1 December 2006

Truth in Fiction

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 6:07 pm


The big split in zoology is between plants and animals; the big split in books is between fiction and nonfiction. The main distinction is that nonfiction deals in fact, whereas fiction… doesn’t. Fiction might be realistic, such that the characters and the situations seem just like the sort of thing that might happen to you and me. But we understand that the story and the characters aren’t real; they’re figments of the author’s imagination.

There are hybrids: semi-fictionalized memoirs, novels in which the author appears as a character in the story, alternative history, those long discourses on the physiology of whales in Moby Dick, and so on. But you know what I mean.

So the question is this: can fiction – the clearly made-up parts of fiction – possibly be construed as “true”?

Certainly there are facts internal to the work of fiction: Sherlock Holmes smokes a pipe, he has a friend named Dr. Watson. There are broader internal truths too; e.g., Holmes is a great detective. What I’m talking about are fictional truths that are also true in the “real world.” Is such a thing possible? If so, how does it work?




  1. I think it is critical that the distinction be maintained between fact and fiction. It is a critical dichotomy.

    But the interesting thing is that, like most dichotomies, they break down – they can be deconstructed, if you like. In real (and virtual) life the lines between fact and fiction are blurred. Where “fiction” begins and “fact” begin are difficult to see. What if you choose to write a fictional account of a character that you have based on yourself? In this case there are facts about yourself that you incorporate into the story. But there are also certain facts that do not hold true of yourself in “real life.” But because they are all meshed together into one thing it might be impossible to definitively say that the story is “Fact” or “Fiction.”

    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 2 December 2006 @ 9:10 pm

  2. I think the fact-fiction distinctions are inherently relative. “Holmes smokes a pipe” is a fact within a fictive reality. “Ktismatics is a star of stage and screen” is a fiction within what a factual reality. Maybe what needs to be defined is the distintion not between kinds of statements, but between kinds of realities.

    This idea of basing a fictional character on a real-world person is an interesting one. Assume that the overlap between the fictional and the real character isn’t 100%. It should be possible to generate a series of statements and then apply them to these two overlapping but nonidentical characters. Some statements would be true of both characters; some statements would be true of one but not the other; some would be true of neither character. Similarly, it would be possible to generate statements about the fictional reality and the factual reality in order to make the overlaps between the two realities explicit.

    I suspect that, when you’re talking about whole entities like people or realities, any detectable differences are definitive: the two entities are regarded as different no matter how similar they are on most dimensions. Still, we could still assert that comparisons are relevant: even if you and I aren’t the same person, we might react in a very similar way to a particular hypothetical situation.

    Comment by ktismatics — 3 December 2006 @ 5:09 pm

  3. John says…
    Maybe what needs to be defined is the distintion not between kinds of statements, but between kinds of realities.

    But as a student of Derrida surely you understand that you are simply replacing one distinction with another. Instead of talking about fact/fiction you are now creating various levels of reality. It seems as though you are hoping to achieve a greater distinction and clarity, when it seems quite likely that the distinctions will not hold as tightly as you might suspect. Not that I am against this move – I think it is a grand plan. We are always seeking to provide definition and precision in our language, and for that we require dichotomies. But then we’ve got guys like Derrida and Qohelet that come along every once and a while and point out how these dichotomies fail us….

    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 5 December 2006 @ 8:24 pm

  4. You may recall that I read Derrida as a splitter, not a clumper — a multiplier of differences rather than a synthesizer. The Greeks saw two realities: material and ideal. Christianity sees two realities: material and spiritual. Rationality saw two realities: material and mental. I believe that contemporary secular culture wants to synthesize all dichotomous realities into one. I propose an unlimited number of possible realities. Not dichotomy, but multichotomy.

    Comment by ktismatics — 5 December 2006 @ 9:56 pm

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