Marie-Laure Ryan


The International Encyclopedia of Communication (ed. Wolfgang Donsbach), Volume 4. Wiley-Blackwell (Oxford, UK and Malden, MA), 2008, pp. 1808-1812.

Fiction is an intuitively understood concept that enjoys wide currency both in the public at large and among specialists of literary theory. Yet it is as difficult to define technically as it is easy to recognize. While there is widespread agreement that fiction represents a distinct mode of ___(and here comes the first problem: does the blank stand for discourse, or representation?), there is far less consensus about its opposite: should we call it “fact,” “referential discourse,” or simply “non-fiction” ? Does fictionality presuppose language, or is the concept applicable to other media? And what are its relations to narrative? Common usage tends to conflate the two: “fiction” is often taken to mean “narrative fiction.” The overwhelming majority of fictions are indeed narratives, but not all narratives are fictional, and fictional texts do not always tell stories, as postmodern novels have demonstrated.

Fictionality versus narrativity

Though the domains of “narrative” and of “fiction” overlap, rather than opposing each other within a larger field, the contrast between these two concepts provides a convenient approach to the nature of fictionality. The narrativity of a text is a semantic issue, this is to say, a matter of content, and the user can decide whether or not the text tells a story by simply decoding its meaning. Fictionality, by contrast, is a pragmatic issue: not a matter of what the text is about, but a matter of how the text is used. There may be some semantic restrictions on the content of a fiction; for instance, it can be argued that a fiction must be about particulars and not general ideas, but there are no positive conditions that specify a certain type of subject matter. Even though literary critics have detected “signposts of fictionality,” i.e. stylistic features that betray fictional status (Cohn 1999), these features are not mandatory. A given text could be read, at least in principle, either as a fiction or as a report of facts. What tips the user to its fictionality is usually a paratextual device, such as the labels “novel,” “short story,” or “drama.” These labels instructs the user how to process the text. Determining fictionality has far greater cognitive consequences than determining narrativity, because the judgment can be right or wrong, and because a wrong categorization would lead the user to take the false as true or the true as false. On the other hand, we could read a story without asking ourselves “is it” or “isn’t it a narrative,” and still process the text correctly. What makes judgements of fictionality essential to understanding is the importance of these judgments for what the user does with the information conveyed by the text.

Philosophical approaches to fiction

If there is a consensus among those who have explored the nature of fictionality, it is that fiction is a representation not committed to the truth. But unlike lies, it is not deceptive, and unlike honest error, it is not mistaken. In the Renaissance, Sir Philip Sidney characterized the stance of the author of fiction in these terms: “Now for the poet, he nothing affirms and therefore never lieth.” Two centuries later, Samuel Taylor Coleridge captured the phenomenon from the point of view of the audience, by describing the attitude of the reader of poetry as a “willing suspension of disbelief.” But there is more to a theory of fiction than lack of truth and non-deceptive intent, because these features also describe figural language, such as metaphor, as well as the counterfactual statements of everyday conversation, such as “If the referee had seen that this player was off-side, we would have won the game.” Moreover, if fictions are generally false, they often contain accurate statements (cf. historical novels); and they could be entirely true by accident.
Interest in the nature of fictionality developed in the seventies as an outgrowth of speech act theory and analytic philosophy. Philosophers of the analytic school were attracted to the question of fictionality by the challenge it poses to the issues of truth and reference. Austin (1962) described fiction as an “etiolated” and “parasitic” use of language that does not entail the normal consequences of the speech acts it represents: an actor who makes a promise on stage is not held to honor it. This idea was further developed by Searle (1975) in his path-breaking essay “The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse.” For Searle, fictionality is an operator that affects the speech act of assertion. In writing a novel, authors are only pretending to make assertions, or imitating the making of assertions. Though the language of fiction is often indistinguishable from the language of nonfiction, readers are protected from taking the textual statements as genuine information by their recognition of the author’s act of pretense. Insofar as fictionality is determined by the author’s intent, a text cannot pass from nonfiction to fiction or vice-versa. The notion of fiction as pretense has been widely accepted, but Searle’s account is problematic in its handling of the statements within fiction that refer to real-world entities. According to Searle, Conan Doyle pretends to make assertions when he refers to Sherlock Holmes, but makes serious assertions when he refers to London. It is hard to reconcile this patchwork of fiction and nonfiction with the homogenous impression that the world of the Sherlock Holmes stories makes on the reader.
For Lewis (1978), theorist of the plurality of worlds, fiction is a story told as true about another world than the one we regard as actual by a narrator situated within this other world. A nonfictional story by contrast is told as true about our world by one of its members. The difference between fiction and nonfiction is thus a matter of reference world. In Lewis’ model, members of the actual world have counterparts in alternative possible worlds, so that when a novel refers to Napoleon, it does not describe the historical individual, but imports an alter ego of the emperor, possessing somewhat different properties, into its fictional world. This idea of counterpart relation solves the problem encountered by Searle when the text refers to actual entities. For Lewis, the world of the Sherlock Holmes stories is not created by a mixture of fictional and nonfictional statements, but by a fully fictional discourse that describes a possible world linked to the actual world through many common features (or counterpart relations). One of the most important implications of Lewis’ account of fiction is the self-denying quality attributed to this mode of expression: fiction is not just a product of the imagination, but an invention that passes as a report of facts. An overt prescription to the imagination (“think up a one-eyed, one-horned flying purple people eater”) or an if…then counterfactual statements are not fiction, because they construct a world overtly flagged as other. If there is a weakness to Lewis’ acount, it resides in the fact that not all fictions are told as true. For instance, the ruminations of the narrator of The Unnamable, a novel by Samuel Beckett, do not make truth claims; they are just thoughts that pass through his mind, and they are not addressed to an audience. Lewis (1983) was aware of this problem when he mentioned the case of “Ugly Dave,” a poem whose speaker tells a boastful pack of lies. His solution is to regard Dave’s discourse as a fiction within a fiction: the author pretends to be Dave in a fictional world of the first degree, and Dave, who performs tall tales, pretends to be somebody who tells the stories as true of a world of the second degree. In the case of Beckett, the narrator’s discourse takes us into a world of inner life, which could be considered another type of second-degree world. Telling as true of another world is thus a special case (admittedly the most frequent) of a more general operation: impersonating a speaker located in another world. By transporting themselves in imagination into this other world, readers become witnesses of the speaker’s performance (Ryan 1991).
While Searle’s and Lewis’ accounts are designed for the medium of language, Walton (1990) puts the theory of fiction on the transmedial track by relying on the notion of make-believe. Drawing an analogy between a certain type of children’s games and the representational arts in general, Walton defines fiction as a “prop in a game of make-believe,” this is to say, as an object that inspires imagining rather than belief. Just as children playing cops and robbers adopt imaginary personae and pretend that a certain tree is the jail, spectators of a painting of a ship pretend that they are facing a ship, and readers of literary fiction pretend that the text is the description by a narrator of a world that exists independently of the text, when they know that this world is in reality the product of the author’s discourse. In all three examples, fictionality derives from a decision by the “player” to take something as something else. But the parallelism of Walton’s account of games, pictures and texts hides a profound a-symmetry that calls into question its transmedial validity. For Walton, the set of all texts is divided between nonfictional ones that invite belief, and fictional ones that invite make-believe. But in the pictorial domain, no such distinction obtain: all representational pictures—all pictures that depict-- are inherently fictional, because they pass as something that they are not.

