Historical fiction epics come in many varieties – the term has been applied to sweeping sagas spanning multiple volumes and it has also applied to self-contained works that tell a story of several generations. Some epics tell a story lasting centuries (Edward Rutherfurd and John Jakes books come to mind) while others last the lifetime of the central protagonist, or even only a few decades of said protagonist’s life – albeit usually very exciting decades.
The appeal of the historical fiction epic – which I loosely define as “a work of historical fiction wherein the story takes place over at least one generation (roughly 20-25 years)” – is obvious. Like its counterparts in science fiction and fantasy, the historical epic offers adventure, character arcs, opportunities for quests, drama, foreign worlds, lost civilizations, and more. Historical fiction has the added advantage in that its setting and events are ostensibly true. Why slog through Middle Earth or a galaxy far away when you can slog through medieval Europe, the high seas, North America before it was fully conquered by Europeans, and more?
Obviously, the first obstacle is that the latter requires a lot more research and restricts the author significantly. Given the choice, most storytellers would prefer to create their own worlds and have more freedom in their storytelling. For true historical fiction, you have to respect our real timeline. Things have to happen closely to how they did in reality. The ship has to sink, the battle has to happen, slavery has to be real, and certain individuals have to do what they really did. Anything else would be alternate history, which is really just another branch of science fiction or fantasy.
While different types of stories appeal to different people, overall, the historical epic has a disadvantage in that it takes place over a long period of time. This makes it difficult to portray sympathetic and relatable characters. This is particularly the case for long stories taking place over multiple generations and centuries. Characters in these stories tend not to be well-developed and even if they do, they by necessity do not stick around long, the human lifespan being what it is. Even a strong protagonist tends to have a lot of supporting characters fade in and out of their life. Authors tend to introduce many characters and then dispose of them rather quickly, or simply have them fade to memory and never resolve their story arcs. Much like real life, we never find out what happened to the hero’s old colleague, lost love interest, or childhood playmate. For some of us, that is highly frustrating.
While historical epics are not a genre unto themselves, they do have some positive and negative traits in common. I admit these are subjective – one person’s “too many characters” is another person’s “lots of unique and quirky characters”.
Positive aspects of the historical fiction epic:
- Explore an era of history, or explore the history of a place, culture, society, or nation, with fictional characters to make history more fun and relatable – the reason why anyone writes historical fiction of any kind! A historical epic makes the place or society itself into a character, with the other characters reflecting the changes. This is dramatized non-fiction, only with fictional characters added alongside the historical ones and with actual events being more loosely adapted. A well-researched story can be a good teaching tool that is a lot more memorable than a simple historical narrative.
- Follow a character from early life to death (or at least elderhood) and see how their world changed. Sixty to eighty years is a long time, especially in more recent history.
- Lots of opportunity for adventures, quests, and romance, as well as warfare, crime, and tragic consequences. These can be divided up between characters too, sometimes leading to almost completely different stories.
- Introducing lots of characters can make for more stories in the future. This is especially good for potential franchises and sequels.
- Following, for example, the same family line through generations can show how real people were affected by history – how civil wars split up families, how one family came to be servants to another, how cultures were destroyed and rebuilt, and how humans migrated throughout the world. This is often much easier to relate to in a fictional story than simply being told that “we are all related somehow” or “brother fought against brother”.
Negative aspects of the historical fiction epic:
- Places and societies can make for interesting characters, but not usually very good leading protagonists. A city cannot be a hero. Too much emphasis on the history lesson can detract from the story and the characters. Research is important, but too much focus on the research and historical facts and not enough on the fiction can make for a dull story, be it a book, play, or film. This is a drawback of all historical fiction, epic or not. It is still fiction, after all.
- Following a lead protagonist naturally results in some characters dropping off and never being seen again, as mentioned above. A lot of interesting things happen offscreen or off-page, since they do not necessarily happen to our hero directly. Since the hero cannot die, he or she ends up surviving and their sidekicks or love interests die instead. The audience gets to spend an entire lifetime with the hero and does not necessarily get a chance to really connect with them. Plus, a lead character who is basically just someone for “history to happen to” can make for a boring hero.
- Too many plots, too many characters, too much bouncing back and forth. Having plots that are virtually completely different stories, only connected by their shared location or shared family history, can be distracting and confusing. Following two leads while one is off at war and another is back home? Excellent! Following five different leads off at war and three more in various hometowns? Getting messy.
- Start with one story, then worry about sequels. Audiences tend to want more of their favourite characters, not lots of new ones. However, as above with too many plotlines, telling multiple stories in separate volumes can work out well. Instead of a 1000-page doorstopper, how about three 400-page novels that are separate but interconnected?
- Showing two branches of the same family fighting on opposite sides in a war, for example, has a greater impact if we have a strong connection to the characters in question. If these are siblings or first cousins fighting each other, and we watched their parents fall in love and get married, we care a lot more than if we are merely told that these foes are third cousins who have never met previously but are related because the family tree says so.
The historical fiction epic is thus a contradiction, much like historical fiction in general. Research and accuracy are important, but so are the characters and their stories. One does not win points for portraying over 1000 years of history in one novel simply by stringing together some interesting anecdotes loosely held together with historical facts. Historical fiction needs to be fun in order to be useful. Otherwise, history itself is sufficient.