Historical fiction is an imagined world that’s set in the past. Science fiction is usually set in the future. The appeal of historical fiction is the notion that this world actually happened, whereas science fiction will actually happen. So, in many ways, although they are very different, they are related.
With historical fiction the reader gets to experience the world of kings, queens and dukes, wielding power, dressing up in ornate clothes, and strolling around impressive stone buildings. It also has the appeal of a simpler world, a place without text messages and glowing computer screens. It’s also a world where people tend to have have less rights, where raw power rules (and there’s not much in the way of medical or dental care). Battles and fights occur at closer ranges with sharp implements, enemies are stabbed in the back — unlike today’s drone warefare, sniper fire and car bombs where so much of it occurs at a distance.
The past isn’t usually a good place to be poor (and most people were), hence the comparative lack of peasant protagonists. And where there are peasant protagonists they aspire to change things in a very contemporary way, or they are not peasant heroes but the true heirs to the throne who have been denied what is rightfully theirs. In history the ‘heroes’ already had power and status, they were the knights, lords and ladies — and masters or the sons and daughters of knights, lords and ladies. Everyone below them was their servant.
The stakes are usually higher in historical fiction, divorce ends in a beheading, an argument with a person’s boss (a lord or a king) ends with the character being murdered, their property being confiscated, and their family being sent into virtual slavery. Royalty was the original clan-based mafia where power was asserted through brutal violence and where cronyism was a way of life. Sucess leads to great power, wealth, status, and living in a palace.
So, in storytelling terms, historical fiction offers a compelling world where the stakes are high, the rewards of sucess are high, and people don’t have a welfare state to fall back on or a police force to call up for help — individuals have to rely on themselves.