What Is the Difference between Fiction and Nonfiction?
Fiction is the term for works of imagination and invention. Nonfiction describes any work in any media that is not fictional, that is, purports to describe real events, ideas, or people. The phrases are most often used to describe written literature or other media. This specialized use means that the terms fiction and nonfiction are commonly confused by the general public. In popular media formats such as film and television, fiction is the basis of comedies and narrative dramas, while nonfiction includes documentaries and news coverage.
The word fiction derives from the Latin word fingere, meaning to shape or create. The same word provides the root for the English words finger and figment. This connection with the word figment may help some people remember the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Associating fiction with the phrase figment of the imagination, which fiction describes, may provide a helpful mnemonic, or memory aid. Nonfiction is thus anything that is not created in the imagination.
Since prehistory, stories and fables have blended elements of fiction and nonfiction. Even in modern times, the differences between them are not always distinct. Writers commonly borrow events and ideas from real life to color their fiction with realistic detail. Reporters and historians add speculation, educated guesses, and invented dialogue to their nonfiction narratives or condense and delete facts for the sake of brevity and clarity. Media formats like reality television and documentary dramas further confuse the issue.
A key difference between fiction and nonfiction is the creator’s intent. Fictional stories may use invented characters and worlds to discuss real issues and problems. For example, the TV series The Twilight Zone and Star Trek used science-fiction concepts, such as alien races, to examine issues of racism and prejudice. Writers of nonfiction, on the other hand, intend to portray real events. The term nonfiction applies even if the work is later revealed to be inaccurate or partially invented.
Although the terms fiction and nonfiction originated with written literature, they apply to most forms of popular media. The documentary is a nonfiction film format, while United 93 and Silkwood are examples of films that tell fictionalized versions of real events. Television news journalism is supposed to be nonfiction, while dramas and comedies are pure fiction. Reality TV, by employing coached spontaneity, often manages to be neither fiction nor nonfiction. Comic books, audio recordings, and stage performances all have formats that encompass both fiction and nonfiction.
There is less of a fine line between fiction and non fiction than people expect. Some writers have blended the two to beautiful effect.
Just last month I read Truman Capote's masterwork, In Cold Blood. It tells the true story of two killers that savagely murdered a family in a small Kansas town. The book was a remarkable act of reportage that examined the crime from a number of perspectives and to exacting detail. In this way it is an excellent piece of non fiction.
But Capote also seamlessly weaves in conversations that he has invented and internal thoughts from the characters minds that he could never have known. Though they are based on educated speculation, these parts of the book are imagined and therefore fiction. But the contrast is never made clear. The book skips back and forth between the sources to offer one of the most thorough descriptions of a crime offered in either fiction or non fiction.
Anyone that hasn't read it should really pick up a copy. It's a stunning piece of writing and a chilling story.
@Charred - So called reality TV is mostly hype in my opinion. I think the drama is contrived. Participants know that they are supposed to be producing fireworks for the camera, so they oblige, eager to get that fat paycheck.
I feel sorry for the participants and the public that watches these shows. Many people believe that it’s real just because it says reality TV, in the same way that many people believe world heavyweight wrestling is real too, instead of the choreographed production that it is.
@hamje32 - I love the Star Trek series. I can pick up on a lot of the social issues being discussed in Star Trek. I watched one episode where this one captain kept thinking that a war with the enemy was still going on, when it had ended decades ago. I thought of Vietnam and the song “Still in Saigon.”
It’s amazing how writers are able to take contemporary social events and pluck them down into science fiction settings. Another great classic in this regard is “District 9.” On one level it’s an alien film, but nearly everyone knows it’s about apartheid. The film is brilliant in my opinion.
@NathanG - I think the lines do get blurred sometimes when you’re talking about fiction or non fiction. For example, when I was in college I took an English class in non fiction prose. We read Joan Didion’s The White Album and other works of non fiction.
The authors narrated real life events, but they used a lot of the devices of fiction to tell their story. It made for very exciting reading in my opinion. Was it fiction or non fiction?
Clearly it was non fiction, but you never know how much embellishment there may have been. Sometimes authors use artistic license to paint things over a certain way, to make it more exciting.
I can’t imagine why anyone in the public would be confused by fiction vs nonfiction. I think the distinctions are pretty clear personally.
I realize that there are some documentaries that provide dramatized, fictional accounts of some of the events portrayed in the documentary. However, even with these programs there is usually a disclaimer at the beginning of the program telling you that what you’re watching is a dramatization.
I think that should make it clear enough. Perhaps the dramatizations are so real and vivid that people choose to accept them as fact anyway. That’s more a testament to the power of our contemporary media than it is anything else.
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