Fiction vs Nonfiction: Definitions & Comparisons

Gloria Russell
August 16, 2023 | 8 mins

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If you’re brand new to writing, you may feel like you’re at a bit of a loss. Where do you even get started? And should you write fiction vs nonfiction? What is fiction and nonfiction anyway?

Maybe you took a creative writing class and just enjoyed writing poems, or maybe you’ve always had learning how to write a book on your bucket list. You may even be a seasoned writer looking for a different writing path. 

One of the most fundamental decisions writers have to make is this: in the vast list of book genres, what genre will I write in? And it’s not as simple a question as you might think. 

If you already know that you want to write a memoir or autobiography, this is a little easier. If you have a story and you’re not sure how to tell it, you may wonder whether you ought to give the nonfiction account, or a fictionalized version of it. What’s the difference between writing fiction vs nonfiction, anyway? 

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In this article, we’ll talk all about fiction vs nonfiction: the difference between fiction and nonfiction, what sorts of people prefer each, how to choose between the two genres, and which one is a better path for you. 

What is fiction and nonfiction?

What is fiction and nonfiction? They are both huge umbrella genres, each containing a wide array of subgenres. To avoid getting confused while sorting through subgenres, let’s talk about how to tell fiction and nonfiction apart. 

Fiction defined 

Fiction is, plainly put, a made-up story. The places and people in the story might be based on real people and places—it’s common for fiction to be set in real-world cities, states, and countries—but the characters and interactions between them are not meant to be an actual, real-world account of something that happened. 

Fiction occasionally uses allegory, where readers can draw comparisons between the book to real-world events. But again, these comparisons are only comparisons. Animal Farm by George Orwell, for example, is not a factual account of something that literally happened on someone’s farm (although that would be incredible). 

Another way to help distinguish fiction vs nonfiction is the use of prose. Prose is written language which is meant to be something of an art form. Fiction writers often use prose to put artistic meaning into their word choice, tone, and flow.

Nonfiction authors also use prose (since prose is literally, by definition, just written word), but fiction authors tend to put more of an artistic spin on it. Fiction will have more imagery, for example, and more use of metaphor and descriptive language. 

Nonfiction defined 

What is nonfiction? Nonfiction is literature focused on factual retellings of things that actually happened. Where fiction is meant to tell a completely made-up story that doesn’t correspond to real characters, nonfiction does the opposite. 

Nonfiction is generally focused on informing the reader about something as opposed to telling them a story. This genre includes information books on things like history, science, or art, and it also includes biographies and memoirs. 

Creative nonfiction and memoirs 

People tend to get confused about creative nonfiction and memoirs. Why? Well, creative nonfiction blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction. It’s usually going to read more like a novel than like an informational text—the prose might be artistic, there might be scenes with dialogue and characters, and there might even be a plot like you’d find in a fiction novel. 

But in a work of creative nonfiction, the focus is still to convey factual events which really happened. It might be dressed up like fiction, but it’s still nonfiction. 

It’s a similar story with memoirs. Memoirs tend to be a more artistic rendering of a specific aspect of someone’s life, like their pregnancy, their climb to CEO, and so on. Memoirs might fuzz some details and skip over some sections, but they are predominantly factual.

So now that you have some idea of the difference between fiction and nonfiction, let's discuss which people are drawn to fiction vs nonfiction (and vice versa).

What type of people prefer fiction vs nonfiction?

There aren't a ton of studies that track trends in reader habits, so it’s hard to say for absolute certainty, but we know that women and children tend to read more fiction than men. The specifics on this vary widely from state to state and county to county, but this is the overall trend. 

It’s also worth mentioning that this margin is pretty slim—adults on the whole still tend to favor nonfiction over fiction. 

Nonfiction is usually preferred by adults, and slightly more men than women tend to read it. 

But nonfiction is an enormous genre, and it’s helpful to know the specifics. Memoirs and autobiographies absolutely dominate nonfiction sales, with memoirs especially having an edge.

Self-help books are also extremely popular. These books can vary widely and appeal to hugely different demographics—books on how to succeed as a woman in business, for example, are probably going to attract more women than men. 

How to choose whether to write fiction vs nonfiction

Now that we know the difference between fiction and nonfiction, let’s decide: between fiction vs nonfiction, which genre is best for you? 

Read widely across both genres 

Your first assignment when choosing between fiction vs nonfiction is just to read.

If you don’t know what nonfiction looks like, how can you say it’s not for you? If you haven’t read fiction since high school, you might not know that you actually still love it. 

Read lots of contemporary nonfiction and fiction. Find subgenres you love—maybe fantasy doesn’t do it for you, but you love crime and mystery novels. You might not care for history books, but you might enjoy a deeply moving memoir. 

Having a good sense of what these genres look like will help you figure out which you’d like to work with. You don't want to spend time hemming and hawing over high fantasy vs low fantasy if you don't actually like fantasy novels! 

Consider your target audience and goal 

The next thing you want to consider when choosing between fiction vs nonfiction is your target audience. If you’re building an author platform from scratch, you need to keep your business model in mind.

Who are you writing for, and what are those people reading? 

If you want to write for children, for example, you may prefer to write fiction. Turning your information into stories might yield better results than making a straightforward nonfiction book. If you want to write for adults, maybe a self-help book would be a great way to communicate your ideas! 

Tell the story that you want to tell 

If you have no idea where to start, it definitely helps to consider your target audience, look at trending categories, and read a little bit of everything. 

But the bottom line is, you need to pick the genre that best tells your story.

Think of it like this. You’ve got something that you want to share with the world. Maybe it’s a really cool fantasy world and a quest that happens within it, or maybe it’s your own personal struggles. Maybe it’s your personal twist on a classic crime novel trope.

Genre is the vessel with which you tell that story. You want to pick one that helps you tell your story clearly and easily—it shouldn’t make it harder to get your point across.

Maybe you want to fictionalize your experiences, but when you try to do so, things get muddy and murky. It might be the case that writing a nonfiction memoir will come naturally to you. 

Similarly, you may think you want to write fiction vs nonfiction only to find out you're more interested in the topic or setting than the actual characters.

For example, if you want to write a fantasy story based on Norwegian folklore, but discover you are really just enamored with Norwegian folklore, itself, then you can write a nonfiction book about it!

Decide what kind of story you want to tell, and let the genre be the vessel through which you tell it. 

Fiction vs nonfiction – which is better?

As you may have guessed by the previous section, it’s impossible to say whether fiction vs nonfiction is objectively better. 

Fiction has its role in literature, and so does nonfiction. We need both, and authors can use both to tell impactful, engaging stories. You may prefer fiction vs nonfiction, and someone else might disagree with you, and that’s totally fine! 

Even when it comes to sales, it’s difficult to assert which is more profitable. Fiction sales lag just a tad behind nonfiction sales, but not enough to say that one is inherently a better money-making endeavor than the other. It depends on the subgenre, and it depends on the book. 

Forcing yourself to write a book you’re not interested in just to make a quick buck probably isn’t going to lead to a prosperous career. This puts you at a higher risk for burnout, and it dramatically increases the likelihood of your book not being very good.

By contrast, writers who are passionate about their stories, even if those stories aren’t what’s “hot” right now, can find huge success and even break open new trends. Twilight, for example, came out of seemingly nowhere, and practically invented the young adult fiction genre as we know it overnight.

Choosing fiction vs nonfiction is an entirely personal choice. Consider your story, your audience, and your passions, and write what feels right to you.

What’s your favorite genre between fiction vs nonfiction? If you’re already writing in one genre, have you considered trying another? Let us know! 

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