One of the most interesting things in historical fiction is that authors can insert real historical figures into a story. These real people can interact with the fictional characters and impact the events of the story to lend some realism to a novel. These five books feature, but are not about, characters that were real people as interesting counterpoints to the fictional characters in the books.
The Alienist by Caleb Carr
Historical figure: Theodore Roosevelt
A murder mystery set in the underbelly of Gilded Age New York City, protagonists John Schuyler Moore, a New York Times reporter, and Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a psychologist or alienist, try to stop a killer through psychological profiling.
The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Historical figure: Edward Degas
Paris in the late 1870s finds two sisters, Marie and Antoinette, desperate for work to pay the bills after their father’s death. The Painted Girls follows Marie and Antoinette as they try to make it as ballerinas in the Paris Opera.
Maid of Secrets by Jennifer McGowan
Historical figure: Queen Elizabeth
A young adult novel, Maid of Secrets is the first book in the Maids of Honor series about girls who become spies for Queen Elizabeth I. Maid of Secrets features Meg, an orphan who is conscripted into service after being caught stealing.
What Angels Fear by C.S. Harris
Historical figure: Prince Regent George IV
Historical mystery featuring Sebastian St. Cyr, heir to an earldom who is accused falsely of murder and must find the culprit to prove his own innocence. A rich background of both seedy and stately Regency London and a cast of interesting secondary characters at a time of great change in Great Britain create a solid read.
Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness
Historical figure: Christopher Marlowe
Second book in the All Souls trilogy, but the only one to take place in the past, Shadow of Night follows Matthew and Diana as they journey back to Tudor England.