Three Types of Historical Fiction: Accurate, Inaccurate, and in the Middle

THREE TYPES OF HISTORICAL FICTION: ACCURATE, INACCURATE, AND IN THE MIDDLE

By Emily Kopf

Word count: 1263

Rating: G

Summary: An analysis of the three main categories of historical fiction

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Image credit: wallpaperswide.us

Historical fiction is a well-loved genre, but it comes with varying degrees of accuracy. Historical novels can never be one hundred percent accurate. The existence of major events and their key players are usually well-documented and are therefore considered to be true, but other details are overlooked. The random servant who walked into the room, the color and design of someone’s clothing, and the individual’s thoughts and true motivations—these are rarely known in full.

It is this inability to be entirely accurate that allows writers to create historical fiction. There are history books that have all the known facts with references to the smaller details that have controversies surrounding them. And then there are historical fiction novels that take certain dates, locations, people, and events and retell them. The author takes what they know of certain individuals from historical documents and adds personalities, thoughts, intentions, and minor details.

Still, with all the freedom they have to fill in the blanks left by history, authors of historical fiction choose how accurate they wish to be.

Thus, I would divide historical fiction into three categories: books that are as true to history as possible, usually about people and events that actually existed; books about fictitious characters living in historical settings and cultures; and books that are based on history but stray far from it for the sake of the author’s story.

Books in the first category are as accurate as possible. Authors spend time researching the culture of the time period, the individuals the novel focuses on, and the events taking place within the novel. Then they dramatize the history in novel form. Some things will have to be invented, because as detailed as some historical events are, it is impossible to fully capture each individuals’ thoughts, feelings, and motivations. Also it is likely that there are individuals present at the historical event that were not recorded. For instance, a servant who was there but that no one recalls being there or, if they do, never recorded their name. Even the really accurate historical novels have some fictitious aspects.

One example of this is the Biblical fiction Dahveed: Yahweh’s Chosen, by Terri L. Fivash. It is a historical fiction about David from the Bible, starting from when he was a boy to immediately after he killed Goliath. The author dove deeply into the culture of the time period. Several pages are occupied with a roster of names and relationships (most of which were taken directly from Biblical chronologies), definitions and pronunciations of Hebrew words used in the novel, maps of cities and homes, and detailed explanations of unique cultural practices. The author follows the Biblical story as exactly as possible, but she adds characters and situations that fill in the blanks of history. It answers questions such as: How and why did David learn to use a sling? What happened when David fought the lion and bear off with his own hands? And how did David and Jonathan become friends? The blanks in history have to be filled in order to have a complete novel, but the author still kept as close to history as possible.

The second category of historical fiction is books that are neither extremely accurate nor extremely inaccurate. Most often this is done through stories that utilize the culture of the chosen time periods with invented characters and events. Sometimes there will be a famous person, place, or event, but the majority of the novel will be the invention of the author. And the culture itself has varying levels of accuracy.

For example, Jane Austen’s novels are very accurate to the culture because Austen lived within the time period and social setting in which the books were set. The characters were her invention. Perhaps they were inspired by character traits held by people she knew, but the characters are fictional. Some of the settings, such as Bath, as well as the social subculture were written from Austen’s own experience and so were historically accurate. Yet the overall plot was the product of her imagination.

Modern writers of historical settings do not have Austen’s advantage of living within the historical setting they are writing about. Writers have to research the culture, settings, and history based on historical writings and buildings still in existence. Also, they have to write for modern people with different expectations and shorter attention spans than Austen’s readers. Sometimes these authors create characters that fit with the ideas, morals, and sensibilities of the modern time. When authors are more focused on pleasing the readers in this way, they let go of some of the historical accuracy. In the case of the recently published novel by Sarah E. Ladd, A Stranger at Fellsworth, the historical settings and culture were fairly accurate, but the characters themselves broke with the norm of the times through their modern beliefs and some of their actions. It is an entertaining tale and still belongs in the middle of the accuracy spectrum, despite the fictionalization and modernization of different parts of the story.

Thirdly are the novels in which plots and characters are loosely based on history, but divert from accuracy if the author sees fit. In these novels, the writers are often inspired by a historical event and so desire to retell it. They create characters they love, but whose personalities forbid them from carrying out a historical action. Another Biblical fiction about Queen Esther, called The Reluctant Queen, did so. The author admits that the characters were formed in such a way that they did not follow the pre-formulated, historically accurate plot.  

In other cases in this third category, the authors merely choose not to follow the historical plot. A recent young adult historical fiction was like that. Written by three authors, My Lady Jane contains an apology to England in the dedication for “what we are about to do to your history.” It is about Lady Jane Grey, a woman who inherited the throne of England from her cousin Edward and ruled for nine days before being executed by Bloody Mary. My Lady Jane was written with humor and a happy ending in mind, and so was intentionally inaccurate. The characters had personalities and beliefs mostly inaccurate to what is known of history. The authors added shapeshifting magic to replace the bloody controversies between the Catholics and the Protestants. And finally, they allowed the main characters to live much longer than they did in history. The succession of ruling monarchs was historical, but the events between and leading up to them were almost entirely different. My Lady Jane was well-written and humorous, but a dreadfully inaccurate retelling of history.

And so there are three categories of historical fiction: accurate, inaccurate, and in the middle. These three categories of accuracy can likely be divided into subcategories and mixed together. In each of them are good stories with well-developed characters and great writing. However, there is something to be said of an author who researches well and thoroughly and writes a novel as accurate to history as is possible. Someone who does not cave to the whims of the readers, but writes a great novel within the constraints of the chosen time period. However, it is still up to the individual reader to choose what type of novels suit them best. There are great historical novels whose inaccuracies make historians cringe. The opposite is true also.

What do you think, readers? Is it true that there is no “correct” category? Or is there one? What is your favorite type of historical fiction to read, and why?

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2 thoughts on “Three Types of Historical Fiction: Accurate, Inaccurate, and in the Middle

Add yours

  1. I don’t mind “inaccurate” in the sense that characters might hold ideas or beliefs that are not typical of their time – so even if they are doing things that “most people” in their time and situation wouldn’t be doing, or would be frowned upon, that’s OK with me as long as it’s consistent with their character that’s been established. So for me character consistency is more important than historical consistency. (Plus I’m a fan of alternative history type novels ;))

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