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If you were to do a Google search on the difference between fiction and nonfiction, you’d find a lot of results that come back telling you nonfiction is real and fiction is fake. In other words, nonfiction is true and fiction is untrue.

But of course, it’s not that simple.

In fact, while nonfiction is built on the premise that the author believes his accounts to be historically or empirically true (as Wikipedia puts it), the facts he’s presenting may be accurate or not. In other words, just because you read it in a nonfiction book (or on the internet, for that matter) doesn’t mean that it’s true.

Fair enough. But what do we mean when we talk about truth in fiction? After all, fiction is built on the premise that what’s being presented by the author is — by and large at least — imaginary. In other words, it is untrue. What gives?

Well, I’m going to turn things over to Salman Rushdie to help explain this paradox:

So, what we’re after in fiction is human truth. And sometimes — as strange as it might seem — it’s actually more effective to reveal that kind of truth through fiction than it is through nonfiction. Don’t believe me? Then ask investigative journalist Linden MacIntyre, host of the CBC’s the fifth estate and author of the Giller Prize Award-winning novel, The Bishop’s Man.

Rather than rehash what had already been reported about the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, MacIntyre wanted to focus on the inner struggle that priests faced when called upon to protect the Church. In 2009, MacIntyre told why he chose fiction as a vehicle to tell the story:

“The truth of this novel is something that I couldn’t really approach to my satisfaction in any of the forms that I have learned over the years in radio, television, and print.”

There you go. Straight from someone who’s made a very respectable living reporting true stories.

It’s in this exploration of inner struggles where good fiction excels. As described in Wikipedia, realist fiction strives “to make the reader feel as if they’re reading something that is actually happening—something that, though not real, is described in a believable way.” By doing this, the author helps readers imagine more fully what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes. And perhaps gain fresh insights into their own lives.

For more thoughts on the notion of exploring truth through fiction, visit the following links: