Fiction is the term for works of imagination and invention. Nonfiction describes any work in any media that is not fictional, that is, purports to describe real events, ideas, or people. The phrases are most often used to describe written literature or other media. This specialized use means that the terms fiction and nonfiction are commonly confused by the general public. In popular media formats such as film and television, fiction is the basis of comedies and narrative dramas, while nonfiction includes documentaries and news coverage.
The word fiction derives from the Latin word fingere, meaning to shape or create. The same word provides the root for the English words finger and figment. This connection with the word figment may help some people remember the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Associating fiction with the phrase figment of the imagination, which fiction describes, may provide a helpful mnemonic, or memory aid. Nonfiction is thus anything that is not created in the imagination.
Since prehistory, stories and fables have blended elements of fiction and nonfiction. Even in modern times, the differences between them are not always distinct. Writers commonly borrow events and ideas from real life to color their fiction with realistic detail. Reporters and historians add speculation, educated guesses, and invented dialogue to their nonfiction narratives or condense and delete facts for the sake of brevity and clarity. Media formats like reality television and documentary dramas further confuse the issue.
A key difference between fiction and nonfiction is the creator’s intent. Fictional stories may use invented characters and worlds to discuss real issues and problems. For example, the TV series The Twilight Zone and Star Trek used science-fiction concepts, such as alien races, to examine issues of racism and prejudice. Writers of nonfiction, on the other hand, intend to portray real events. The term nonfiction applies even if the work is later revealed to be inaccurate or partially invented.
Although the terms fiction and nonfiction originated with written literature, they apply to most forms of popular media. The documentary is a nonfiction film format, while United 93 and Silkwood are examples of films that tell fictionalized versions of real events. Television news journalism is supposed to be nonfiction, while dramas and comedies are pure fiction. Reality TV, by employing coached spontaneity, often manages to be neither fiction nor nonfiction. Comic books, audio recordings, and stage performances all have formats that encompass both fiction and nonfiction.