Historical Fiction- Known or Unknown Main Characters

Monday Features


Historical fiction as a genre tells the story of characters in the past with some level of genuine experience. That is, there is supposed to be a level of believability and realism. This definition is rather broad, though, and often encompasses other stylistic literary devices such as mystery, suspense,  or adventure as well.

The characters in historical fiction need only be contemporaries of the time period in which their setting is. That is, a book about the Renaissance must feature Renaissance characters. A book set in Victorian London must feature characters from Victorian London. This seems straightforward enough.

What I would like to discuss today is the appearance of real life characters versus completely literary characters in historical fiction. Events, settings, and time periods are all drawn from history in order to create a work of historical fiction. Real elements are combined with fiction to create a novel, rather than a book of history or a biography. Characters are also an element that can be fictional or not. For example, a novel might be written about George Washington, even though George Washington was a real, authentic, historical person. The story is historical fiction, though, if events that are not known or conversations that are not recorded are present and worked into a story.

Many books, particularly recently published works of historical fiction, fictionalize a real historical character. There is a built-in interest for these books, if the historical figure is well-known or popular. Recently many books have featured the lesser-known wives of historical figures. These lesser-known and less-often written about women lend themselves to fiction when fewer facts of their actual lives are known. Part of the appeal of these books is for the backstage feeling of seeing the historical actor from a different view. What was it really like on a personal level to know George Washington, for instance?

Certainly, these books have a market, can be entertaining and have an appeal. For my own writing, though, I tend to write about characters that are not known. That is, they exist in my writing, not as prior actual figures of history. Part of this is because a historical figure has not yet lent itself to an idea of mine. Part of this, though, is that I like (an an author and a reader) that characters of pure literary existence have stories that aren’t known. What do I mean? Anyone call look up a biography of a historical figure(even easier now with the internet) and known the outcome of a battle, if the person survives a sickness, the identity of the figure’s future spouse.

With characters that exist only in fiction, their history belongs to reality but their own personal stories do not and so there is more freedom, more movement and more mystery. An example here is Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire. Part of the reason their stories are so gripping is because we know that real people experienced things like them, but they are fictional characters and so what happens to them is mysterious. In a book with fictional characters anything can happen. Books that portray real historical figures, such as the books about Zelda Fitzgerald gain a large audience because they are like behind the scenes access to celebrities of another era. They are enjoyed by many and are just as much historical fiction, but they must live by the rules of the figure’s real life. In some ways, this must be more challenging to write. The author is not left to his or her own discretion. They must follow what has happened in history. On the other hand, there is no need to worry if what happens is plausible or creditable, when the historical record is followed.

Both types of historical fiction are popular, entertaining and interesting. Do you have a favorite- created or real-life characters? If so, why is this your preference?

My best to you all,

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