The Fact of Fiction: Defining and Distinguishing Fiction

Posted on Feb 12, 2019

Imagining scenarios and dreaming up fictional worlds is all fun and games until they have to be put on paper. Suddenly, there are rules to be followed, and even fiction has its fair share of them. So just what defines and distinguishes fiction?


Funny enough, the history of fiction is linked to the origins of the word history itself. The earliest lead is from way, way back in the 12th century. Back then, books were uncommon. It’s rather questionable why books wouldn’t be popular, but that's a debate for another day. Now despite that, there was one household title almost everyone knew: the Bible.

When in doubt, it’s always good practice to go back to the basics. Here are some relevant entries for “fiction” from the trusty Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

  1. Something invented by the imagination or feigned; specifically: an invented story
  2. Fictitious literature (such as novels or short stories)
  3. A work of fiction; especially: novel
  4. The action of feigning or of creating with the imagination

Therefore, fiction mainly refers to written stories that are crafted by our inventive minds. However, it can also take on other forms. Everything from the hit video game franchise Final Fantasy to well-loved Disney movies, to the TV classic Buffy, The Vampire Slayer down to gravity-defying Broadway gem Wicked—they’re all products of imagination and hard work: fiction! But to avoid information overload and brain-frying, today’s focus is the literary kind. Yay books!

Fiction’s pretty much everywhere these days as people put more of their beautiful brainchildren out into this wonderful world. That covers everything from classics like How to Kill a Mockingbird and fairy tales like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, to popular novels we enjoy today, such as John Green’s Paper Towns and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.

Regardless of genre, these works of fiction have six elements in common: setting, characters, plot, point of view, theme, and style. The easiest ones to spot in fiction are the setting, characters, and the plot.

The setting immediately establishes the difference between the real world and the imaginary one, while the characters, plot, and themes speak for the human experience that connects us to it. For example, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini is set in our world, and it depicts the hardships of women in Afghanistan through the two women who serve as its points of view (POVs). However, it’s still fictional, as its characters are imaginary even though they were drawn up from experiences of real people.

In the same vein, characters from high-fantasy novel Lord of the Rings are based on the human experience. There’s the little ones burdened with grand destinies and responsibilities, and there’s those who want to fight for their homeland. The plot to destroy the Ring symbolizes the human struggle to overcome power and greed. It’s all pretty relatable, just that it was packaged with mind-controlling rings, giant fire demons, gorgeous elves, and cranky dwarves. In this case, the plot and setting immediately separate it from reality.

The other three—point of view, theme, and style—are more concerned with what the author wants to say and how they will do it. They are still essential, however, as it just can’t be fiction without any direction or flair. Otherwise, it’ll just be boring, no?

Watching out for what’s different from reality and fiction should be easy, although there are some works that tend to blur these lines.

Treading the Fine Line between Fact and Fiction

Other sources expand the definition of fiction to cover works derived from history and fact. This is where genres like historical fiction and science fiction come in. Historical fiction takes place in the past, just with made-up characters or modified historical figures. Think Lincoln, The Vampire Hunter, where the late American president was depicted as a young man out for revenge against creatures of the night. Other famous examples are The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Memoirs of a Geisha.

Fact Fiction

Science fiction, on the other hand, usually deals with the future and plays with the possibilities of phenomena and technology. Ender’s Game takes place in Earth’s distant future, where we’ve made contact with extraterrestrials. It wasn’t the kind and enlightening human-alien exchange we imagined, though, and the plot expands on that. We also have A Wrinkle in Time, which proposes instantaneous travel to other planets by finding a particular frequency, and The Martian, which details what solitary life could be like on Mars.

Be careful when wandering this gray area. When writing these, tell them right away that it’s fiction, not a textbook or a historical account so they don’t accidentally mistake it for reality. I mean, it was heartbreaking to learn years later that historical hunk Odysseus wasn’t real. The cover, preface, and back page are good places to start.

Then you can mix and match reality with imagination. Perhaps the pharaohs of Egypt were actually magicians who built a powerful empire with help from their gods. How about humans spliced with plant genes?

No matter what kind of fiction you want to write, always remember that imagination is your ultimate weapon. Get creative! Play with facts! Don’t be afraid to be outrageous! Just make sure that your writing is convincing and consistent.

That should be all the facts you need to spot fiction out in the real world! These are facts, not fiction, so believe us.

We hope this helped you understand and get more into fiction. If you have questions about the topic, just let us know and we’ll do our best to answer. Ciao!


Disclaimer: Images are not ours. Credit to the owner.

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