What is the Difference between Memoir and Fiction?

The biggest difference between fiction and memoir is that the latter is a truthful account of yourself or that of someone who you personally know. Memoir comes from the French word for memory and that is exactly what it is – a memory. It is your memory of usually a small part of the life you are portraying.

It is the memory of the person that is writing and will undoubtedly differ from the memories of others in the story. Is there a fictive element to memory? How much detail would the average person be expected to remember?

What is the difference between a memoir and an autobiography? An autobiography is your life story told chronologically in a factual way that is verifiable. It is not reliant on memory alone. A biography is the same but written about another person. Both tend to take in a longer span – often life.

What then is fiction? Fiction is made up. It is fantasy. The reader does not expect truth in the story. The reader will take greater leaps of faith when reading fiction than they will when reading memoir. In fiction the narrator can be anyone or anything such as in The Good Mayor by Andrew Nicholls the omnipotent St Walpurnia the long dead patron saint of the town. She  features on everything throughout the town and is privy to everyone’s inner most thoughts and feelings. In memoir this ability to know the thoughts of everyone in the tale is not a possibility.

Memoir is limited to being written in first person (I) autobiography/memoir or third person (he/she) biography/memoir about someone known to the author. Any voice can be used in fiction and many  pieces of fiction are written in the style of memoir. One example that always comes to mind is Eugenides Middlesex. It comes to mind because I chose it for my book club reading and numerous of the group found it so believable that they in turn could not be convinced it was not memoir.

I have a theory that most fiction is in fact memoir but disguised. Sometimes it may be written as it happened and only the names changed. In other instances two people’s character may be rolled into one, the location changed from the one where the event happened but to another place known to the author, or they may make up a fictitious scene – a conglomerate of many that are known to them. This is probably a bit simplistic as futuristic, sci-fi and fantasy cannot stem from life experience but the reader still has to form a relationship with the characters to gain enjoyment from the reading. The characters must have personality traits that we recognise and like or dislike.

Apart from truth a big difference between memoir and fiction is the liability that is created by each. In fiction there is virtually no case for slander, libel, fraud, copyright being served upon an author. It is fiction after all. It is made up and proving otherwise is difficult. Memoir however by its very premise leaves the author liable to a multitude of court cases that they are potentially at risk of. If the memoirist changes the names and possibly even the places with a disclaimer added in the author’s note that this has been done to protect the identities of the other people in the book, does the writing then leave the genre of memoir and become fiction?

Then do we need to look at other aspects of memoir? After all this is supposed to be a true story that has already happened. If it has already happened then the tense must be correct. First person past tense. There are other facets of the memoir that may render it not totally true and by the use of these are we memoirists actually writing fiction, or a new genre altogether?

These I will leave for another post. Thanks must go to Ann for writing some thought provoking posts which gave me a sleepless night, an epiphany and a frenzied day writing a conference paper which I have been struggling to start. Thanks also to Lisa and Charli both for running bite size memoir and 99 word flash fiction which led me to the conversations.

About Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

I began my working career as a reluctant potato peeler whilst waiting to commence my training as a student nurse. On completion I worked mainly in intensive care/coronary care; finishing my hospital career as clinical nurse educator in intensive care. A life changing period as a resort owner/manager on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu was followed by recovery time as a farmer at Bucca Wauka. Having discovered I was no farmer and vowing never again to own an animal bigger than myself I took on the Barrington General Store. Here we also ran a five star restaurant. Working the shop of a day 7am - 6pm followed by the restaurant until late was surprisingly more stressful than Tanna. On the sale we decided to retire and renovate our house with the help of a builder friend. Now believing we knew everything about building we set to constructing our own house. Just finished a coal mine decided to set up in our backyard. Definitely time to retire we moved to Queensland. I had been writing a manuscript for some time. In the desire to complete this I enrolled in a post grad certificate in creative Industries which I completed 2013. I followed this by doing a Master of Arts by research graduating in 2017. Now I live to write and write to live.
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23 Responses to What is the Difference between Memoir and Fiction?

  1. Charli Mills says:

    Thought-provoking post! I’m reminded of the quote by Maya Angelou: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” So I often think of memoir as being emotional memory which can vastly differ from others. And over time, other emotions like nostalgia or repressed anger can color earlier memories. I take the easy approach and fictionalize memories that I want to explore or better understand. If I give the emotion to a character I might learn a truth that I couldn’t see if I wrote from my own “character.” Interesting…I’m continuing to mull over my thoughts as we progress with Bite Size Memoirs and flash fiction weekly.

