Are Memoirs Nonfiction? Clearing Up The Confusion

Sarah Rexford
October 01, 2023 | 6 mins

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Are memoirs nonfiction? This is a valid question, especially because memoirs are written about real events, but can include elements of fiction. Memoirs are stories, and stories are fiction, right? So what’s the difference between memoirs and nonfiction? This can be confusing, particularly when it comes to marketing. 

These questions likely bring up a few more.

Need A Nonfiction Book Outline?

What is a memoir? Memoirs are the life stories of the author. But with decades of memories to draw from, every line of dialogue, interaction, and memory can’t be completely factual. So are memoirs nonfiction or fiction?  

How do you articulate the different genre conventions between memoirs and nonfiction and how each should show up in the marketplace? Where should your book fit in Amazon book categories? Let’s discuss the differences so you no longer have to wonder, are memoirs nonfiction? 

What’s the difference between memoirs and nonfiction? 

The primary difference between memoirs and nonfiction is that memoirs are written strictly from the perspective of the protagonist, while other sub-genres of nonfiction can take various points of view that can provide a more well-rounded look at events.

Let’s take this a bit deeper. A memoir is a nonfiction work of literature, usually authored by the protagonist of the story. So if you wonder, are memoirs nonfiction, the answer is yes. Memoirs are a sub-genre of nonfiction. What is nonfiction? Nonfiction literature is stories based on real events. 

Taking this a step further, if you decide you want to learn how to write a motivational book via memoir, you will choose the factual events that happened throughout your life (and the ones that communicate a clear theme), and recount these events as factually as possible.

Examples of nonfiction memoirs include:

  • Between Two Kingdoms, Suleika Jaouad 
  • The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls
  • The Things I Learned From Falling, Claire Nelson 

While the above memoir examples are all nonfiction, they use fictional storytelling techniques to better communicate factual stories. More on this a bit later. 

As mentioned, memoirs are undoubtedly limited in their point of view. However, a limited viewpoint allows an exceptionally deep look through a specific lens: the lens of the protagonist. 

This brings up another valid question. If memoirs are written through one point of view character, do they have to be factual? What if the writer’s viewpoint isn’t completely factual?

Are memoirs nonfiction: Does a memoir have to be factual?

Yes, memoirs must be factual because they focus on the lived experience of a real person. However, that said, the unique perspective of memoirs is that the memories are written from the perspective of the protagonist. 

The one writing the story, the author, is the perspective character. Everything they experience and communicate to readers is through their point of view. 

There is little to zero ability to head hop (bouncing from one character’s point of view to another) because the perspective character is the writer. They are one and the same. 

Due to this reality, the important question again arises: are memoirs nonfiction? What if the writer remembers a different perspective of their life than someone else? What if the factual events are written in a way that skews the reality of what truly happened?

Every individual has a slightly different viewpoint of events. This is often due to:

  • Upbringing
  • Background
  • Family of origin 

So, are memoirs nonfiction? Yes, but if Walls’ father wrote The Glass Castle, it would be a much different story. This is the special angle memoirs take. 

Their deep point of view, inner self-reflection, and first person perspective engages readers at an intimate level.

It’s crucial to fact-check your lived experience as much as possible, but readers recognize that time dulls memories, each individual’s perspective is slightly different, and exact dialogue is nearly impossible to remember. 

For this reason, many writers may wonder, are memoirs nonfiction, truly? And if the question remains, are memoirs nonfiction, how does this unknown variable impact marketing?

Should you market your memoir as fiction or nonfiction? 

What's the key to book marketing? The key to marketing your memoir book lies in recognizing that memoirs are nonfiction because they are as true-to-fact as possible, while still a recollection of past events. When writing your memoir, you may want to consider leaving an author’s note at the beginning of your manuscript. 

Your note can briefly state that all events, dialogue, and interactions are based on reality as much as possible, but that some dialogue has been re-contrived for a smoother read. 

Market your memoir as nonfiction. Don’t second guess, are memoirs nonfiction? Your lived experience is a reality that happened. 

As long as you do your best to maintain your integrity as you draft and edit your manuscript (after brainstorming memoir ideas for your book) and communicate that some details may be fuzzy, you shouldn’t have much to worry about. 

Are memoirs nonfiction if you use fiction writing techniques? 

Yes, you can use fiction storytelling techniques and still keep your memoir in the nonfiction category. 

Great storytellers often abide by following specific rules when writing, whether in fiction or nonfiction:

  • Show the story rather than tell it 
  • Maintain one point of view per scene
  • Write actively rather than passively
  • Include all five senses 

You should do the same when writing your memoir. Asking, are memoirs nonfiction, is an important question, particularly if you decide to infuse your story with various fiction writing techniques. 

If you decide to base your memoir on factual events but include fictional characters and events, make note of this to your readers. 

Consider the Netflix series, Inventing Anna, true story disclaimer. Before each episode they provide the following: “This whole story is completely true. Except for all of the parts that are totally made up.”

Josh James Riebock’s book, Heroes and Monsters, is a standout example of a memoir that infuses fiction writing techniques. Consider the following from page two:

“What’s that noise? Insect? Mutant? …Maybe I’m drawing far-fetched conclusions right now, but they seem realistic.” 

Here, Riebock lets the reader in on his point of view, while also calling out that his perspective may be far-fetched. Mutants are often found in fiction, but in this nonfiction memoir, they are also found in the writer’s fears.

Are memoirs nonfiction, true stories, and completely factual?

By now you can probably answer this question yourself: yes, they are nonfiction, yes they are true, and no, it is nearly impossible for memoirs to be completely factual. 

However, just as fiction readers understand that they are required to suspend disbelief (such as with mythical creatures), memoir readers recognize that not every word of dialogue or memory is completely factual. 

There are various reasons for this: 

  • For memoirs involving abuse, some memories were likely blocked out for self-preservation 
  • For writers struggling with PTSD, some events may be interrupted by flashbacks that feel like reality 
  • For an elderly person writing a memoir, some events may be impossible to remember exactly as they happened decades ago 

In sum, the next time someone asks you, are memoirs nonfiction, you can say, “Yes!” But then you may want to ask a follow-up question: 

“Would you like to know why they’re considered nonfiction but also aren’t always completely factual?” 

This will likely pique their curiosity and allow you to practice talking about your book. That sounds like a win-win situation. 

But now that you can confidently answer, are memoirs nonfiction, what’s your next step? Check out the free resource below to get started!

Need A Nonfiction Book Outline?

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