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Monday, December 08, 2008

Defining: Based on a True Story

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor

Can fiction be based on a true story and still be fiction?

~ My answer: Absolutely

When do you know to call it nonfiction or a novel based on a true story?

~ My answer: That depends

I’m sure there are varying degrees of answers to these questions, but I’ll attempt to give you my version.

Fiction Based on a True Story
The setting of the story may be in a real place and in a time during an actual historical event, but the characters are all fiction. While the setting and plot is true, the story is about characters that do not exist. Therefore, it is fiction. An example would be the Titantic movie. The ship truly sank in 1912. Many perished while a select few were saved on the life boats. There were lots of true historical details, but to our knowledge, Jack and Rose never existed.

If the setting, place and events are real, as well as the characters, it could still be fiction if the characters’ decisions and behaviors are not historically accurate based on what we know in actual history. An example would be the movie Braveheart. We know that William Wallace existed in the place and time depicted by the movie and that he led a rebellion against the king of Great Britain, but we have no evidence, not even any circumstantial evidence, that he had an affair with the king’s wife and produced an heir not of the king’s bloodline. This is Hollywood’s version of distorting the facts and glamorizing the plot.

However, if the setting, place, events and characters are all true, but we lack accurate historical evidence or detailed knowledge of those individuals, information must be created in order to produce the story and move it forward. The author must create dialogue, personalities of each character, paint an image of what each character looks like, as well as their decisions and behaviors as the true historical events take place. An example would be a movie of North Carolina’s Lost Colony in the 1500’s. We know the colony actually existed, who was there, when they arrived, but we don’t know what happened after Sir Walter Raleigh returned for England for supplies and assistance. The rest is based on theory and imagination.

Nonfiction: A True Story
I consider a story to be nonfiction when the setting, place, events and characters are all true and there is clear and accurate detail and evidence of what was said and took place and it is portrayed as it happened. This means we do not make up the plot twists, glamorize inaccurate details and throw creative dialogue to fill in the loop holes. When you start creating dialogue and subplots to make it flow better, you sacrifice accuracy and delve into the “based on a true story” concept.

A great example of a nonfiction story would be the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When he was on the cross, we know that he asked for water. He could have said, “I thirst” or “I’m parched” or “I’m dehydrated” or “Water, please”. All of these statements mean the same thing. How he stated it, is up to interpretation based on translation. But as long as the story shows what he stated within the context of what he meant, it is nonfiction. If the story shows him asking for a Coke, we’d know it was fiction. Coke didn’t exist in his time.


Interesting post. :-)

Thanks, Jessica. I've had a lot of people ask about this and when I first started writing, I wasn't clear how to classify what I write.

Hey Jennifer

This is GREAT information!!
What a relief!!

Bonnie S. Mata

I think the genre Narrative Non-fiction has given us a place to rest that is more satisfying than to simply choose between "fiction" and "non-fiction". Stories that deal with actual events that have occurred and are basically told exactly as they happened aren't fiction in anyway, but still require skill and art in the telling.