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Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Is Fiction Real or Fake?

As an experienced English teacher who recently added a new job as a school librarian, I’m especially excited to answer today’s question: Is fiction real or fake? What’s the difference between the two commonly confused words, the book genres called fiction vs. nonfiction?

In order to help you remember the distinction in this lesson, I’ve illustrated it with hand-drawn cartoons. Some of them, as you may anticipate if you’ve already seen my “Literary Terms List” art, may be a bit on the silly side — but they’re still educational!

Fiction vs. nonfiction
Fiction vs. nonfiction, explained!

Fiction vs. Nonfiction

I won’t keep you in suspense… Let’s start with simple definitions, then get more complex. Works of fiction are defined as: Imaginative stories that are not 100% based on real-life facts. In contrast, works of nonfiction are defined as true, real, and 100% fact-based.

Why is this distinction particularly confusing for students as well as adults, and apt to cause conflict? It’s because the “non” at the start of “nonfiction” makes the brain think that the term means “NOT true,” when in reality, it just means “NOT fiction” — in other words, “NOT made up,” which means fact-based or true.

Interesting. So… can we summarize these definitions by saying, “Fiction is fake, and nonfiction is real?” Be careful with that (I’m foreshadowing some complexity, here) — as we’ll explore in the next section.

Is Fiction Real or Fake?

Regarding the question, “Is fiction real or fake?” the answer is, yes, I guess you could say that fiction is “fake” in that it’s not based on all true facts — but that’s not the best way to describe it. Rather, it’s more accurate to say that fiction is an IMAGINATIVE work — that it’s from the imagination.

Why this distinction? Well, calling something “fake” implies that it’s lies — and maybe even a little naughty or worthless. In fact, however, the made-up stories of fictional works can echo many of the truths and real themes in our world today, even though they are not 100% based on real-life people or situations.

Ironically, sometimes fiction can ring more true for us than nonfiction. Can you think of a few examples of when you learned more about life from a novel than from a textbook? I sure can!

“That’s Pure Fiction!”

Now, I was just talking about book genres, but my answer to, “Is fiction fake?” is different if we’re talking about the turn of phrase that sounds something like this: “That’s pure fiction!” If someone is saying that sentence verbally to another person who’s just been speaking, they are, indeed, calling the person talking a liar — as my cartoon below illustrates.

"Pure fiction" means fake and made up!
“Pure fiction” means fake and made up!

Should Fiction and Nonfiction be Capitalized?

Since I’m writing this lesson right after publishing the article, “Should Halloween Be Capitalized?” I have to cover the question: “Is the word fiction capitalized? Should we capitalize nonfiction?” This question has actually tripped me up for many years, despite my decades of teaching English.

In fact, fiction and nonfiction are genres, which are not proper nouns — meaning they are NOT capitalized if they’re not at the start of a sentence (or not in the always-capitalized words of a title or header, as they are above). In other words, keep them in lower-case form in the middle of a sentence. This answer is only slightly less surprising than the correct response to “Are seasons capitalized?”

Is Nonfiction Written “Non Fiction” or Hyphenated as “Non-Fiction?”

We’ve covered capitalization, so let’s move on to spelling. Is the term “nonfiction” written with a hyphen, like “non-fiction,” or with a space, like “non fiction?” The simple answer is: Nope, there is no hyphen or space in the word “nonfiction.” It’s just one word (unlike the spelling of “no one“).

Subgenres of Fiction and Nonfiction

A “subgenre” is defined as a more specific genre (or category) within a broader one. For example, subgenres of fiction include: science fiction, fantasy, romance, horror, realistic fiction, and much more.

In the world of nonfiction, subgenres encompass: biography, science, self help, guidebooks, textbooks, arts and crafts, health, historical nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, and many, many others.

So which should you pick to read, amid all these genres and subgenres? That leads to our next frequently asked question…

Is Fiction or Nonfiction Better?

Because fiction is not 100% fact-based, sometimes people erroneously categorize it as frivolous, or “less educational.” This is not true!

A person can learn a great deal about real life from novels — even if they’re not in the subgenre of realistic fiction, and the mere act of reading has endless benefits. Reading fictional works is NOT a waste of time.

Meanwhile, the genre of nonfiction is sometimes derided as being “boring,” with people scoffing, “No one wants to read those dry facts.” Again — this is false!

I went to a fascinating school librarian training the other day which showed statistics about how kids and adults alike crave nonfiction because it helps them learn practical knowledge about the world… which is engaging indeed.

In sum, the choice of whether to read fiction versus nonfiction depends entirely on your intent and your mood. Just make sure that both as an educator and a learner, you’re getting a balanced diet of both of those genres, as each provides necessary and complimentary enrichment.

Is fiction real or fake?
Is fiction real or fake? Well…

Why Are Graphic Novels and Poetry Sometimes in the Nonfiction Section?

Time to get into the library complexity that is genre classification. If you’ve looked closely at some library shelves, you’ll see that certain specialty types of fiction writing can sometimes be found in or near the nonfiction section, organized by the Dewey Decimal system.

For example, fictional graphic novels are often found under the Dewey call number, 745.1. Poetry is under 811. Why the heck would these clearly imaginative works of fiction be in what seems like the nonfiction section? This is making me confused!

The reason is simple: In fact, just because a book has a Dewey call number, it doesn’t mean that it is nonfiction. For context, in the original Dewey system, every single book has a number — and ALL fiction is around the early 800s. Libraries just started taking those Dewey numbers off the general fiction and putting it in its own “General Fiction” section, because otherwise there would be more 800s than you could count.

The reason specialty fiction like graphic novels and poetry are sometimes pulled to a different section and slapped with Dewey numbers is so they won’t get lost in the liminal space amid the rest of the non-speciality fiction. Even though specialty fiction sometimes has a Dewey call number, it’s not nonfiction, because it consists of imaginative works that aren’t fact-based.

Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Is Fiction Real or Fake?

Now when people ask you, “Is fiction real or fake?” you can confidently answer, “The fiction vs. nonfiction different can be summed up like this: Fiction is an imaginative work, while nonfiction is fact-based. There’s a clear juxtaposition between them.” What else would you like me to illustrate and explain? Do share!

Want more? Check out my lessons on metacognition examples, and the ever-popular round-up of figurative language.