What makes historical fiction so popular?

Writers such as Philippa Gregory, Bernard Cornwell, C J Sansom and Hilary Mantel are responsible for writing some of the UK’s best historical fiction, a genre which in recent years has grown in popularity. Their books take historical characters, events and places but use fictionalised central characters to help flesh out the storyline. The use of fictionalised characters allows the author to create dialogue and scenes which may not have been recorded in history.

But what is it about re-reading history in a fictional narrative that is so appealing to readers?  

Philippa Gregory’s books about life within the Tudor and Elizabethan court may be so popular because her fictionalised characters take the reader into the heart of the action. Often the central character is a beloved servant or a historical character whose ‘story’ hasn’t been recorded or remembered. Gregory takes her characters and rather than discussing them with the objective eye of a non-fiction historian, she gives them emotions, personality and a voice and places them right at the heart of the court – in the Princess Elizabeth’s cell at the Tower or in the birthing room with Anne Boleyn for example.

When asked about writing historical fiction Philippa Gregory said:

For me, it’s actually one of the most interesting ways to work as a novelist and, incidentally, the most lively way to work as an historian. I really love the task of enlivening the research. I know I’m writing fiction, but it feels like doing a reconstruction, as if you were the police doing a crime scene. We know that person was here, we know they end up over there. Why would they do that? Who would have been with them? What were they feeling?

(Interview from The Globe and Mail Canadian paper, 12 November 2011)

Authors such as CJ Sansom and Bernard Conwell write in a slightly different style. Whilst the setting and larger events of their books will be historically factual (a battle or invasion for example) their central characters are entirely fictional and so they can control the narrative more. In C J Sansom’s Shardlake books, the central character Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer meets big historical characters such as Catherine Parr, Thomas Cromwell and Archbishop Cranmer but his individual storyline is fictional. This allows Sansom to present a full character without having to be careful what he says about him – Sansom can create flaws and can make him act in whatever way he wants within the storyline.

It is this combination of wild historical story with an approachable and realistic character which makes this genre so appealing to readers. It allows them to learn more about a historical period or person in an enjoyable and accessible way.

At Settle Stories we are holding a workshop 'What's a Story' as part of our Storyteller's Art course, on Sat 4th Feb which examines classic narrative and will discuss and understand why some stories are so successful. If this piece about historical fiction has tweaked your interest why not come along to the workshop and explore the question together.

Full info & tickets, click here

Blog by Charlotte Furness