Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Fine Line Between History and Fantasy

One of the questions I faced when writing my first novel was whether to pitch it as historical fiction or historical fantasy.  The novel is set in Medieval Europe, involves a number of historical figures, and concerns several historic events.  That said, I concluded it could only be pitched as historical fantasy because of supernatural elements in the story, including a book of magic (which legend attributes to one of Charlemagne’s paladins), the appearance of a demon or two, and a biblical artifact with supposedly mystical powers.  But sometimes the line between historical fiction and historical fantasy is more blurred.

For example, Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell, about the famous battle between the English and the French, is almost universally considered historical fiction even though the main character at times has conversations with two long-dead saints.  The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay reads like historical fiction and contains barely a hint of the supernatural, except the story takes place in an entirely fictional land, albeit one based closely on Moorish Spain.  And Frances Sherwood’s The Book of Splendor is an excellent work of historical fiction set in Prague during the reign of Emperor Rudolph II; however the book is about a golem, which almost certainly pushes it into the realm of historical fantasy.

Many readers disagree on where the line should be drawn between these two genres, but assuming the book takes place in a historical setting, here are five things I consider in determining whether the line’s been crossed from historical fiction into historical fantasy:
  1. If the main character talks to the gods it may be historical fiction; but if the gods talk back it’s probably historical fantasy;

  2. If the book takes place in a setting that looks just like the Middle Ages or some other historical period, but that place never existed on earth, it’s historical fantasy;

  3. If anyone in the book can use magic (and I’m not talking Houdini or David Copperfield type magic), welcome to historical fantasy;

  4. If there are any supernatural beings or mythical creatures who appear in the story and do almost anything, ditto on historical fantasy; and

  5. If the characters talk about places like the Otherworld, Alfheim, or Hades it may be historical fiction; but if they actually find a way to get there, they’ve entered the realm of historical fantasy.
This list is far from comprehensive and doesn’t even touch sub-genres like Alternate History or Steampunk.  But I’m curious as to your views.  When does historical fiction cross the line into historical fantasy?


Richard Campbell said...

(this comment was probably better served on this post)

When you give AK-47s to the Confederates, you're writing fantasy:

More seriously, in Stephen Rivele's "A Booke of Days," the main character who embarks on a crusade has incredibly anachronistic views towards religious freedom and the inhabitants of the Holy Land, which continually broke my suspension of disbelief. Also writing fantasy there.

On the other hand, geography that is not quite correct, or new characters who don't have a historical base (or a 100% accurate historical base, ala your Bishop of Blois), don't bother me at all. Fiction, not fantasy.

Guy Gavriel Kay is a special case; as far as I can tell, the only reason his novels aren't labeled as historical fiction is that he doesn't want to be criticized for any particular inaccuracy (minor use of magic Sailing to Sarantium notwithstanding).

Amanda said...

Lian Hearn is another author whose books are essentially historical fiction. Her Otori series pretty much recreates feudal Japan with some fictional place-names.

Currently I'm trying to query a book that falls under your category #2. It has no magic, but it is an imaginary setting with its own constructed language. It reassures me to know that Kay and Hearn get away with this, so there has to be some kind of audience for it, but querying has still been a frustrating process. Agents and publishers who accept fantasy submissions typically want to see, well, some kind of magic.

Joseph Finley said...

Amanda, thanks for commenting -- and thank you for mentioning my post on your own blog! I've always thought that if George R.R. Martin cut out the white walkers and the dragons, he'd be squarely in the realm of #2 as well. I think this is a very legitimate form of historical fantasy. I wish you all the best on your queries. The query process gives me fits!

Joseph Finley said...

Richard, thanks for your comment! And I agree, if the Confederates have AK-47s you are definitely in the realm of fantasy -- unless they brought them back via time machine, in which case I might say science fiction.

10,000 Days said...

Greetings from Kiev! Hmm, when is it historical fiction or fantasy, you ask? Well, the drunken kozak believes that it becomes fantasy the moment any supernatural, mythical or otherworldly being appears in the story as a character, in some tangible form. If, however, one of these beings is simply something that is perceived by a character -- or is something the character believes he is seeing, hearing, or talking to -- then the line is not crossed and the story remains one of fiction.

EKSmith said...

The answer lies with whether the history as represented in the story bears any relation to actual history. For example, in Ken Follett's recent novel about World War I, he invents many characters, has them dialog and interact with historical figures, but generally portrays the War as it really happened. That is historical fiction.

But in the movie "Inglourious Basterds!", we have Hilter burning to death in a movie theater long before the end of the War. That is historical fantasy.

Joseph Finley said...

I haven't seen Inglorious Basterds, I'm ashamed to admit. But if Hitler dies in a theater fire, instead of in a bunker by his own hand -- yes, it's historical fantasy (probably "Alternative History" to peg the appropriate subgenre). Thanks EKSmith for the great comment!