Genre & Theme
3 min read

A short guide to historical fantasy

A warrior with a flaming sword.

Historical fantasy in storytelling involves blending fantastical elements with historical settings and events to create a rich and engaging narrative that transports readers to different periods. As a subgenre within the reality genre, historical fantasy allows writers to explore themes of the past through a fantastical lens. This article provides an overview of the reality genre, examines the history and key elements of historical fantasy, offers techniques for compelling historical fantasy storytelling, and guides writers in choosing historical fantasy as their reality genre of choice.

Understanding the reality genre

The reality genre comprises a variety of storytelling styles that share a common emphasis on realistic, true-to-life narratives. This genre includes various subgenres, such as factualism, realism, and historical fantasy. Each subgenre has unique characteristics that appeal to different reader preferences. Choosing the appropriate reality genre depends on the writer's interests, the story's focus, and the intended audience.

When to choose historical fantasy as your reality genre

Historical fantasy is an ideal choice for writers who:

  • Are interested in blending fantastical elements with historical settings and events
  • Seek to explore themes of the past through a fantastical lens
  • Aim to create stories that transport readers to different periods while maintaining a sense of wonder and adventure

The origins of historical fantasy

Historical fantasy is rooted in earlier works that combined historical fiction with fantasy, folklore, and mythology elements. Over time, historical fantasy has expanded to encompass various forms of storytelling, including novels, short stories, films, and television.

Notable early historical fantasy authors and works:

  • Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell"
  • Guy Gavriel Kay's "Tigana"
  • Naomi Novik's "Temeraire" series

Key elements of historical fantasy

Historical fantasy stories are typically set in thoroughly researched historical contexts, with magical or supernatural elements seamlessly woven into the narrative. These stories often explore themes of power, identity, and societal change through a fantastical lens. The characters in these stories are often well-developed and relatable, allowing readers to connect with their struggles and triumphs. By frequently pushing the boundaries of genre conventions, historical fantasy stories offer fresh and innovative narratives.

The key elements of historical fantasy:

  • Historical settings and events infused with fantastical elements
  • Exploration of historical themes and issues through a fantastical lens
  • Engaging characters that navigate the intersection of history and fantasy
  • Plots that often blend genres and offer fresh perspectives on historical events

Techniques for effective historical fantasy storytelling

  • Balancing historical accuracy with fantastical elements in storytelling: Strive to create a seamless blend of the historical and the fantastical, ensuring that the story remains grounded in accurate portrayals of the chosen period while incorporating magical or supernatural elements.
  • Creating vivid and immersive world-building that captures the essence of the chosen period: Develop detailed, believable settings that enhance the story and provide a rich backdrop for your characters' journeys.
  • Crafting multidimensional characters that are both products of their time and relatable to contemporary readers: Create characters with depth and complexity, allowing readers to empathize with their struggles and celebrate their successes.
  • Developing engaging plots illuminating historical events and themes with a touch of the fantastical: Design plots that draw readers in and keep them invested in the characters' emotional journeys and the story's exploration of historical issues.

Examples of historical fantasy in storytelling

Notable authors and works:

  • "Glamourist Histories" series by Mary Robinette Kowal combines Regency-era society with a unique magic system, creating a fascinating alternate history.
  • "The Golem and the Jinni" by Helene Wecker - A magical tale of two mythical creatures navigating life in turn-of-the-century New York City, blending folklore and history.

Popular films and television series:

  • "Penny Dreadful" (TV series) - A dark and atmospheric series that weaves together iconic characters from Gothic literature, set in Victorian London.
  • "Outlander" (TV series) - A time-travelling nurse from the 20th century navigates the challenges of 18th-century Scotland while trying to return home.
  • "The Witcher" (TV series) - Based on a series of novels, this show follows a monster hunter in a world inspired by Slavic and European myth and history.

Challenges and criticisms of historical fantasy

  • Striking a balance between historical accuracy and fantastical elements: Writers must be cautious to keep the fantastical elements from overshadowing the historical aspects of their story, or vice versa, to maintain a cohesive narrative.
  • Navigating the line between historical fantasy and other reality genres: As historical fantasy often blends elements from multiple genres, it's vital to remain aware of each genre's specific conventions and expectations to avoid confusing or disappointing readers.
  • Addressing the potential for oversimplifying complex historical issues: While historical fantasy stories offer a unique perspective on the past, they should strive to present nuanced explorations of historical themes and avoid reducing complex issues to simplistic terms.

The historical fantasy subgenre in storytelling presents a captivating blend of history and fantasy, allowing writers to explore themes of the past through a magical lens. By understanding the origins, essential elements, and techniques for effective historical fantasy storytelling, writers can craft compelling narratives that resonate with readers and transport them to different periods. Choosing historical fantasy as your genre allows you to create rich, immersive stories that push the boundaries of traditional storytelling and offer fresh perspectives on the events and themes of the past.



  1. Coyne, Shawn. 2015. The Story Grid. New York, NY: Black Irish Entertainment.