Nonfiction vs. Fiction

Truth in writing, what does it mean to the writer, how important is it?

Nonfiction is a form of narrative whose assertions are understood to be factual; accurate or not. That is, it can be a true or false account of the subject in question; however it is generally assumed that the authors of such accounts believe them to be truthful at the time of their composition. I put it to you that, oftentimes, those prose are written from a highly prejudicial point of view. I can just see those nonfiction purists among you shaking your heads.

History, human history in particular, is written by historians around what they believe to be cold, hard facts. For instance, I was taught, in history lessons, at school that the early European settlers first arrived in what was to become the Americas in the late 15th century; that the first fleet arrived in Australia in 1788 and established the first colony; and that the first colony in Tasmania was established at the beginning of the 19th century. All very clinical, very accurate, or is it? Who wrote the histories and for whom?

Historical fiction authors sift through the cold, hard, dry statements of fact and write what can loosely be termed ‘semi-fictional’ accounts of history. The history lessons I received at school were presented as fact; and yet, little mention was made of the standing residents of those newly invaded discovered lands; it was certainly never made plain to me that they were in fact dispossessed, and quite brutally so in most cases. Writers of historical fiction make reasonable assumptions in regard to what was going on in the heads of the people involved to give a somewhat fuller picture, and the general public, inadvertently, discover more by reading those stories than they otherwise would have. You tell me, who paints the more accurate picture of any, given historical period?

Science is a term referring to a body of knowledge of the type that can be rationally explained and reliably applied, and has come to denote a systematic enterprise that builds and organises knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about physics, chemistry, geology and biology: the physical universe as we understand it. Yes, a textbook description. However the truth is we, the human race, are constantly disproving earlier theories that have been quoted as fact, and so are continually reassessing what we accept as the truth.

Science Fiction is what we can imagine as possible future(s) development(s) in light of our currently accepted truth with regard to what we presently consider to be scientific fact. That’s one point of view. Personally, I like to believe that we the authors, with our imaginations, are the trail blazers; leaving the scientists then struggling to keep up.

Biographies, supposedly factual accounts, can be highly controversial; depending on who the biographer is, whether it is an official biography, from what perspective it is written and if the subject of the biography (or anyone else connected with the biography) is still around to take legal action. Also in this category are the autobiographies and memoirs, which by their very nature are subjective, and therefore biased; as, of course, are most truths.

Journalism, purported to be factual, as we all know can be highly erroneous. Focussing on certain factual details (and in some cases even that is dubious) while ignoring others, they oftentimes fill out the rest with supposition, which of course is subjective. There are many recorded cases where, with their methodology, journalists have wrongfully, devastatingly, hung people out to dry who were later exonerated by an author providing a dramatised account of the story.

True Crime; a lot of the previous paragraph on journalism could apply to this category of nonfiction; and ‘true crime’ stories rarely, if ever, try to get into the minds of the people concerned, we therefore get no insights into the reasoning behind those crimes.

In the case of Crime fiction, based on ‘true crime’, a writer can use poetic licence, dramatise for effect and, through analysis of facts, hypothesise what goes on in the heads of the criminal perpetrators (now characters in the Crime Fiction); and perhaps even make some sense out of an apparently senseless episode.

Truth in writing, what does it mean to the writer, how important is it? Is it merely subjective as it is in real er… life? I believe this is a subject that could be serialised, explored from every angle, like most of the topics touched upon at IU. What is your truth?

Author: T.D. McKinnon

Scottish author T.D.McKinnon ‘Survived the Battleground of Childhood’ in the coal mining communities of Scotland and England before joining the British Parachute Regiment at fifteen where he remained for five years. He has trained in the martial arts for most of his life and had five Karate schools in Scotland before immigrating to Australia. He writes across several genres and has completed five books that are all available as eBooks. He lives in Tasmania, Australia with his wife. Learn more about T.D.McKinnon at his website and Amazon author page.

20 thoughts on “Nonfiction vs. Fiction”

  1. T.D. brings up some good arguments and observations. As a writer of many disciplines mentioned above (journalism, history, historical fiction, science fiction) I agree that what the writer omits is as important as what is included. I especially “get” the truths possible in good historical fiction. In 2012, I released both a history book about the 1838 Patriot War on the US-Canada border and a novel set in that war. The former described what happened and the latter included plausible conversations, opinions and emotions of key participants. Those of my readers who read both books told me that the two together tell a much fuller story.

    1. Quite so, Shaun, and I have no doubt that a much more balanced picture would emerge from that kind of cooperative venture. Well done, and thank you so much for taking the time to drop by, Shaun.

  2. My truth is so elusive, at times I wonder whether am dreaming. I´ve had to triangulate information, and I´ve begged for interviews but people are frightened. It´s taking years to find the truth.

    My story is set in 1970s Argentina, during the Dirty War, when thousands of youths joined terrorist group, Montoneros, and were subsequently made to disappear by the Armed Forces.

    In any analysis of non-fiction stories, you might include those of us who dig and dig, only to find more dirt.

    1. Of course, Elina, my comparable examples of fiction and nonfiction are only a small representation, and I do know from personal experience how difficult it can be to track down that elusive ‘truth’ in order to present that accurate, nonfiction narrative. For those who keep digging, I salute you!

