Historical fiction with or without the famous?

Do you like your historical fiction centred on famous figures or fictional characters?

I asked this question in different ways on the 2015 reader survey – to authors, to readers and to publishing industry professionals. While I have only heard from 24 folks in the publishing industry – yes, I know this is a measly number and you might think they would be more interested in a reader survey (sorry for the rant) – I wanted to share a few comments from this group with you.

I don’t care whether a person existed or not, as long as the story is well told.


Everything is marketable if the story is strong. It is sometimes easier to attract a reader’s attention if there is a famous historical character involved, but that also can tie an author’s hands in terms of plotting and character development. Both options have their pros and cons, then.


In the youth market, I suspect that a real person as the protagonist allows the book to be read as a pseudo-biography, thus improving sales and making the marketing easier. Second best is a clear period/event that serves as the backdrop.


Hm. We’re talking about different audiences. Biographical HF vs I don’t know what we would call the other. To be honest, reading about the same historical figures gets old- and there are only so many of them. Fiction based on fictional characters within a historical setting may have more appeal.


Interestingly, survey responses to date suggest that over 60% of authors prefer to WRITE about fictional characters within a backdrop of great historical events, while 85% of readers prefer to READ about fictional characters within a backdrop of great historical events.

The survey runs until May 14 and can be found at https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/GXRD9B7 .

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11 Responses

  1. Some interesting information here. I like to both read history and historical fiction and I go out of my way to avoid famous characters that have been published so many times it feels as if there is nothing new to say about them.

    New takes on the famous are difficult to achieve but the further back in time you go the harder it is to get to grips with the life of the so called ‘ordinary’ characters.

    It will be fascinating to see how the current survey unfolds.

    1. Many thanks for your comment, Tollykit (interesting name – you will have to tell me the significance!). Stand by for the results – it takes me a week or so to assemble the summary report after the survey closes. Then I dig a little deeper and create additional posts on specific topics. Compiling favourite authors and in this case favourite novels takes even more time 🙂

    1. What an interesting point to make, Linda. None of my novels focus on famous people and I agree with your notion of ‘freedom of expression’ but hadn’t thought of it that way. I’m considering my next topic and I have thought of finding someone ‘famous’ although perhaps a bit more obscure! We shall see.

  2. I don’t like to write famous historical characters and even as a read, I prefer to read about ‘normal’ people.
    It’s surely just me, but I always have the feeling that, if I want to know abotu an historical character, the best thing I can do is reading a biography. Even when I need to include an historical character in my stories, I’m always unconfortable.

    But as I said, it’s probably just me 🙂

  3. I am undecided after recent reading. After reading Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy where she based the book structures around the real person of W H R Rivers, the well regarded army psychologist, I thought this resulted in semi fiction. My only disappointments being my inability to match the quality of writing and unwillingness to do a similar level of necessary research.

    Then I read a biography of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Head of the German Secret Service in WW2, as non fiction. Afterwards I then wondered given the degree of treachery and double dealing (especially by Kim Philby perhaps reflecting his father’s genes) whether that too might be semi fiction as well!

    On balance my long term view is true stories are often stranger than fiction.

    1. You are so right about this, Alexander. The best stories are based on truth – no doubt many of our own families contain stories that are hard to believe. (I can certainly think of a few.) I often collect obituaries with very interesting stories to prime the pump of imagination. Thanks for your comment.

  4. I’ve found that I prefer fictional characters in the historical novels I read. However, I will also pick up historical fiction centered on real persons about whom little is known, and both of those preferences are based on two things (for me, at least): if they weren’t famous/never existed, then I can still be surprised by any plot twists the author comes up with (i.e., I wouldn’t have have the main events of their lives at the back of my mind as I’m reading). Also, if I am already familiar with a famous historical person, while reading a novel about them I will often find myself wondering, “Well, given what is known about this person, does that really sound like something they would do/say?”, and it’ll distract me from the story.

    I do have quite a few historical novels centered on famous people on my bookshelves, and I *would* like to read them at some point; but because I read historical non-fiction as well, I (belatedly) realized that I need to postpone reading or watching any biographies about those famous personages until *after* I’ve read the historical fiction based on their lives (for example, I read Antonia Fraser’s biography of Mary, Queen of Scots last year, and, as a result, I don’t think I’ll be tempted to read any historical fiction about her for a while).

    I imagine, too, that when a particular trend takes off (such as Tudors), it might be a little disappointing for readers if it seems that a lot of HF being published taps into that trend, and they might consequently avoid it (I don’t know this for a fact, they’re just observations I’ve made while browsing book reviews and discussions). If that does happen, I wonder at what point the publishing of HF based on “trendy” historical personages starts to lose its profitability, and how much this impacts HF publishing in general, if at all…

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