Fiction and non-fiction are the two most bandied words used to describe literature. If you’ve ever struggled to get your head around what the F words mean, don’t beat yourself up. You’re probably not alone.
In a nutshell, fiction refers to a created plot, settings and characters as told from the writer’s imagination, while non-fiction relates to factual stories based on real-life events and people. Like anything, there are some in-betweens or blurred lines, but here are some definitions and examples to help settle the score.
Fictional literature is imagined. It may be based on actual events and have factual elements, but the telling of the story is usually subjective and may contain bias, different points of view or be completely made up and part of the author’s imagination.
Short stories, novels, myths, legends, and fairy tales are all considered fiction. For example, the Harry Potter series and Twilight are pure fiction. We all know wizard schools, Quidditch, and remarkable beasts just don’t exist, as much as some of us might love them to. We can thank author J. K. Rowling though, for how she has devised and described them on the page. Similarly, while fans consider Bella and Edward’s love story remarkable and their world of vampires and covens, it exists only thanks to author Stephenie Meyer’s imagination.
However, there are also real-life events that can serve as a jumping off point for fictional stories. Literature giant Lee Harper’s classic 1960 masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird is one such example. Harper’s story won critical acclaim, and the Pulitzer Prize, but is only loosely based on her observations of her family, her neighbours and a local event. Because of this, it is classified as fiction. While Lee Harper’s world, some of these events, and the key theme of racial inequality existed and are not fictional, the drama and characterisation of her story are not all true and therefore it’s described as fiction.
Authors that write fiction stories may use real places, geography, scientific fact, and real events in their stories. For example, Stephen King often uses his hometown of Bangor as the basis for Derry, Maine, in many of his stories. This town is mentioned in a lot of his stories such as Misery and Pet Sematary. And while famed American lawyer and novelist John Grisham famously told the New York Times he does as little research as possible, he did practice as a lawyer for years, and has a regular diet of courtroom dramas and watching other lawyers at work. He also meticulously plans and orders his work before he gets going.
However, the key element for all these writers is that they are able to use factual detail and extend it as far as possible to lend their work a certain authority that makes the world they create believable. It can also improve a story no end if there is some resemblance to reality.
Writing fiction is sometimes best described as a tapestry. It can weave in multiple ideas, threads, characters, and design that can be fantastic and extraordinary, but it still must have a structure, coherence and organisation to it, just like non-fiction writing. Both are art forms and neither is superior to the other.
Non-fiction writing reports on real events and is factual. It includes histories, biographies, journalism and essays. The stories contained in non-fiction writing must have happened and everything included in the literature must be accurate. Because of this, it must uphold a higher standard than fiction because just as some fact in fiction does not make it true, any level of fabrication in non-fiction work makes it lose credibility. In other words, if there is fiction in the non-fiction, it just makes it fiction. That’s quite a tongue twister, but the take home is to keep it real.
There have been cases of stories that have been presented as based on actual events that have not stacked up on closer investigation. Some have even won literary acclaim. In Australia, writer Helen Demidenko won the coveted 1995 Miles Franklin prize for her novel, The Hand That Signed The Paper that was reportedly about her family history. As daring and well written as it was, it turned out she was not the daughter of an illiterate Ukrainian taxi driver, but Helen Darville, the daughter of English immigrants. Although Darville submitted the work as fiction, she claimed the story was based on interviews with her relatives.
In America, one of the greatest literature frauds of the 20th century was Clifford Irving’s Autobiography of Howard Hughes. Irving fabricated an autobiography of the reclusive billionaire, including letters, meetings, and interviews, until Howard Hughes himself came forward to say he had no idea who Irving was. Irving, an author of twenty other novels, finally admitted to the hoax and served time in prison. The autobiography was never printed, but Irving received substantial advances for it that he voluntarily returned to his publishers. The story became a film called The Hoax starring Richard Gere in 2005.
The techniques of “new journalists” that blur the line between fact and fiction, mostly through the use of eloquent and evocative detail, have led to the creation of another genre known as creative non-fiction. In this way non-fiction can seem like fantasy, and enthral its readers as a result, when it’s actually good old-fashioned non-fiction that is told in a compelling way.
If you have a penchant for writing non-fiction, be it the creative style or the objective traditional style, clarity, facts and subject are key. Source material, original interviews, historic documents, topographic maps, geographical surveys, crime reports and lots of research are usually important elements in the preparation for writing. And they must stand up to fact checking.
If you find this description has only made you more confused, just keep it simple. If it contains or reports truth, it is non-fiction. If it stretches or fabricates, it is fiction.