      Thank you so much for dropping by, Elina.

  3. As a sci-fi writer I particularly liked your comments about science fiction. When I write about aliens I know full well that what I am really writing is fantasy – no one is ever going to discover a planet populated with winged psychopaths! And yet, there is a core of possibility in all the biology and culture I imagined for them. So my truth is that my aliens are possible – highly unlikely, but still possible. 🙂

  4. Here’s where those genres blur, Meeks; I think that even traditional sci-fi breaks down into different categories: Arthur C Clarke’s stuff is as different from Isaac Asimov or Frank Herbert as you can get, and now with so many sub-genres happening anything goes. The only limit is our imagination, and who is to say what is possible. To steal a line from a very successful sci-fi series, ‘The truth is out there!’

    Thank you so much for dropping by, Meeks.

  5. Love your post, TD. I’m going to comment on one sentence in your science section.

    “However the truth is we, the human race, are constantly disproving earlier theories that have been quoted as fact, and so are continually reassessing what we accept as the truth.”

    I should probably start this with a disclaimer, that I’m not a scientist. 🙂 Your sentence is correct, but a lot of people misunderstand the repercussions of what this means. In the US especially this has created a lot of controversy in the political arena because of a misunderstanding of what is fact and what is theory. A fact is something that is “an objective and verifiable observation,” For example, water boils on Earth at a specific temperature (0C, 32F) at sea level. A theory is an explanation or interpretation of how something works based on the known facts. Gravity is one example. One theory may build on another, but all are based on an interpretation of the known facts which don’t change.

    The theory of gravity was once based on a theory of Sir Isaac Newton’s. Then Einstein postulated his theory of relativity and over many years this has been shown to be a more accurate in explaining the facts than Newton’s explanation. However, at no point did we fall off the Earth.Theories that approach the point of being considered close to fact within the scientific community (like Newton’s theories on gravity at one time) and subsequently shown to be incorrect are going to be overthrown by a theory that is more accurate, not one showing the previous theory to be completely bogus. In fact, even though Newton’s theory is incorrect, it is still used to make approximations that are close enough because it is simpler to use.

    1. You are correct, of course, Al, and possibly what I should have said – rather than ‘theories quoted as fact’ – is ‘theories presented as fact’. For instance: while ‘The Theory of Evolution’ and ‘The Big Bang Theory’ are clearly titled ‘Theories’, they are presented more like statements of fact.

      Thank you so much for taking the time to drop by and comment, big Al.

  6. The backbone of my historical fiction is constructed from: dates, locations, diaries, letters, notebooks, anecdotes, scientific theories, and documented events, where I might add, slipped discs and osteoporosis abounds. I have to be a creative chiropractor and snap a few necks and twist a few missing limbs into shape for the sake of a story, and there’s no denying that both fictional and historical characters have to be defined by phantom pain and imagined joy. Fiction is the wonder-full landscape where the art of creative lying is celebrated. An author can go overboard and lie outrageously or toe-dip into the shallow end of the white variety because anything is possible when thoughts are filtered through the keyboard of a wild writer. But, it’s good to watch ‘Qi’ and be flabbergasted by the ‘ongoing’ truth which is always stranger than fiction.

    1. A wonderfully poetic comment, Veronica, and exactly the way good historical fiction is written.

      I would take it a step further – and I can only make this comment from a personal point of view from the one historical fiction I have out there and the one I am currently writing – that after absorbing all the verifiable, available facts something else occurs in regard to some kind of participation, and therefore insight: the characters step up, identify themselves and tell you their story; that takes good historical fiction right over the top, where your readers can smell the sweat, taste the bile, feel the joy, the passion and the pain!

      Thank you so very much for dropping by, Veronica.

    1. Ahh yes, so true, but whose truth, Faye. Theories and assumptions are made in light of a remarkably small amount of FACTS. An amazing amount of so called facts are actually subjective.

      Thank you for dropping in and commenting, Faye.

          1. This is becoming philosophical debate, Faye, and I would only add that the state of any knowledge, or truth, corresponds to personal belief in regard to it: and that is subjectivity.

            Thank you for your input, Faye, it has been interesting.

  7. TD, good article. It’s amazing how subjective “truth” can be. When I wrote the biography of my aunt, a prisoner-of-war, I did my level best to be no more than an objective reporter, telling her story truthfully and honestly, neither embellishing nor diminishing her experience. Since I’m primarily a fiction author, this was tough, but I think I succeeded. I set a goal for myself to feel able to hand her the book (she’s passed) without flinching, and I reached that point. Still, it would be interesting to get her take on it!

    1. As your aunt’s biographer, were you writing her account of her POW experience, or was the POW experience part of the biography of her life? Did you work closely with her, or did you get the story from her and then write the biography independent of her?

      I’m interested in the different ways in which biographies are written. I have written two autobiographical memoirs, and I’m aware of some of the difficulties relating to verifying and organising memories into sequential order; consequently, I have gained many insights into memory retrieval. I just wondered how others achieved successful logging of memories.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting, Melissa.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: