Writings can be divided up into two categories: fiction and nonfiction. At first look, there seems to be a clear division between the two, but when creative nonfiction is included, things get a bit tricky.
So, what is the difference between fiction and nonfiction? Keep reading to find out.
What is Fiction?
Fiction, because it is not about someone who lived in the real world, always has the possibility of being about oneself. – Orson Scott Card
Fiction refers to pieces based on the author’s imagination. This doesn’t mean that the author has to create an entire universe, as is often done in science fiction. There can be elements of truth to the work; the author can be inspired by a person or a place.
Being inspired by a real-life place, person, or event isn’t the same as being non fiction. Many literary pieces are inspired by people the author met or places they have been that captured their imaginations.
Imagination has taken what is familiar to the author and allowed them to expand and change what they do not like or add what they need. This includes, but is not limited to, imaginary characters or a fictional town.
Examples of Fiction Works
There are numerous forms of fiction, such as:
- Short stories
- Fairy Tales
Examples of Fiction Genres
There are distinct genres that fiction writing often falls into.
- Speculative Fiction (e.g Science Fiction)
- Young Adult
A Brief History of Fiction
It’s difficult to imagine a world without fiction, yet there was once a time where fiction was unheard of. In fact, fiction wasn’t invented until the 12th century.
To be more specific, fiction, as we understand it today, started in the 12th century. More specifically, when both the author and the reader know the piece is a work of fiction and not nonfiction.
Prior to the 12th century, written works held an authority that was impossible to ignore; works like the Bible were written down, so all written works must be true as well.
Surprisingly enough, fiction rose from the economic development of a class that knew how to read and could afford books. When given the opportunity to read, this group financed works that we now call fiction.
What About Spoken Traditions?
It cannot be argued that there have been stories as long as there has been spoken language. How are these stories different, besides the fact they’re an oral tradition instead of written?
It comes back around to the idea that in order for the piece to be considered fiction, both the author and the reader must know the piece isn’t true. There is an air of historical truth with myths and legends that is implied, whether or not it’s true.
What is Nonfiction?
“In nonfiction, you have that limitation, that constraint, of telling the truth.” – Peter Matthiessen
To put it plainly, nonfiction refers to writing that is based on real-life events and real people. With fiction writing or a fiction book, the author is allowed to change whatever they like – in a nonfiction book, changing even one detail calls into question the validity of the entire piece.
With nonfiction, validity is key. Actual events, with real people, are being relayed to the individual reading the piece, and even one moment of fabrication makes one question what else in the book is made up. There is only one interpretation in a nonfiction work – what the truth is, i.e., that it’s a true story.
Examples of Nonfiction Works
There are numerous forms of nonfiction, such as:
- A Memoir
- Self Help Books
- History Books
- Journal Articles
- Legal Documents
A Brief History of Nonfiction
Nonfiction has been around as long as the written word has been around. The first written nonfiction works were produced in the Bronze Age. As far back as 749 BCE, Akkadian writers were already producing histories of their civilization.
What is Creative Nonfiction?
“Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing.” – Joan Didion
Creative nonfiction is still nonfiction – meaning that the author isn’t making up stories but is instead reporting on the truth.
However, the author uses creative license to change how the story is told. Instead of listing a bunch of facts in sequential order, they weave together a piece that reads like fiction, even though it is, in fact, nonfiction.
A perfect example are crime thrillers like In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. The story follows both the killers and the family, and it’s easy to forget that one is reading an accurate account of events.
Creative nonfiction is a tricky area for writers because one must consider at which point the line is crossed from reality to fiction.
A Brief History of Creative Nonfiction
The term ‘creative nonfiction’ can be credited to Lee Gutkind, the creator of Creative Nonfiction magazine. It’s a relatively new term, dating back to the early 1990s.
The idea behind it, however, has a much longer history. Throughout time humanity has tried to remember and tell its history both orally and written down in sonnets, epics, and in other forms of poetry and prose. We’ve finally put a name to what’s been happening all along.
Fiction vs Nonfiction vs Creative Fiction: Why Does It Matter?
It boils down to this – how you approach the crafting of the story impacts how the readers understand the work.
If you take a fiction piece and market it as a nonfiction piece, such as A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, chaos erupts because you’ve gone back on the implied understanding of what nonfiction and fiction truly are.
When you sit down to craft a work, you have to take into consideration whether your piece is fiction, nonfiction, or creative fiction and work out from there.
Sometimes what you think you are writing actually turns into another type of literature, like creative nonfiction to actual fiction with a very firm setting in a historical time period, but that’s okay as long as you recognize what type of work you’re writing.
Remember: if it tells the truth, it’s nonfiction. If anything is imagined or stretched, it’s fiction.