Fiction as transmedial concept

The example of language demonstrates that fictionality is not a feature inherent to a semiotic medium , i.e. a medium based on a type of signs: since verbal texts can fall on either side of the divide, fictionality is a certain use of the medium, rather than a property that applies wholesale to all of its artifacts. For the concept to be applicable to images or pure sound, it should be able to make similar distinctions among these types of signs. Its relevance to language can be extended to all cultural and technological (as opposed to semiotic) media that involve a language track: film, drama, the opera. It is because the actors of film and drama engage in an act of pretense that these media can be considered fictional. In drama, pretense is inevitable, but in film, it is optional, since the camera is able to record both authentic and simulated events. Film consequently can be either fictional or documentary. As a form of make-believe, fictionality also cuts across the domain of gestures: pantomime and acted silent movies are fictional, practical action is not, and dance is fictional only when the dancer impersonates a character, for without a mimetic dimension a performance cannot constitute an act of pretense. Photography can be considered fictional when it captures role-playing models rather than people “being themselves.” But the concept of fictionality is extremely controversial in the case of painting. One could regard as fictional pictures of models who pose as historical or mythological creatures, or pictures illustrating stories (in which case their fictionality would be derived from a verbal text), and as non-fictional realistic portraits of real individuals, but this leaves most paintings in a no-man’s land between fiction and non-fiction: the fictional status of a Picasso portrait of a specific person done in the Cubist style is not only undecidable, but also irrelevant to the processing of the painting. The concept of fictionality is better applicable to the images of film and photography than to painting because they are obtained through a mechanical recording device that gives them a documentary value. They become fictional when this value is playfully subverted. As for purely instrumental music, its incapability to articulate specific content makes the distinction fiction-nonfiction inapplicable, at least in a literal sense. The ability to make truth claims is the necessary condition for a type of signs to be used fictionally.


Austin, J.L. (1962). How To Do Things With Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cohn, D. (1999). The Distinction of Fiction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Currie, G. (1990). The Nature of Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Genette, G. (1991). Fiction et diction. Paris: Seuil.
Lewis, D. (1978). “Truth in Fiction.” American Philosophical Quarterly 15, 37-46.
Lewis, D. (1983). “Postcript to ‘Truth in Fiction’.” In D. Lewis, Philosophical Papers I. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 276-80.
Pavel, Th. (1986). Fictional Worlds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Ryan, M.-L. (1991). Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence and Narrative Theory. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1991.
Searle, J. (1975). “The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse.” New Literary History 6, 319-32.
Walton, K. (1990). Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.