I'm trying to find the correct English word to describe a body of literature that is fiction in essence, but all background like places, circumstances, organizations, etc. is actually borrowed from the real world. Generally, we broadly categorize the work into fiction (such as Harry Potter, LOTR, etc.) and non-fiction (self-help and financial books, psychology, history, etc).

However, bordering between the two, there are fictional books that have a background in the real world. Below are two examples:

  1. Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code: Brown's fiction generally involve a rich background of art, architecture, history, etc.. of the REAL world and claimed as actual facts in the book itself. In this novel, Brown describes in vivid details, a religious organization called Opus Dei and a secret society called priory of sion that actually exists since the time of Da Vinci.
  2. John Grisham's The Testament: Grisham is another author who writes pure fiction, but the background is filled with intricate details about the US legal system and FBI in the real world.

Since they are not pure fiction, what is the right term to define these novels? Semi-fiction or part-fiction seems logical, but I don't see them used anywhere. The much popularized term science fiction is good, but doesn't come handy in this situation.

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    "Fiction" is, I think, the term you're looking for. The Da Vinci code might be argued to be, in part, "historical fiction", but that doesn't fit it as a whole. – Hot Licks Mar 15 '15 at 18:11
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    These are fictional works. The author draws on real life to ease the belief of the reader without having to construct an entire universe for the purpose of telling a story. – Ian MacDonald Mar 15 '15 at 18:35
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    The Da Vinci Code is, in fact, entirely fictional (there was a court case in which Brown testified to that effect). Throwing in names and places may make it plausible (depending on the reader) but does not make it any more factual than 'Saving Private Ryan' (which I understand was also meticulously researched). – Tim Lymington Mar 15 '15 at 18:54
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    @WS2 That is history in every age, from the Pharaohs down. – StoneyB on hiatus Mar 15 '15 at 22:27
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    Any book which either assumes common law of physics or the existence of human beings is “only partly fictional”, since physics and humans are facts. And even those which modify laws of nature and species of characters tend to still contain a factual core which readers can connect with. I'd argue that there is no such thing as a completely and fictional work with no foundation in facts, so any book which is a mixture of facts and fiction unless it's purely factual. – MvG Mar 16 '15 at 10:18

12 Answers 12


The works you cite are wholly fictional. Being well-researched and more plausible than, say, a sci-fi yarn or Harry Potter doesn't change that.

If you were looking to invent a term, some that might apply include gritty (generally implies more realism than average, although that wouldn't apply to a well-researched comedy book), or even realistic.

Semi-fictional could describe a genre that in ad copy might say "Based on actual events" or "Ripped from the headlines" (at least per Wikipedia definition), but neither of the works cited seem to fit into that category.


Fiction is fiction. Different eras and different audiences vary widely in the sort of background they demand, but every storyteller has to supply some measure of what W.S. Gilbert called "merely corroborative detail intended to provide artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative." Verisimilitude may reside in familiar quotidian detail or romantic "history" or in the depiction of motive and mental states; but without some such detail there's no framework to set the story in and no identifiable connection with the reader's own experience.


The Da Vinci Code is a secret history.

Secret history is ... used to describe a type or genre of fiction which portrays a substantially different motivation or backstory from established historical events.

John Grisham's books (at least the ones I've read) are not secret histories. Most fiction (unlike Harry Potter, LOTR) is set in the real world, and accurately depicting certain elements from the real world as background is very common in fiction. John Grisham's thrillers often go into details of the law and the legal profession more extensively than most fiction about lawyers, but this is just one point on a continuum, and I don't know of a special word for this.

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    Harry Potter is set in (a fictional part of) the real world. Some parts of it are even set in dreary suburbian Surrey, or on the tube. LOTR claims to be set in the real world—just a very long time ago—though that’s obviously demonstrably not. A Song of Fire and Ice or the Dune books are examples of literary works set entirely in wholly fictional worlds. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 16 '15 at 9:24

Semi-fiction and semi-fictional don't seem to be unusual terms. I would use them.

Semi-fiction is fiction implementing a great deal of non-fiction, for example: a fictional depiction "based on a true story", or a fictionalized account, or a reconstructed biography. Often, even when the author claims the story is true, there may be significant additions and subtractions from the true story to make it more suitable for storytelling. One such example would be Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. Wikipedia

from Google Books:

  • While semi-fictional text can emerge in a directed way, we also highlight...
  • Gathered here are some of Dreiser's best pieces of short fiction and semi-fiction.
  • Metamorphosis: A Small Piece of Semi-fiction.
  • The Retreat - A Semi-Fictional Memoir Exploring Common ...
  • It is in any case a semi-fictional genre, novelistic in its own way.
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    That description doesn't really fit Da Vinci Code. – Hot Licks Mar 15 '15 at 18:23
  • Don't know The Things They Carried, but this makes me think of Schindler's Ark which is very much about telling the story of a historic person, but still deviated from historic facts for dramaturgic reasons, e.g. by combining several historic persons into a single character of the story. Compared to this, the works cited in the question are certainly purely fictional. – MvG Mar 16 '15 at 10:09

Anything that is not a completely true account is fiction.

