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What Is Fiction?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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Fiction is the term for any invented literary narrative or, more broadly, anything made up. In literature, it refers to novels, short stories, and other works of art that do not purport to tell true stories. While they may be inspired by real events or people, fiction writers create characters, dialogue, and plots entirely from their imaginations. Storytelling forms the basis of most other entertainment media, including movies, television, and comic books. Science fiction, mystery stories, and romances are among the popular subsets, or genres, of fiction.

Myths and legends of gods and heroes are among the earliest examples of human storytelling. After the advent of written language, early writers such as Homer combined these with human sagas to create the first literary works, epic poems like The Odyssey and Beowulf. Daniel Defoe pioneered the English novel with Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, while China’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms effectively invented the form in the Orient. Gustave Flaubert, Mark Twain, and Herman Melville were among the masters of the novel form in the 1800s.

In the 20th century, new media proliferated, including motion pictures, radio, and television. These used fictional storytelling structures borrowed from novels or stage drama, another fictional art form. Meanwhile, literature prospered under new masters like Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce. New genres gained popularity as story magazines catered to both high- and low-culture tastes. Meanwhile, daring writers like Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence explored the limits of what society would allow them to portray.

In modern times, thousands of works of fiction are published in many languages every year. Literary fiction includes award-winning works of the world’s great authors and debuting stories by new writers. Genre fiction provides the bulk of the profits to many book publishers and bookstores. Electronic media such as audiobooks and e-books offer new ways for readers to enjoy stories of all kinds. Self-publishing and online publishing make it possible for writers to find readers outside of traditional publishing venues.

In a broader sense, fiction remains the primary form of narrative in a variety of media. Movies, television shows, and stage dramas still rely on the fictional form to tell stories. Comics have proved capable of both short stories and extended narratives in a variety of genres. Even video games use fictional constructs to enhance the gamer’s experience. While the future of print media itself is uncertain, the art of the story has already established a strong presence in the realm of electronic media.

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Discussion Comments
By anon317557 — On Feb 02, 2013

I love fiction, especially Frankenstein, Borroughs, Grimm's tales, and other works. I just came here in order to read this interesting information. --Sara R.

By icecream17 — On Sep 07, 2011

I love reading most works of fiction except for horror fiction. I really don’t like scary books because I have trouble sleeping. I prefer realistic fiction and mystery stories. I love stories that I can relate to because it makes the book more memorable for me.

I read a lot of mystery novels that don’t have too much gore. I really like reading about a murder mystery, but I don’t like a lot of these crime novels that discuss the crimes in detail. I think that some of these things should not be spelled out.

I like solving the crimes and figuring out who the killer was, but I don’t like hearing too many spooky details of how the victim died.

By honeybees — On Sep 07, 2011

Reading has always been one of my favorite pastimes. One of my daughters also has the same love of reading that I do.

I never have to worry about her staying up late on her phone or watching TV, but know she will stay up as late as she can reading a good book.

I used to always head to the fiction section of the library first, but lately I have read several captivating non fiction books.

A well written non fiction book can be as interesting and page turning as a fiction book. Sometimes it is hard to believe that they are really true stories.

If I am going to be going on vacation or know that I have some quality reading time coming up, choosing a good fiction book to read is still one of my favorite things to do.

By Izzy78 — On Sep 06, 2011

Obviously, getting involved in a career as a fiction novel writer means writing a book and getting it published. How do you end up writing for some of the other types of fiction, though?

I really enjoy writing, but I don't know if I have the patience or dedication to write a whole novel. Even then, I don't think I would enjoy trying to make a career of that.

I think what I would be really good at is working on smaller projects like stories for TV shows or video games. I have even written a lot of short stories that I think would be good TV ideas.

Do most writers get something like an English degree, or are there other routes to becoming a full time writer? How do you get noticed in the first place?

By bagley79 — On Sep 06, 2011

I can read about anything and enjoy spending time reading. Fiction has always been my favorite though. There is nothing I like better than getting lost in a good fiction book.

I look forward to reading the New York Times fiction book reviews and always have a hard time deciding which book I want to read first.

If I had to choose a favorite genre, it would have to be mystery and suspense. I don't like books that are real scary, but a good plot will keep me on the edge of my seat throughout the whole book.

By stl156 — On Sep 05, 2011

@Emilski - I know what you mean with the writing today getting more watered down and unoriginal. At the same time, though, you have to think about what writing used to be, and what it is now.

In the past, a lot of writers worked as reporters or short story writers and wrote novels sparingly. Now, with books being made into movies and publishers demanding a steady supply of books, writers don't have a lot of incentive to stretch the limits. They usually just write whatever the trend is, because that is what people will buy.

That's not to say there aren't still great writers. Who knows, maybe there was just as much poor writing in the past, but only the greatest novels are what we still read today.

By titans62 — On Sep 04, 2011

@Emilski - I kind of understand your problem with the suspended reality of fiction literature. I don't have a problem with it as much with books, but I do with movies. Even with the more serious or realistic movies, there is just too much that happens that would never happen in real life, and I can't make myself believe it could happen.

I guess I have gone the same route as you, and now I usually just watch documentaries or sitcoms where you aren't supposed to believe the situations could really happen.

For someone like you, you might enjoy historical fiction. I have found that, since this genre is trying to create a false history, the stories are usually a little more believable.

By Emilski — On Sep 03, 2011

I didn't realize that the fiction genre was so new in terms of novels. I would have thought it started long before the 1700s.

I enjoy reading books of all genres, but I have personally always liked nonfiction more. Maybe I just have a harder time imagining some of the things that happen.

At least to me, it feels like a lot of the fiction books that are written today are too systematic and predictable. When I do read fiction novels, I usually prefer older authors who spent a lot of time crafting a good, thought provoking novel instead of something that was quickly written and published just to make money.

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