Is Fiction Untrue?

By: Dennis Bates

My wife has always had trouble remembering the difference between fiction and nonfiction. There are so many possible jokes there that I will do the wise thing and pass on all of them. What I mean is that she has always thought nonfiction and fiction are both unreal, much like flammable and inflammable are the same. I used to try to explain the difference, thinking it was odd that she could confuse the two terms: fiction and nonfiction. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that to some degree or other we all confuse them.


Writers and philosophers throughout the ages have said that all fiction is a lie, although some few have argued to the contrary. If they mean fiction is the product of putting glimpses of emotion and feeling woven together using characters that may or may not really exist in their totality, then perhaps they have a point. Most short stories and novels involve events that may or may not have happened exactly the way they appear in print.


But that doesn’t necessarily make the stories a lie or the characters into apparitions of the mind. To do so would be to confuse fiction with untruth. That’s what a lie is: untruth. It’s meant to deceive the listener and make him or her believe something that simply isn’t true. Frequently the teller of the lie stands to gain something from the deception. A criminal lies so he won’t be found guilty. An unscrupulous salesman lies so you’ll believe his fabricated claims and buy his product. Politicians lie to get elected (and because most don’t know any better.) In short, a lie has no regard for truth and doesn’t even try to reveal it, often taking great pains to hide it.


Fiction, on the other hand, has just the opposite goal. It seeks to reveal the truth but tell it creatively as the author sees it. It is to the writer of novels what the empirical method is to the scientist, and it is no less valid. In fact, it is based upon the same premise: observation and testing can lead to a greater understanding of the world we live in. Therefore, fiction is just another way to view the world and search for the truth in it. Fiction doesn’t try to cover up that truth; it seeks to reveal it in some small way. It tries to take the reader deeper into an understanding of something using settings, events and characters that are often imaginary but on some level truth as the author understands it.


One of the best Biblical examples are the parables of Jesus. Did the events he described actually happen? Was there a Good Samaritan, a Prodigal Son, a widow who searched for her lost coin? Maybe and maybe not, but it doesn’t really matter. The parables were word pictures to help the listener understand the points Jesus was trying to make. Stories were often used in those times to make a point. That didn’t make them lies; it just made them another way to tell the truth.


Fiction is only a lie if it is untrue and seeks to deceive. Similarly, nonfiction is not necessarily true just because it is based upon fact. If those facts are structured so they deceive and result in untruth, they aren’t as reliable as fiction is.


Maybe my wife had a good point.









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