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    • Emotion is a big item in memoir but also in fiction. It is the emotional link to a character whether real as in memoir or fictional that gets us in. I certainly think that writing a fictional character with emotions that you wish to explore allows you to remove yourself from the scene thus enabling you to revisit it earlier than if you were to write it as a memoir. I once read a memoir which was written in both third person and first person where she became herself at points where she was comfortable but kept herself at arms length at points which she still had difficulty dealing with. An interesting exercise is to write the same story in first, second and third person and also with each to write as adult you, child you and stranger looking in. With each you get a totally different effect although the story is the same.

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  2. lorilschafer says:

    Interesting what you point out about the potential liability in memoir vs. fiction. It’s very rare that our stories are entirely our own, and since memoir often focuses on unpleasant events rather than pleasant ones, the potential for angering someone who’s mentioned in them is far greater, too.

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  3. lucciagray says:

    Interesting reflections. When I started writing fiction, I tended to end up writing about myself, my feelings and experiences, that’s why I decided to write historical fiction. It gives me the emotional and chronological distance not to write about myself. However, recently one of my close friends who has read my novel says he can recognise me there. I was surprised first and distressed later. I’m sure I’m not! But can we ever get away from ourselves completely as writers? Of course the good thing is that only those who know us very well could tell, anyway…

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    • In an interview Elizabeth Gilbert did she said that her memoirs were a highly polished, edited version of herself. She did not think that she gave too much of herself away in them but she said that if you wanted to know about her and her friends read her fiction novel. She said she felt that she could let her guard down as she was writing fiction but that she was in more evidence as herself in it than either of her memoirs.
      Yes, I don’t know that we can ever as writers completely escape from ourselves……

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    • Annecdotist says:

      Interesting comment, Luccia. Of course, your friend could be wrong, or she could be seeing a part of you that you yourself are less familiar with. As I’ve said in a longer comment below, I think when we write fiction parts of ourselves can unconsciously find their way into the narrative.

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  4. Sherri says:

    You knew that I would read this with great interest Irene, as this is something we have discussed before. I went over to Ann’s blog and read the dialogue there with equal interest. It’s so good to be able to connect with other memoir writers and bloggers and thanks to you I’m now taking part in Lisa’s bite size challenge but am hoping to also do Charli’s flash fiction. I wonder why it is that I really enjoy doing flash fiction, so far from 50 words up to 500, yet the thought of writing a fictional novel paralyses me?
    The memoir I’m writing now, as you know, is just as you describe here, about a specific story that took place during a 3 year period in my life. The reason I doubted that anyone would read a memoir is because it wouldn’t be relevant to anyone except me and those in my family but I can see now that what matters is not that at all, but that the reader connects with the emotion of the story, that they ‘feel’ it. If a book brings out these strong emotions, fiction or otherwise, then it’s surely done its job.
    You’ve brought up some great questions about the issue of liability and the blurred lines between telling it how it is, naming names etc. to changing names and locations. As you say, is it them not a memoir at all? I am facing this dilemma in my memoir. I’ve decided to use same names and go with it. Some may not be alive any more, I have no idea, having not seen them for over 30 years.
    Thank you so much for this post Irene, I now have a lot of thinking to do myself. I also hope you sleep better tonight and that your epiphany has proven to be helpful…I’d say after all this it would be good to go for a long walk and get it all off our chests…hugs to you my friend… 🙂

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    • Sherri I’m glad you found this helpful and thought provoking. I just love it when something puts you in line of a train of thought and everything just falls into place. I may of course find that the tangent that I have gone off on is erroneous when my supervisor gets back to me but for now I’m feeling ever so happy.XD
      I think a memoirist is someone who is prepared to own their experience. Their are parts of my life that I’m not prepared for the world to know and those, if I were to write about them, I would fictionalise them. Although any fiction that I write (to date anyway) has some foundation in reality such as an article in a newspaper or something heard on the radio, a shop sign etc
      I have never been any good at writing small although I’m not a padder either. To tell a story in 99 words I find very difficult but I think it really hones your writing skills.
      There are so many great writers and thought provoking blogs out there. Glad you have now met Ann. Yes, lets go for a walk – sun just risen here whilst you are probably in darkness Cheers my friend 🙂

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      • Sherri says:

        You are so right about owning our experience. I had never quite seen that before until I read your post and the discussion over at Ann’s. The story I’m telling in my memoir is one I’ve always felt I needed to tell but as I continue on with it,other things come up which I had no plans to write about initially but which now seem right to add as necessary elements. Although, like you, there are certain things that I will not write about, certainly not in a memoir anyway.
        I hope your ‘tangent’ proves successful in the eyes of your supervisor! Do let me know…
        We will have to walk in the evening I think, to beat this time difference…it helps to chat…thanks for that…
        Have a great weekend Irene and see you soon ❤ 🙂

