Philosophy of Fiction

What is a work of fiction? I think most people know the easy answer. When a person writes a work of fiction, they are creating a story about characters and events that didn’t (or won’t) actually happen. Or, at least, if they did (or do) happen, it’s purely incidental. But this is only one layer of a more complicated philosophical question. To answer this question, we first need to know what it means for something to “be.”

The study of the nature of being is called ontology. It is a branch of metaphysics that looks at categories of being and how they are related to one another. To peel the onion down to a deeper layer, we must consider the ontology of fiction. But first, it is useful to think about what a work of fiction is not and why.

A proposal might be that a work of fiction occurs at a purely physical level. We could say that the work of fiction exists as pages on which words are written. Once again, there is a level of truth to this. Certainly the substrate of a work of fiction can exist on the page. But this could also include works of non-fiction. But even more troublesome is that works of fiction do not need to exist on a page in order for them to exist – many fictions are transmitted through verbal communication. That means this proposal is insufficient to be what a work of fiction is.

A second proposal might then try to exclude non-fiction and include fiction that is not written. To do this, one might propose that a work of fiction is a string of words, whether written or merely spoken, which generates a narrative that doesn’t correspond to any particular reality. This sounds pretty satisfying. But now we run into a harrier problem: does a work of fiction that only exists as spoken word cease to exist when nobody is retelling the narrative tail? What if someone writes down a work of fiction but then burns the pages – does that work of fiction then cease to exist? And what happens when two copies of a work of fiction are produced, do we then have two different works of fiction that just so happen to contain the same words and narrative? And what would it mean if two people came up with the same story, word-for-word, at the same time, completely independent of each other – have they created two different works of fiction, or are they the same? If the work of fiction is merely an arrangement of words such that they fit together to make a narrative whole, then was it not possible that that arrangement of words could have come together by itself through some anomaly of entropy and without an author?

It’s difficult to say what the ontological definition of a work of fiction is, but I think there are a few points that would be necessary parts of a work of fiction. I propose the ontological definition of a work of fiction, whatever it may be, would necessarily contain the following:

1. A work of fiction must be created by an author. These works of fiction did not exist in some way prior to the authors creating of the story – the work of fiction is not merely an anomaly of entropy randomly bringing the words together.

2. A work of fiction must be such that if two authors create the same story independently, the two works are distinct in some way. Even if the arrangement of words are exactly the same, the reasons, motivations, and influences that prompted the author to bring this arrangement of words together were different.

3. A work of fiction must be such that we can distinguish between certain tokens of a work of fiction and the type of a work of fiction.


Can any readers come up with a possible ontological definition of what a work of fiction is? Is my list of necessary elements that this definition must contain too inclusive or too exclusive?