Historical fiction novels blend fictional characters and stories with historical settings and facts. In historical fiction novels, you may follow a family of peasants in Medieval France or a group of aristocrats during the Revolutionary War. Regardless of the narrative focus, though, all historical fiction novels share common characteristics that serve to distinguish the overall genre. Though usually densely written, rich with historical details and facts, historical fiction novels often bring a historic period to life in engaging and memorable ways.
The primary characteristic of historical fiction novels is a realistic historical setting. Like other fictional genres, historical fiction relies on an authentic sense of place. Historical novels are set in a time period usually 20 years or more in the past, one in which the author has not lived. The setting of a historical novel is brought to life by detailed, factual portrayals of the setting's geography, culture, society and customs. Sarah Stone and Ron Nyren, in "Deepening Fiction," write that "descriptions of details [are] a big part of what makes the [setting] of the story come alive.
One or more of these elements may play a central role in the novel's narrative, as does the geography of the Maryland shore in James A. Michener's "Chesapeake." A historical novel may or may not reference actual persons and events from the time period and sometimes may also incorporate elements of fantasy into the setting and the narrative.
Another characteristic of historical fiction novels is that of authentic characters. The primary characters in historical novels are usually imaginary, but supporting characters may be actual historic personages. While the primary characters may not play a central role in the narrative of the novel, they are usually more important than the surrounding settings and events. In fact, many historical fiction novels are character-based and driven, sometimes following fictional families over several generations, as in John Jakes' "Kent Family Chronicles."
Joyce G. Saricks, in "The Readers' Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction," explains that character-oriented historical fiction "often provide[s] a very intimate portrayal of the protagonist." Authentic characters, however, takes some deliberate care on the part of the writer. The character must accurately portray the ideas, opinions, behaviors, values and habits of the novel's chosen time period.
Historical fiction novels, when effectively developed, are also characterized by cultural understanding. In developing a historical fiction novel, a writer has to imaginatively experience life from the perspective of a character within the novel's setting. A writer also needs to accurately use factual information, so as to not misrepresent the historical period. Stone and Nyren explain that "outsiders to a culture often inadvertently create characters whose basic values and ideas reflect those of their own culture rather than the one at hand, thereby making the work unrealistic."
Cultural understanding also encompasses an awareness of and sensitivity to the worldviews of the period, as well as a fair portrayal of divergent viewpoints. The plot of a historical fiction novel may not only reflect the issues and concerns of the time period, but also may explore specific issues in depth.