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      • Sherri, I guess you could say that with ownership their also comes responsibility. My tangent could throw over my research question completely but I feel really energised ready for the Vicar of Dibley tonight at the local playhouse and romantic dinner in the green room beforehand. The weekend is shaping up well. Have a great one. Cheers Irene 🙂

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  5. Hmmm…very thought provoking, indeed, Irene. Given the fact that I’m currently working on a memoir you’ve raised many questions in my mind. I haven’t written about certain people for the mere sake of writing about them – the one rule that (so far) I’ve stuck to is that whoever was involved in a pivotal moment in the life of…they are written about in my book. Thanks for enlightening me! ~Karen~

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    • I’m glad it gave you something to think about Karen. I’m going to do some more however I don’t know that everyone will agree with what I’m going to write. My thoughts are that the main thing when you are writing is not the discussion about the writing but the writing itself. Once you have it down on paper (or on the computer) and the laborious editing process starts then is the time to ponder where you should put your book.
      Good writing. Cheers Irene 🙂

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  6. Good luck with the conference paper – always a chore. There are some blurred lines between memoir and fantasy – I find so often something I’ve experienced finds its way into my books and stories. And sometimes I wonder when I write something memoir-ish whether I’m remembering rightly or it’s fantasy!

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    • Thanks Noelle. This is my first one and I not only have to overcome my fear of speaking in public I don’t know what to expect or what the expectations are. If only I was giving a coronary or intensive care paper I’d feel I knew what I was talking about (at least I would have twenty years ago).
      I don’t think that your memories and snippets that you read can help but make it into your stories.

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  7. Annecdotist says:

    Sorry to come late to this, Irene. Thanks for linking to my post and sorry I give you a sleepless night! It’s been really helpful for me to read you setting out your position in a full post which develops the points you made on my blog. I was very interested in your definition of fiction, as I agree that a lot stems from our own personal experiences. But the process you describe from memory to fiction is much more conscious than mine and, I imagine, lots of other fiction writers. I get ideas for stories and only as they develop do I realise how they both connect to and differ from the story I have in mind of my own life. I thought Lucca’s comment at her surprise when a friend pointed out how she saw her in her fiction is probably a lot of people’s experience. I don’t think fiction writers set out to write a disguised version of their lives, or a part of their lives, even if that’s what they end up with.
    Great to see the discussion here and how we can approach this question from different angles.

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    • Thanks for joining in the discussion Ann. I agree with you that not many fiction writers set out to write about themselves. I think it is a totally subconscious happening for the majority of writers. If I write fiction I am aware that I am drawing on my life experiences or using newspaper articles as a prompt. I don’t believe that I am a creative/imaginative thinker although I can look at something and give hundreds of different scenarios for it. I need that prompt and I take it from real life not something I have managed to dream up removed from my reality.

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  8. Pingback: Memoir Monday on Tuesday | Reflections and Nightmares- Irene A Waters (writer and memoirist)

  9. louise Moises says:

    I was planning to submit a piece I wrote to a fiction contest, when my mentor suggested that I had written a memoir and not a short story. Hum? She instructed me to look up the difference, which is how I got to this site. It seems that it’s easier to define memoir than to explain how it differs from fiction. Since I don’t seem to have much trouble writing in the memoir style, I feel like I have to challenge myself as a writer to attempt fiction. I really don’t know if it will be as satisfying.

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    • Hi Louise, A great many fiction works are written in first person and thus in the style of memoir. A couple of examples that come to mind are The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird and a book called Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. The last book was so memoir like that a friend who read it was convinced it was a true story of the author. In reality it had nothing to do with the author who had just researched his subject well and wrote characters so convincingly that it had the authority of truth. I don’t see that there is anything wrong with writing a fiction piece in the first person. You can also write memoir and claim it is fiction if you don’t want to own the story. I think that all fiction writers draw from their own experience and observation of those around them and these characters will be written in to fiction. It is this that does make fiction believable because if you can’t believe the characters would do or be like they are portrayed then you lose the reader. The challenge for you is the story and that is simply a matter of your creativity and letting it flow onto the pages. As a memoirist I struggled with fiction and naming characters but I have been doing a 99 word flash fiction and I have to say my skills are getting better in writing fiction. I often draw my story from life experiences, newspaper articles and occasionally a story comes unbidden. All have been fictionalised in some way and I have developed a real passion for naming my characters to add an additional layer to the work. If you find that your bent is telling nothing but the truth then what is wrong with memoir or another element of creative non fiction. Memoir often took a second seat to fiction but I think that is starting to change. Would love to know how you get on.

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  10. Pingback: The Work of Memoir « Carrot Ranch Literary Community

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