One of the first books about writing historical fiction that I ever read described setting as “another character in a historical fiction novel.” I can’t completely agree with this analogy—in my opinion, “character” should really refer to a person—but it made me think about the huge role that setting plays in historical fiction.
As I’ve discussed several times before, historical fiction should, above all else, tell a compelling story. But the point of historical fiction is that the story grows out of the time and place. You may choose to use specific historical events as the basis for your plots and characters, or you may simply write a book that’s set in a given point in history, but either way, there should be a clear reason for the book to be set when and where it is. Otherwise, I would argue that you aren’t really writing historical fiction—you’re writing a middle grade or young adult novel that just so happens to be set in the past. (And honestly, if a historical setting isn’t a vital part of your story, is there any reason not to set it in the modern day?)
In most cases, a setting doesn’t drive your plot in quite the same way that your characters do. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t every bit as vital as strong characters. A strong setting gives historical fiction a strong base—a base that distinguishes it from other kinds of books.
How important is setting in historical fiction? Can it accurately be called “another character”?
Melissa L. is the YA Editorial Assistant for Wonders and Marvels. You can read more about her here: Editorial Staff.