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Saricks’ appeal framework of historical fiction only goes so far. Also, it does a disservice to some of what appeals the most to teen and young adult readers about historical fiction.
Writing about historical fiction as a genre that can appeal to teens, librarians and authors often comment on the bad reputation historical fiction can get among teens. Because titles show up on school reading lists, or covering historical events that might also be covered in their dry and tedious history textbooks, teens can often assume that historical fiction will be a chore to read. Saricks’ description of the genre’s appeal doesn’t sound terribly appealing.
Reading some of what librarians and historical fiction authors have written about the genre points to some much more promising explanations of why historical fiction appeals to teen readers.
After paraphrasing Saricks, Melissa Rabey adds that historical fiction appeals to teens because it focuses on some central conflict, or an authority struggle.
In The Distant Mirror: Reflections on Young Adult Historical Fiction, Brown and St. Clair sum up the emotional appeal of historical fiction beautifully:
“the past has an innate psychological appeal… the known past provides a comfort not available from the unknown future… to immerse oneself, however briefly, in a past world where conflict and strife occur and are resolved may provide comfort in an increasingly chaotic world.”
Also, they draw an important connection between historical fiction and another genre driven by world-building and detailed setting, fantasy:
“Just as high fantasy involves a struggle between the forces of good and evil, historical fiction is marked by a clash between opposing socio-political power,” pitting forces of reaction against forces of progress, and highlighting the tension between them.”
In the best historical fiction, characters, whether famous names or ordinary, everyday people who could have lived during that time, are fleshed out and emotionally real. Some stories show them dealing with ordinary and commonplace lives, where sweeping historical events have varying degrees of impact. But most of all, they’re teens and kids and young adults, thinking and feeling and hoping and dreaming in some universal way, playing a part in an engrossing story.
And that is the most important appeal of historical fiction, by any author, or set in any time period.
References and Resources
Add in Katherine Paterson’s description of historical fiction characters as those who kick at the walls of their societies, and historical fiction starts to sound more… appealing!
Frame/Setting: The setting can be the most important and unique aspect of historical fiction, rich in details to anchor it in time and place. Descriptions of physical setting and geography, historic events, and social culture and customs can be part of the appeal, along with well-researched facts about historical events. Ideally, in the best historical fiction, facts blend seamlessly into the story. Saricks emphasizes accuracy of historical detail as part of the appeal, but questions of authenticity and accuracy get slippery in historical fiction.
Tone and Mood: Tone and mood can vary immensely across the wide scope of historical fiction time periods and stories, even incorporating appeal elements from other genres. The mood the reader happens to be in is also part of the picture. What this appeal factor doesn’t necessarily map out is more about the emotional affect of reading historical fiction, of connecting to the past through narrative. But more on that later.
Story Line: Generally, will either hinge on a specific historical event or time, and its effect on characters (emphasizing the details of the historical event, rather than its impact on characters’ lives), or might follow characters through a period of time (emphasizing character, through their actions and relationships, with the historical frame as a backdrop).
Characterization: According to Saricks, the ideal historical fiction character “must fit within the times. Glaring inaccuracies of language, behavior or straight-forward fact distract, and sometimes cause the reader to distrust the author’s research.” (Saricks, page 96) There is room for debate about this statement, with regard to both adult and YA historical fiction and its appeal. Especially regarding female characters.
Katherine Paterson famously said “The characters in history we remember are those who kicked against the walls of their societies.” For engaging, interesting characters, readers are willing to excuse a certain amount of anachronism. Outspoken, defiant characters who rebel against the social order, even characters learning to read, would be aberrations, not encouraged or accepted. And yet, for characters to grow and change, or be brave enough to have adventures, there’s a certain amount of letting historical accuracy relax a little, in the service of a good story that will engage the reader.
Pacing: According to Saricks, “historical novels are usually longer books, (almost always more than three hundred pages), and they are not generally referred to as fast-paced, even if they include Adventure elements…. creating the detailed background often makes the books slow starting.” (Saricks, p 297.) That makes historical fiction sound plodding and not like a fun and engrossing popular read. But it gets better… as the characters and their world get more familiar, the action picks up, getting the reader immersed and enthralled by strong characters, and the chance to get close to history.
Style and Language: Each author, and each time period, is probably going to navigate the balance of language and style differently. Some authors construct language closer to what could have come from the past, sometimes even including a glossary of terms to help the reader visualize the details of a past that might seem alien and remote. Some authors choose more contemporary language, relying on description and a few subtle touches to set the time period apart.