What is Fiction?

We’ve got a dictionary definition, sure—but do you really know what makes fiction fiction? There are nuances to this, I’ve found recently as I’ve talked with more writers, and not every thinks of the word the same way. So, let’s tackle this: what is fiction?

Here’s what the dictionary says: literature that describes imaginary events and people. Of course that completely ignores movies and television, so maybe instead we should say stories that describe imaginary events and people. But I don’t think that’s a great fit either.

Take, for example, a book like Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer. It describes real people and real events intermixed with imaginary people and events. But it’s still fiction, right? Not everyone would agree, or completely agree. Some reserve fiction for entirely made up stories, so they’d hesitate to put this squarely in the fiction category. Some would make up a subcategory like “historical fiction” which would allow for a mix of real and not-real elements. Still, I can’t put Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer into the category of historical fiction, even if some of the events are true.

Fiction

What is fiction? The question is more complicated than it seems.

The dictionary gives another definition which I think is more apt: invention or fabrication as opposed to fact. In terms of writing (be it TV, movies or books), we could again say stories with invented elements as opposed to completely factual ones. Seem like a good fit?

In fact, we get “fiction” from late Middle English which used the word in the sense of “invented statement,” so I think that’s a pretty good way of looking at it. Middle English got the word via Old French which got it from the Latin word fictio, which is much cooler than fiction because… Latin.

Justin is a writer and actor in Washington, D.C. His non-fiction stories have appeared in Wired, Popular Science and San Diego Citybeat among authors. He's the author of the Station One Series and Treknology: Star Trek' Tech 200 Years Ahead of the Future.