While both fiction and memoirs tell compelling stories, they are ultimately two different genres of writing. A memoir tells a true story about a specific time in an author's life, such as childhood, a period of illness or a relationship with a family member. By contrast, the author invents fictional stories for the purpose of entertainment. Memoirs and fiction differ in their use of facts, their protagonists and their sources of description and detail.
Use of Facts
The biggest difference between memoirs and fiction is the role real events play in their development. In a memoir, writers have an obligation to deliver a true and accurate depiction of their experiences. The website Freelance Writing states that while writing about memory can be hazy territory, memoir writers should make every effort to be honest and authentic. However, because fiction is largely invented by its authors, they have more leeway with accuracy. For example, although Harper Lee shares the same background and basic experiences as Scout in "To Kill a Mockingbird," the novel's events are heavily fictionalized.
Protagonists and Point of View
Because the author is the subject of his own experiences, he is the protagonist, or main character, in his own story, according to author Ed Davis. Therefore, a memoir uses the first-person voice of the author, adding to the story's authenticity and the assumption that the events are true. In "Surrendered Child," Karen McElmurray's powerful confessional voice lends authenticity to her story of giving up a child for adoption as a teenager. In fiction, writers have a choice about which character tells the story or whether to use a first-person or third-person narrator.
Use of Detail
The use of detail to create a vivid world is a common technique of both genres. However, the descriptions themselves have different sources. Memoir authors create characters and settings from a mix of their recollections, facts and imagination. For example, although author Jeannette Walls probably can't remember the exact words of conversations with her alcoholic father, the dialogue in "The Glass Castle" still vividly evokes their relationship. By contrast, fiction writers have the freedom to invent all detail, even creating the imaginary worlds of books like "The Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter."
Ultimately, the goals of memoirs and fiction are different. A memoir's goal is to help the author explore his memories and arrive at the truth of how the experience changed him. As a result, the tone is often introspective, with more emphasis placed on the author's reflections than developing a cohesive plot, states Davis. In John Edgar Wideman's essay "Looking for Emmett Till," Wideman explores his powerful emotional connection to Till, an African-American teenager murdered in the south in the 1950s, in an episodic, fragmented reflection. While fiction still reveals truths through themes and morals, its primary purpose is to entertain.