Historical Fiction vs. Historical Fantasy

This is a question I have been throwing around for a long time: what is the difference between historical fiction and historical fantasy? Historical non-fiction is easy to define:  a story based on real facts and information, often told by narrative, account, or other communicative work whose assertions and descriptions are believed by the author to be factual.

Castle Dracula (Vlad the Impaler)

Castle Dracula (Vlad the Impaler)

Historical fiction: a story told in a historical setting. The author owes his readers an authentic representation of the time period, therefore historical fiction requires thorough, detailed research in order to attain authenticity. Accuracy, even in the mundane, is key.

Constantine's Vision,  Battle of the Milvian Bridge

Constantine’s Vision, Battle of the Milvian Bridge

Historical fantasy: a sub-genre of historical fiction that incorporates fantastic elements into the narrative. The question becomes, at what point does historical fiction become historical fantasy? In my study of history, it has grown increasingly apparent to me that only some history was recorded as fact. Other history was passed down as myth, or forgotten altogether.  Even then, some facts we learn to be false, some myths learned to be true, and some forgotten tales pulled from obscurity. Semantics are boring, I know. But the question intrigues me, especially when one considers the possibility of publication and classification. If an author writes a book set in the medieval era, and incorporates elements of the supernatural, at what point does the story shift from historical fiction to historical fantasy? If the author writes about King Arthur, and includes the myth of magic, is the book historical fiction or historical fantasy? As an example, I believe Bernard Cornwall’s Arthurian book is considered  historical fiction.

"Holy Fire" or "Greek Fire" -  At the time, widely perceived as magic , and somewhat regarded as myth , the secret history of this Byzantine terror weapon is an example of myth-turned-fact due to historical record. But what of other myths?

“Holy Fire” or “Greek Fire” – At the time, widely perceived as magic , and for a while afterward,  regarded as myth.  This Byzantine terror weapon is an example of myth-turned-fact due to historical findings. But what of other myths that bear no similar records?

What are your thoughts? If a book takes place in a historical setting, and the majority of it appears to be authentic, could you forgive passing insertions of the supernatural/fantastical as a part of the story? Or does that damage authenticity to the point that the story no longer belongs in the realm of plausible history?


About justinyodonnell

Justin O'Donnell is a marketing professional and fiction writer who holds bachelors' degrees in English and history. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Professional and Creative Writing from Western Connecticut State University. When Justin isn't working on his novel, he enjoys writing on a wide variety of topics, including religion, fitness, and politics.
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5 Responses to Historical Fiction vs. Historical Fantasy

  1. brclements says:

    Interesting question, Justin. The same question applies, of course, in general fiction vs. nonfiction, most famously in the James Frey case. How much fudging is allowable in memoir? Is it dependent upon the author and the context of the book? That is, is Joan Rivers allowed to fudge (fabricate) more in her memoir than Bill Clinton is allowed? King Arthur, of course, was probably an actual early Briton king; but there is probably not enough factual information to write a nonfiction book about him. But historically-base fiction, of course. Where on the spectrum does fiction which engages history differentiate from fiction that is merely based on a historical figure? Hope others will weigh in here!

  2. nickmamatas says:

    It depends who your agent is!

    The sad ol’ story is that there’s nothing prescriptive in genre taxonomies. It’s historical fantasy if it is published as one, historical fiction if it is published in the “mainstream.” Obviously, if elves show up to help Abraham Lincoln win the Civil War, it is obviously fantastical, and if it is just a recitation of Napoleon’s life it is obviously historical fiction, but the line between the two is wide, blurry, inconsistent, and overdetermined by the economics of the publishing industry.

  3. janecleland says:

    I’ll reply first from a business perspective, then from an author’s perspective:

    – Business: What I hear from agents and editors is that traditional publishers want “fresh, but familiar” work. If it isn’t fresh, who cares? If it isn’t familiar, the publisher won’t think it knows how to market it. “Fresh, but familiar,” is, of course, one of “those” phrases. (i.e., One man’s “fresh” is another man’s “old news.” Which is to say, much in publishing is subjective.)

    – Author: I write fiction based on fact. Everyone knows I write fiction, but much of the history is real, or as real as I (a pretty good researcher) can discover. There’s no fantasy — but I make a boatload of stuff up.

    Also, I think we should differentiate between “fiction” and “fantasy.” Fantasy might well have no relation to fact. For example, Dell publishes two sci fi/spec magazines, one devoted to “science fiction,” the other to “science-based fiction.” They attract different readers and are held to different editorial standards.

    Last thought: In a memoir, one is obliged to tell “emotional truth.” You can’t fudge facts.

  4. timweed says:

    Interesting discussion. Thanks for posting it, Justin. I think the key phrase here may be one you mention at the very beginning: “fantastic elements.” What are fantastic elements? Magic, wizardry, the supernatural, right? In my view, those elements are contained within the genre of historical fiction if they are intrinsic to the world-view of the main characters. For example, my novel Will Poole’s Island is set in 17th century America, where you had two cultures whose world views took magic and the supernatural very much for granted. This aspect of my characters’ world view was great for the story and fun to play around with – but also, to leave those elements out would have been to paint a less truthful picture of the world I was attempting to create. On the other hand if I had added in elements that were clearly extraneous to that world, such as vampires or zombies or hobbits, I would have been venturing into the realm of historical fantasy.

    On the topic of historical fiction, there’s an article you might interesting (see link below). It’s based on a workshop I gave at WCSU and takes as its operating assumption the reality that writers of historical fiction are not re-creating history, but building entirely new worlds. So if you you look at it that way, it seems to me that there’s plenty of room for creativity and experimentation with “fantastic elements” no matter how the work eventually gets categorized in terms of genre. Happy writing!


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