Historical fiction is one of the most powerful genres in writing. Not because it is in some way better than other forms writing, but because of its unique ability to manipulate peoples’ perception of what actually happened throughout the past. An author of notoriety can easily create new and fictitious “facts” in the minds of their audience that never actually occurred in history. If a charismatic fictional writer can influence and entirely change a readers’ opinion of what has actually taken place in historical events, or who historical figures actually were, than that is power.
Although not historical fiction, an excellent example of a story that has misled its audience is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This is an extreme example of how craftily created stories can create the perception that an event was real, when in fact it never actually took place. The only difference between my point and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was that this film was a clever marketing ploy to draw in an audience, rather than a book that was not intended to create a sense of the past, but actually did. Many famous characters have been drastically misrepresented in who they actually were using historical fiction. For instance, as youth the historical nature many of us were led to believe about Johnny ‘Appleseed’, whose real name was Johnny Chapman, was that he was a simpleton who went around randomly planting apple seeds throughout the USA. In fact, not only was the presentation of his character through historical fiction deceiving, but he was actually written with traits that led many people today to question whether or not Johnny ‘Appleseed’ was a real person. The truth is that Johnny ‘Appleseed’ was not only a very real person, but he was legend throughout many areas of the United States. His was a kind Christian missionary and a good hearted businessman who planted nursery farms of Apples throughout various cities in Ohio and Pennsylvania. If you have ever questioned the authenticity of Johnny ‘Appleseed’ than historical fiction has been your guide.
So what exactly is historical fiction? I have covered the power of this form of writing but I have yet to state its facets. Historical fiction is often simply defined as a story that is set in the past. The problem with this idea is that there are so many different angles to historical fiction that it can actually become difficult to tell whether or not a story is actually historical fiction, or simply a story based in the past that is in fact a novel of fantasy, horror or one of the many other genres of fictional writing. After stating this I am sure it has become much clearer to you how ill-defined the genre of historical fiction actually is. For instance, one would not assume that because J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings trilogy is set in the past that it is historical fiction. As another example, most hopefully do not believe that the recently released movie Abe Lincoln vs. Zombies is historical fiction simply because the setting is in the past, and Abraham Lincoln is a prominent historical figure. So if a story being set in the past, or a story with historical characters alone, does not define historical fiction, than what does?
Determining the Genre
As I have described in my other articles, there are six major parts to a story; the plot, setting, characters, theme, problem, and solution. In a historical fiction novel or story, these six different aspects must overwhelming draw from real historical events, characters, or periods of times, but still have at least one element of fiction to qualify as historical fiction. If all six facets are based on historical fact than the story is obviously no longer fiction. I will try to explain this using a chart and a hypothetical tale.
The 18th Century War (Hypothetical Story)
- Plot (Draws from real history = 1 point for history)
- Setting (Draws from romance = 1 point for romance)
- Characters (Draw from real history = 1 point for history)
- Theme (Draws from real history = 1 point for history)
- Problem (Draws from horror = 1 point for horror)
- Solution (Draws from horror = 1 point for horror)
(Romance: 1 Point) (Horror: 2 Points) (Real History: 3 Points) = The 18th Century War is Historical Fiction.
As you can see from this chart there were elements of horror, romance, and real history in the 18th Century War. Although, because there were more elements of real history in the hypothetical story when compared to the other genres, this story will be considered historical fiction. You must use your common sense and intuition when determining the genre that the plot, setting, characters, theme, problem, and solution draws from.
As I said in the previous paragraph, a historical fiction story must draw from at least one other genre in order to be considered historical fiction. If each of these six major parts of a story drew from real history than it would be a text book or document, not a work of fiction. The way this chart works is as simple as it looks. Simply assign the 6 different parts of a story with a point value, and whichever genre has the highest number of points is the genre in which an author should categorize their story. If one genre comes up even with another, let’s say horror had 3 points and real history had 3 points, than you must use critical thinking to tip the scale towards the correct genre. It is important that one is unbiased and does not reference their aspirations for a story when making a conclusion. Regardless of whether or not the ultimate goal of an author was to create a work of historical fiction, if a story has more elements of romance, horror, or any other of the various genres, than the correct genre must be selected.
In sum, the definition of historical fiction by our website is a novel or story that overwhelming draws from real history, but still has at least one element of fiction in any of the following six building blocks of a story; the plot, setting, characters, theme, problem, or solution. When submitting a story to our website please use this article as a reference to determine whether or not your story is historical fiction.
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