Fiction vs Nonfiction

Very simply put, the difference between fiction and nonfiction is that the former is created through imagination and the latter draws from real-life facts and events. However, it goes deeper than that when it comes to how each of them is written, and how they can sometimes overlap. Although I don’t lean towards nonfiction writing myself (as about five minutes on this blog will inform you), I can give a fairly good overview of my experiences with my own creative writing versus nonfiction assignments, and I’ll discuss some of the common elements found among other authors.

To get personal biases out of the way: I love fiction. Whether reading it or writing it, it is much more interesting for me, and I don’t get the same excitement out of nonfiction writing. Perhaps this is because it has always been with school assignments that I ever do anything remotely nonfiction, and I assume it would be more enjoyable if it were about a subject that I am genuinely invested in. Still, I can’t get away with ridiculous fantasy and sci-fi themes in nonfiction, so I have never really considered writing it.*

On the flip side, nonfiction writing has always been a very academic pursual. History, Geography, French, even Math occasionally; each required you to lay out facts in your writing at some point, and English, while often focused on literary works, asks for formal and impersonal language. This has made it feel like nonfiction comes off as very stiff, and certain textbooks or articles don’t help, but this isn’t necessarily always the case. David Foster Wallace, while an author of literary fiction, was also known for his humorous essays: “Consider the Lobster” and “A Supposedly Funny Thing I’ll Never Do Again” being a couple. Celebrities such as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have written their own books (Bossypants and Yes Please respectively) based on their own life experiences, which are complimented on their comedic value. ‘Stiff’ doesn’t exactly come to mind.

Which brings me to the fact that both fiction and nonfiction actually cast a very wide net. Fiction presents itself in short stories, novels of all genres, poetry, film, and TV. Nonfiction presents itself in articles, essays, biographies and autobiographies, books, and poetry, film, and TV as well. Here there is already a bit of intersection.

Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing.

Joan Didion

Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.

Khaled Hosseini

Basically, it is facts versus made up information. Yet most fiction applies facts from real life, and nonfiction isn’t always as truthful as it seems-particularly among autobiographies where the author twists events to fit their narrative, as seen occasionally by those trying to ensure they are seen a certain way in history. As for writing each type, the above quotations show the idea that nonfiction funnels its research, or experienced facts, into a narrative, and that fiction funnels mainly imagination into a narrative.

The writing process is going to be different depending on the author and the subject, and again, I mostly only have experience with fiction writing. The writing process in fiction usually requires development of plot, setting, characters, and the like. It also tends to be important to craft a likeable and relatable protagonist, although some authors make the choice not to for one reason or another (I’m sure there are protagonists that are unlikeable by accident, though).

Then there is a matter of the outline. It acts as the structure to the story. Admittedly, this is something that is extremely lacking in my own writing process, but it is assumedly just as crucial to the nonfiction process. You can gather all your plot points, or information, and place them in the order you roughly want them to go in. However, there is a good chance the initial outline will change by the finished product in either case.

Fiction tends to be more fantastical, or revolves around events that didn’t happen, and its writing is going to reflect that. Nonfiction revolves around facts, and real world events, and likewise its writing reflects that.

Where there is overlap are in genres like historical fiction (taking real life events put usually making up characters or some other element), reality TV shows (which may add some sort of scripted drama), fictional media that presents situations closer to our own reality and ones that interpret real information (anything plausible in science fiction), and possibly when nonfiction uses any metaphors or stories to explain a concept, although that could easily be argued against. The line between fiction and nonfiction, however clear it may be, begins to blur here.

I don’t know that in either case one can be called superior over the other. Nonfiction has its importance in helping us learn factually and creating historiography, and fiction acts as a part of culture and can be crucial on an individual scale. In the end that preference comes down to you, but this was still an interesting post to write.

*Maybe I should try to write nonfiction some time while I’m making all these blog posts. It could be a good learning experience. Be warned, then, that I might post a mini-essay on the behaviour of owls.