Is Fiction Always Non-Fiction?

There have always been two very identifiable distinctions made when it comes to literature:  fiction and non-fiction.  Oddly enough, children and teens will admit that they have trouble knowing which of the two refers to made up stories.

Most teachers teach students that anything that is factual is non-fiction, and anything that’s made-up is fictional.  But students are still confused by that explanation.  Still others will teach students that non-fiction is about real things, real people, real events and real places whereas fiction is not about anything real.  But that definition isn’t very accurate (or helpful) either.

For example, everyone knows that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins are real people.   Everyone knows that the moon is a real place.  Everyone knows that NASA rockets are real things, and that Apollo 11 was a real rocket.

Everyone knows that Neil Armstrong (a real person) traveled to the moon (a real place)  on Apollo 11 (a real thing) with Buzz Aldrin (a real person) and Michael Collins (a real person).   In July 1969 (a real date), Neil Armstrong (a real person) became the first man to walk on the moon (a real event in a real place) before the team (all of them real people) returned to earth (a real place) in Apollo 11 (a real thing).

Those are facts and if the story was comprised solely of facts, then the story would be identified as non-fictional.

But what if all those facts were used in a story, with an added element that may or may not be fact?

Let’s say an author took all the facts about the Apollo 11 mission and wrote it from the perspective of a teenager in Indiana who followed the Apollo 11 adventure from its inception through to its execution?  A story like that would rely heavily on facts but the minute that a fictional element was added, the story would become fiction.

Undoubtedly, somewhere in Indiana (a real place) there was at least one teenager (a real person) who felt he or she had followed the Apollo 11 adventure (a real event) from start to finish, but the story would still be fictional.  Why?  Because it requires non-factual elements to be blended in with the facts to make the story a story.

So let’s redefine how we decide what is non-fiction and what is fiction.

Fiction is found in poems, stories, plays, novels, and other creative endeavors that need made-up elements.

Nonfiction is found in newspaper stories, personal accounts, textbooks, legal documents and other detailed endeavors that rely solely on facts.

Over the years, however, authors, historians and writers have created additional problems for readers trying to discern what is fiction and non-fiction.   Some authors have based their creative work on real life events and people, and some historians and some writers have either hinted at, or written, dialogue they feel could have happened based on their understanding of language at the time based on letters, newspaper accounts, legal documents, etc.,  written by people during that era.  This is where the docudrama genre began.

But does that mean that any fictional story with real people in real places attending real events and doing real things is a docudrama?  Hardly.

Mark Twain is quoted as having said, “Write what you know.”  Did he mean write only about the real people in real places, attending real events and doing real things?  Of course not.  He meant write about the themes and emotions you feel at home discussing with others.  He meant use your investigative and observation skills to flesh out stories you feel compelled to tell or write.  Write in keeping with your experiences — both the long ago experiences and the new ones you may be creating at this very moment.  Write about your passions whether they involve vampires and werewolves or cut-throat CEOs and psychopaths vying for the CEOs position.  Allow yourself to be inspired by real life events!

Always remember that nothing in this world can be written without having some hooks securely anchored in reality.   Why? Because everyone has the need to connect on some level with the stories they read and the music they hear and the art they see.

So yes, fiction is always fiction … but it also carries elements of non-fiction — also known as reality — that make your characters three-dimensional, and their situations understandable to the reader.

Elyse Bruce


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