Riot Headline 10 Exciting Books to Read this Summer
Historical Fiction

8 Exhilarating Novels About Real People

Carolina Ciucci


Carolina Ciucci is a teacher, writer and reviewer based in the south of Argentina. She hoards books like they’re going out of style. In case of emergency, you can summon her by talking about Ireland, fictional witches, and the Brontë family. Twitter: @carolinabeci

Graydon House

1910, Mexico. As the country’s revolution spreads, Dolores, the daughter of a wealthy banker, must flee her comfortable life in Durango or risk death. Her family settles in Mexico City, where, at sixteen, she marries the worldly Jaime del Río. But in a twist of fate, at a party she meets an influential American director who recognizes in her a natural performer. He invites her to Hollywood, and practically overnight, the famous Miss del Río is born.

Novels live and die on the strength of their characters. I don’t mean physical, emotional, or mental strength: I mean the strength of their characterization. Are they compelling? Do they have clear personalities and distinct thought and speech patterns? Will readers find them interesting? A memorable character becomes a person in their own right, if not literally at least figuratively. Classic giants such as Ebenezer Scrooge or Pecola Breedlove co-exist with modern standouts like Starr Carter and Lisbeth Salamander.

The ultimate goal is for a character to be believable. Wondering about the believability of a character, however, can open an entire can of worms: all of society’s prejudices and accepted stereotypes come to light as soon as a character doesn’t behave in ways that readers themselves have decided, or been taught to believe, are realistic. As a result, we often have characters who are lambasted for being unrealistic when, in fact, real people did, do, and will behave similarly. There is a reason why “life is stranger than fiction” is such a popular saying.

All eight characters in the books listed below would be criticized for being unrealistic, if not for the tiny fact that they were, as a matter of fact, real people who existed. Granted, these are novels, which means that their actions, thoughts, and dialogues are largely fictional (as far as I know, the Brontës didn’t run around solving crimes), but their larger-than-life personalities? Those are entirely real. And they make for captivating main characters. Don’t believe me? Read on.

cover of Island Queen by Vanessa Riley: an illustration of a Black woman dressed in white wearing a white hat adored with flowers and large feathers flowing behind her

Island Queen by Vanessa Riley

This historical novel brings the extraordinary Dorothy Kirwan Thomas to life: she was born into slavery on Montserrat, a small Caribbean island, and bought her own, her sister’s, and her mother’s freedom from her Irish planter father. She then went on to become an entrepreneur and a landowner, as well as one of the wealthiest people in the Colonial West Indies.

Cover of By Her Own Design by Piper Huguley

By Her Own Design by Piper Huguley

Anne Lowe was one of the most gifted designers in history, having made many unforgettable dresses — including Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress. Lowe herself, however, has been forgotten more often than not. In this historical novel, Piper Huguley writes a stunning novel about her life, putting this incredible woman back on the map.

Cover of The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis

The Vanished Bride (Brontë Sisters Mystery #1) by Bella Ellis

What if the Brontë sisters were detectives before they became writers? That is the premise from which Bella Ellis begins this delightful novel. When a young woman vanishes from her home, leaving behind her two children and a pool of blood, young Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë decide to conduct an investigation into the mystery.

Cover of Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

We know her sister Virginia very well: she was, after all, the person responsible for beloved classics like To The Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own. But not many people remember Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister, an artist on her own right. This novel delves into Vanessa’s life, her role in the Bloomsbury group, and her complicated relationship with Virginia.

Cover of Dancing in the Dark by Caryl Phillips

Dancing in the Dark by Caryl Phillips

Bert Williams, the child of immigrants from the Bahamas, is considered the first Black entertainer to achieve fame and fortune in the U.S. After being rejected multiple times, Williams made the decision to put on blackface makeup and lean into the stereotypes. In this novel, Phillips re-imagines his life.

Cover of Finding the Way by Wayne Ng

Finding the Way by Wayne Ng

Have you ever wondered what would happen if Lao Tzu and Confucius were wrapped up in a political intrigue the likes of which would make the Borgias seem sedate? Wayne Ng has. The result is this political thriller where the philosophers align with warring princes.

The cover of The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman, a sepia photo of a bride in a wedding veil

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

Painter Camille Pissarro is well-known. His mother, Rachel, is not. Raised in St. Thomas in the early 1800s, Rachel’s ambitions and hopes were ignored, and she was married off to a widower with three children. After her husband’s death, however, she met his nephew Fréderick. The subsequent love affair and marriage engendered a scandal that would affect the entire family.

Cover of Empress by Shan Sa

Empress by Shan Sa

Empress Wu’s name has been dragged through the mud since her death. In this novel, Shan Sa does her justice by explores her rise from the humble Wu clan to becoming the first (and only) female empress in China. A brilliant political mastermind and a lover and patron of the arts, Empress Wu is an incredible historical figure and fictionalized character alike.

If you like your historical figures better in nonfiction, try these biographies.