What Is the Difference Between Nonfiction & Fiction?

It may seem as nonfiction could be easily defined as based in fact, and fiction as created from the imagination. But the definitions of these two literary categories are not so clear-cut. For example, “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn” by Eric Ives and “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory both feature historical figures in King Henry VIII’s court; however, Ives’ work is considered nonfiction while Gregory’s is considered fiction. In large part, the difference lies in the author’s intent.

Defining Fiction

It’s true that fiction can be defined as literature invented by the imagination. Fictional works encompass all forms of writing, including novels, short stories, poems and plays, as well as genres, such as science fiction, romance, mystery, fantasy and crime. This definition stands even when those fictional works are inspired by actual events and people. The key element that separates fiction inspired by true events from nonfiction is whether the author adheres to known facts, or is simply inspired by them. For instance, Gregory’s fictional accounting of the lives of Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary features intimate scenes for which there are no historical records -- instead, they have been invented by the author to tell a story for entertainment.

Nonfiction Definition

It’s also true that nonfiction can be defined as literature based in fact. This literary category includes newspaper articles, encyclopedias, essays, biographies, instructional books, autobiographies and textbooks. Perhaps the broadest literary category, nonfiction works are written in all subject matters, such as travel, cooking, history, religion, the arts, science, music, medical, true crime and self-help. The primary intention of nonfiction is to relay factual information accurately. However, nonfiction does not require that the writing be devoid of creativity. For example, Ives uses research on customs of the time period to speculate on the reputations, romances and intentions of the Boleyn family. However, Ives qualifies his speculations with phrases such as “perhaps” and “we can assume” to indicate facts that are not known but most likely true.

Classifying Creative Nonfiction

Blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction is the subcategory known as creative nonfiction. This classification refers to literary works that are based in fact and are intended to relay information; however, they use literary devices found in fiction writing, such as voice, setting, character development and tone. In these works, it is acceptable for authors to take a certain degree of creative license with factual information, as long as they do not present invented information as fact.

Intention Tells the Difference

As an example of the difference between fiction, nonfiction and creative nonfiction, consider the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth. A nonfiction book on the subject would include information such as the location, Ford’s Theater, and the fact that Booth shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!” after killing Lincoln. A creative nonfiction novel on the topic might infuse the story with conjecture regarding Booth’s emotional state. On the other hand, a work of fiction on the historic event might suggest that Booth was a member of a secret league of time traveling spies sent to alter history. In the end, categorizing literature as fiction or nonfiction often comes down to how the author intended for the work to be read.