plot can pique the curiosity of a history enthusiast even if the story doesn’t have a lot of “real” people in it. The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and Cold Mountain are two of my favorite examples of good literary fiction that also made me think about the history of the times.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve always loved historical fiction which was why I set my first novel in 18th century New France. I wanted to research that time period and learn more about the beginnings of Canada.

    I don’t have any real life historical figures in my book although I referenced a couple. My characters don’t roam in those circles. I would have found it difficult to represent a real-life figure accurately.

    I do use real geographical details like street names and the buildings my characters visit did exist.
    I strove to make the story as historically accurate as possible. The fur traders in my story need a bride to validate their trade contract. This actually happened, in that one governor of New France insisted licenses only be issued to married traders. It didn’t happen in the same year in my story, but I needed to use that ‘war-free’ time period, so I took liberty with the idea.

    It is wonderful to feel like you’ve been transported back in time, and I love to learn when I read historical fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • By interacting with the fictional characters, I am thinking in a very loose way. And you certainly have given the reason why this is preferable. One ms I read recently had the main character going to try to meet with Elizabeth Simcoe, the Governor’s wife. They never did meet as Elizabeth had left the Niagara area, but the mention of her helps to validate the setting of the novel. I hope that clears up my loose words. Thanks for your comments, all.


  5. One of the problems I’ve run across with using actual historical people is actually being accurate. How do we know what Mrs. Astor actually said? I’ve thrown her and Mrs. Fish and the Burdens into my story, as I did the Great Storm of March 1888 and Central Park. I put in the Summer “cottages” in Newport, as well.

    Most of my characters are purely fictitious, but with enough of the “real” historical people in it to bring it to life, I think. I’m not sure if I would call my book purely historical (because I don’t have a literary tone, whatever that means), but it’s a good story with lots of historical accuracy. It took me ages and tons of research (I got copies of newspapers from the time and several books of the time (c. 1797-1902, depending on the book).

    I can’t predict what my readers will do with my book or whether they will want to research the topic. I’m just trying to write a good story.


    • It sounds to me, habisha, as if you’ve done lots of research and know exactly which tenets of historical fiction you have or have not followed. The main thing is, is it a great story? If so, I guarantee you readers will not care just exactly which of my historical fiction rules you’ve followed. You have it right, write a good story!


      • Is it a great story? How do we, as authors, really know? Isn’t it our readers who, in the end, tell us it’s a great story? I have written the best story I can, and I guess I have to leave it up to my readers to decide it’s greatness. Let’s just say I believe in the story, in my characters, and in myself enough to say I’m happy with it.


  6. I really enjoyed this post- I think historical fiction sometimes gets a bad rep as being a fanciful ‘woman’s’ book. But the historical fiction I read eg Alias Grace is the complete opposite. I love reading about different periods & completely agree that it should make you want to read more about that period.
    I’ve read that strictly speaking historical fiction needs to be at least 60 yrs in the past – which covers WWII when my first novel is set. I’d love your opinion then of what my second novel , set in 1969 is? Suggestions of category regarding timeline would be most appreciated. Thanks.


    • Thanks for your comments, A.K. I have read about the 60 year rule as well but don’t know where it comes from. For myself historical fiction at a greater distance away from the present is just more interesting as it’s about a period I may not know much about and which is therefore more interesting in that it illumines that lesser known world. A novel about the sixties, while not that far in the past by my definition, seems to fall into the historical rule. Besides, these rules are flexible and are all subject to the bottom line: readers want to read great books. If your book fits this rule, all is well.


  7. Your 7 characteristics hit the nail on the head! As I see it, you have identified precisely what every writer of historical fiction seeks to achieve and I for one will retain your list as an aide-memoir to be revisited as my novel progresses.


  8. Not sure if it fits the genre, but I have read more Biblical fiction. I consider it historical fiction because it always involves understanding the ancient world and interacting with the real people of the Bible. It is more touchy, too, as reader will have very concrete ideas about Biblical people. I haven’t written in the genre (beyond a few sketches and monologues), but I may one day.

    On another note, I find it very interesting to compare fantasy and historical fiction. The best fantasies are when the authors shapes a whole world (including a history). I always thought that an easier task, but everything has to be invented. Maybe the research to write historical fiction isn’t as difficult as I first thought. Food for thought…


    • Hi Sean,
      I sense you did some cogitating about your own writing while composing this comment and that is just fine with me. Your comment about biblical being historical is interesting and a slant I had never thought about. I love when people give my brain a workout. Thanks! And thanks for visiting with your comments!


  9. Pingback: Only in the Past « The Rules of Engagement

  10. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. Your characteristics list is right on target for me. One of my all time favorites is The Far Pavillions by M.M. Kay. Now out of print, I wish I hadn’t passed that one along. Happy reading and writing! 🙂


    • Oh, goodness, Bette, I loved The Far Pavilions, too! And I thought your site was great. Would you be interested in talking by email? Mine is elainecougler (at) rogers (dot) com. You seem like the perfect person to talk to about historical events in your area around the American Revolution and the War of 1812. I’m the featured author on a Princess cruise in your area in September. Perhaps there is something there for us to work on. Shoot me an email, if you like.


  11. I am writing a historical fiction, attend a writer’s workshop, and coming to the conclusion my subject is very out of sync with other members of the workshop. In a nutshell, the story takes place in the Philippines during wwii. In 1928 there was a huge gold strike in the northern mountains of Luzon, second largest in American history. A rich gold boom town Baguio and recreational retreat was built in the high mountains where the climate was pleasant. The mining expatriate community in Baguio refused to take the Japanese threat seriously and leave their mountain of gold even as the American military was sending family dependents home. consequently most of them were rounded up and put in Japanese internment camps, although a few like the protagonist of my story, a young mining engineer, went on the lam to avoid capture. So naturally some material is very gritty and violent. The response I got to one such passage of my story was that it might work better if it was told after the fact in conversational dialogue between characters. The idea struck me as totally absurd. I think action scenes usually work better if they’re told blow-by-blow in present tense. After all this story isn’t My Dinner with Andre. Most of the group seem to working on stories dealing with coming to terms with life’s changes and relationship angst. Wish it was possible to find a group of historical fiction writers.


    • Chris, your story sounds interesting and I agree those were some unique comments. Finding a critique group is difficult in my experience and finding one for historical fiction is even harder. Different genres require unique touches. I once had a lovely man who wrote crime fiction tell me I should have no long sentences or chapters and I expect that’s true for crime. For HF, though, a bit more of a literary style seems called for especially if you follow Sharon Kay Penman or Colleen McCullough among many other HF writers. I learned to trust my HF friends and my own ear and eye after a lifetime of reading the greats. I still need editors and beta readers but in the end it’s my story. Thanks for your comment here!


  12. Hi Elaine, I’d like to get your opinion on another issue of criticism that has me perplexed. In one scene two Japanese soldiers assume a main character is a black marketeer and debate among themselves whether to arrest this character or simply rob him. They are afraid if they arrest him their officers will take the booty for themselves and decide if they let him go, they may be able to rob him again fortune willing. The controversy was I provided the Japanese conversation in English. I was told that this violates the rules of point of view. However, movies do this all the time and I have seen it in books. I asked one my critiques, “In the Book Thief you have the whole German nation talking English.” This person replied, “So you can understand what they are saying,” which is the exact reason I’m doing it. Is this some esoteric rule. I don’t get why using English for the Japanese violates the point of view rule?


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