True That: Fiction vs. Nonfiction


I can’t believe how much this issue has come up in my life and work.

Acquaintances and distant relatives of mine still say, “Yeah, I prefer nonfiction because it’s TRUE!” And I wince.

Sometimes our kids ask, when they read a book or watch a movie: “Mom, is this real? Is this true? Did this really happen?”

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Or in the wonderful film Sideways, when Paul Giamatti’s character meets his friend’s future in-laws (Armenian, I’m embarrassed to say) and they tell him they prefer nonfiction to novels like his, because nonfiction is true, based on real life.

And fiction isn’t based on life?

What is true about anything a writer writes?

My recent novel, Bravura, is the first in a series about a group of classical musicians in London in the 1960s and follows them over a 30+ year period, through their loves, careers, highs and lows. I have played the violin for 35 years, and much of that experience — and the experiences of musicians I know — informs the story. The lead character is even a violinist. But does that make the book autobiographical? No.

An agent once told me: “I could sell this book — if only it were nonfiction.”

Would the characters or story suddenly become more interesting if the reader knew they really lived at one time? If I slapped the “based on a true story” line on the title page?

Like many books, the main characters in the foreground of Bravura are fictional, but they are surrounded by a very historically accurate backdrop of events and famous minor characters — some of the renowned classical musicians, conductors, and performers of the era. Many other stories/series have used this approach — Downton Abbey, Forrest Gump.

So is the book fiction or nonfiction? Fiction.

Then it’s not true? Wrong. It is true. True to life.

The life lessons, the morals, the application to life – are all real and true, I’d like to think. Is it factually based on a public figure? No, though it is a composite of the experiences of many.

Some people love to be inspired and informed by biographies and autobiographies. They swear by them, which is fine. But the life lessons are no less true in a novel than they are in a biography. That’s the issue about fiction/non-fiction that is often lost or misunderstood. As writers, we are not just reporting the facts, as some journalists do. We are telling stories to tell truths, or at least to explore truths.


A piece of fiction, even if veiled by the masks of imagined character names, city names, events or time periods, can still grab us by the mind, heart, and throat with its realities — fiction can make us think, examine, and ask questions, as freely and deeply – perhaps even more so – than a piece of clear-boundaried non-fiction can.

In fact, in writing workshops as a teenager, I found that I — and others in the workshop — were even more bold in our writing when we could ‘hide’ behind a fictional lead character name or a time period or city other than our own. Somehow it opened up far more willingness to put ‘reality’ out there.

In whatever format or genre you select, within fiction or nonfiction, put it all out there. All of yourself. All the truth you’ve learned so far, and use the page to keep seeking more. Your readers will want to go on the ride. Because we crave truth, whether we realize it or not, and sometimes we find it in the most unlikely places.


2 thoughts on “True That: Fiction vs. Nonfiction

  1. For me the major difference between fiction and non-fiction (in my case memoir) is that I am prepared to own the facts and prepared for any consequences that may bring. I have enacted what is known as the autobiographical pact which is a pact between writer and reader that the truth according to the writer has been written and the reader will read it as true. I believe as you do that fiction is true or at least based on true feelings and people. In fiction however the author is saying that they are not telling the truth of a situation ie it is made up. They are not prepared to own it. Readers are much more lenient with reading fiction to non-fiction in how far they will accept a deviation from the truth. This is one of my favourite topics and I could go on for days so I will finish here. Good to see the topic being examined.

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