Fiction vs Fantasy: What’s the Difference?

Fiction and fantasy both explore invented characters and events, but fantasy delves into the realms of the unbelievable.

Aug 26, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

whats the difference between fiction and fantasy


Both fiction and fantasy are two popular writing genres, and can spread into novels, poetry and short stories. Each of these writing styles explore fictional storylines and characters, rather than true to life events. While both share this similarity, there are enough distinctions between the two writing styles to warrant their placement into distinct, separate camps. In fact, we can understand fantasy as a subgenre of fiction, which takes the notion of made-up stories into fantastical, unbelievable realms. Here we discuss the key differences that can help sort one from the other. 


Fiction Is Believably Real

All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque, 1928
All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque, 1928


Generally speaking, fiction, as opposed to fantasy-fiction, writing tends to focus on stories that are possible, rather than completely impossible. This means readers can imagine themselves entering into the story, and even form a strong, empathic bond with the characters in the narrative as it unfolds. Fictional novels can also be highly relatable for the reader, allowing them to reflect on, or gain a greater understanding of their own life experiences.


Sometimes fictional stories take place in real places, making them all the more believable, or they occur during real life events – such novels are often referred to as historical fiction. It is common for writers to merge elements of fictional writing with factual experiences, places and events. For example, Erich Maria Remarque set his international bestseller All Quiet on the Western Front, 1928, during World War I, filling it with believable stories based on the very real horrors of war.


photograph mark twain
A photograph of Mark Twain (taken by A.F. Bradley in 1907, via the Library of Congress)


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While it might sound somewhat cliché, many writers choose to follow Mark Twain’s famous maxim ‘write what you know,’ basing their narratives on their own life experiences, which allow them to produce work with credibility. Twain certainly followed his own advice, basing his novels Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884, on his own experiences of boyhood in the United States. Meanwhile, Lee Child, writer of the Jack Reacher series from 1997 onwards dismisses this adage, arguing instead that writers should “write what you feel.” He says, “Analyze your feelings. Then take those feelings and blow them up huge.”


Fantasy Is a Subgenre of Fiction

alex blum classics illustrated alice wonderland greek edition
Alíkī in the Land of Wonders illustrated by Alex A. Blum, 1951, via University of Maryland Libraries


We can understand fantasy as a subgenre of fiction, which delves into the fantastical and unbelievable. Magical, supernatural experiences can happen in fantasy-fiction, from talking animals and freakish monsters to other worlds that exist in parallel to the one we know. We see such eventful stories play out in a whole string of much-loved classics including Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, 1865, JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, 1954-55, and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series from 1997-2007.


Such stories deviate from the real world to such an extent they can allow readers to completely escape from the real world and instead encounter an imaginary realm that can be quite magical and extraordinary. Real universal laws in physics and gravity can be abandoned within such fantasies, particularly within the subgenre of fantasy known as science fiction


Both Have Ancient Roots

giulio romano sala dei giganti
Sala dei Giganti ceiling (room of the giants) fresco by Giulio Romano, 1532-34, in Palazzo del Tè, Mantua, via the Web Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


Fictional writing is as old as the early writing of the ancient Egyptians, when people first learned to read and write, and began documenting their experiences of the world. Writers often added in dramatic embellishments that turned their stories into fiction. Meanwhile, some of the earliest examples of fantasy can be traced back to ancient religions, including Egyptian and Greek myth, which often incorporated magical and fantastical elements of storytelling. 


Both Can Be Based on Reality

Front cover for Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, from the His Dark Materials Trilogy
Front cover for Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, from the His Dark Materials Trilogy


Aside from the most direct distinction between fiction and fantasy, there are many grey areas between the two writing genres. For example, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy of 1995 to 2000 is partially set within the real world of Oxford, England. While he posits the possibility of other realms existing beyond our world, and it is there that the fantastical experiences happen, his references to the real Oxford are entirely believable.


Meanwhile, one could argue that if Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland of 1865 was based on the writer’s experience of hallucinogenic migraines (or even drugs, as some have argued, although this is widely disputed), there is also an element of reality embedded into the story than continues to charm and fascinate readers both young and old.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.