Maybe there is some sub genre of fiction (things like historical fiction, for example--fictional stories that take place in a historically accurate setting) that would satisfy you but, there's no "almost fiction." It's simply true or not true.

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    So a history book with a mistake in it (and I bet many of them do have, in tiny details or interpretation) should be classed under 'fiction'? – Edwin Ashworth Mar 15 '15 at 23:04
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    @EdwinAshworth - Certainly a substantial fraction of "history" is fiction. – Hot Licks Mar 16 '15 at 0:29
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    No account of anything in the history of humankind has ever been a “completely true account”. There is no such thing. Such a basic dichotomy between fiction and non-fiction makes absolutely no sense and is just not true. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 16 '15 at 9:20
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    On this stack you could say "Up is the opposite of down" and people would fight you. Clearly life involves shades of grey. Dictionaries do not. Fiction and non-fiction are the two broadest categories of literature. One means "all of this is real" and the other means "this is not all necessarily real." – Preston Mar 16 '15 at 10:23
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    perhaps a better way of putting it is that the writer of non-fiction aims to provide a completely true account, whereas the writer of fiction does not. – dbliss Jun 11 '15 at 5:50

How about faction?

noun, Informal.

  1. a form of writing or film making that treats real people or events as if they were fictional or uses them as an integral part of a fictional account.
  2. a novel, film, play, or other presentation in this form.

Origin 1965-70; blend of fact and fiction

[ I know - it's a horrible portmanteau. ]


Pseudo-fiction is a coined term for this genre but it is not well-established yet. The term is also used to describe Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code in various reviews.

A plethora of books/booklets have come out in response to Brown’s work of pseudo-fiction (I say that because he has come to believe his own fiction, and clearly the book is intended to communicate an underlying matrix of “facts” even while presenting them in an allegedly fictional milieu)...


I read Dan Brown's claim of fiction as a double negative. The first negative is the "fact" page which has very little basis in fact. The second negative is the claim that Dan Brown intended to write fiction. He has said on an ABC interview that if he had written the book as non-fiction he would have changed none of the details of the conspiracy and historical interpretation.

This makes it hard to classify the genre of DaCode, but I propose we create a new genre for DaCode and its ilk: pseudo-fiction. A pseudo-fiction is "false-false." It is false fiction; which means, according to the rule of double negative, it is non-fiction. Note that I did not say it was true or fact. We have no such category when it comes to literature, unless you include reference materials. However, reference materials and non-fiction works are subject to scrutiny.

The point of proposing the "pseudo-fiction" genre is to get around the claim of Brown and others that DaCode is "just fiction." It isn't fair to simply claim that something is fiction when it pretends to be more.


The term appears in goodreads.com as well but there are a few books listed. A notable book mentioned is The Boy in the Striped Pajamas which is based on historical events (that are not actually documented) but also criticized as being unrealistic. Another genre mentioned is historical fiction for this book.

Another book that is mentioned as a pseudo-fiction is Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year which is a fictionalised account of one man's experiences of the year 1665, in which the Great Plague struck the city of London.[wikipedia]

The genre is mentioned in the book New Perspectives on Robert Graves (edited by Patrick J. Quinn) when being compared to Graves' work:

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    "Pseudo-fiction" is a ridiculous term to use, since the stuff is clearly, purely fiction. "Pseudo-fact" may be a better term. (But then all fiction is "pseudo-fact".) – Hot Licks Mar 17 '15 at 2:54
  • There is a similar term : pseudo-documentary – 0.. Mar 17 '15 at 16:28

As other answerers have stated, the works you list are entirely fictional. Fiction, in general, borrows from the real world. I would challenge you to name a single work of fiction that borrows nothing from the real world.

That said,

Creative nonfiction (also known as literary nonfiction or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives.



Probably just historical fiction or realistic fiction. I'm not sure there is a genre name for being highly detailed. After all, most fiction is set roughly in the "real world" the fiction that is set in purely make believe worlds is its own genre, namely fantasy. Being set in a plausible real world setting isn't a genre set apart from mainstream fiction.

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    Welcome, Aaron. Please take the tour and see if you can improve this answer. As it stands now, this sounds like unsubstantiated opinion - which is not what we're looking for. – Davo Apr 26 at 19:29

From the perspective of history, historic fiction might fit your description.


What about Roman à clef.

  • a novel in which real persons or actual events figure under disguise. (MW)

French for novel with a key, is a novel about real life, overlaid with a façade of fiction. The fictitious names in the novel represent real people, and the "key" is the relationship between the nonfiction and the fiction.



I believe the genre you want is "Docufiction" or "Historical Fiction".

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