“Fictional” and “Fictitious”

By Maeve Maddox

Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary gives the same definition for both fictional and fictitious:

of, relating to, characterized by, or suggestive of fiction.

“Fiction,” of course, is anything untrue, whether it’s a lie or a novel. Webster’s gives six definitions for fiction, among them:

1 : the act of creating something imaginary : a fabrication of the mind
2 a : an intentional fabrication : a convenient assumption that overlooks known facts in order to achieve an immediate goal b : an unfounded, invented, or deceitful statement
3 a : fictitious literature (as novels, tales, romances) b : a work of fiction; especially : NOVEL

Making a distinction between fictional and fictitious, however, is both useful and customary.

Fictional tends to be used in talking about fiction in the sense of creative writing:

Alice in Wonderland is a fictional character created by the mathematician Charles Dodgson.

Fictitious tends to carry a negative connotation and is used to denote fiction associated with dishonesty:

The man used a fictitious resumé to obtain the job.

We praise Ken Follett for writing a fictional account of the building of a cathedral, but we condemn a journalist who incorporates fictitious elements in a news story.

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20 Responses to ““Fictional” and “Fictitious””

  • Jeanette Cheezum

    Thank you for putting this article in your line up. It explains the difference nicely.

  • Lai Ka Yau

    You said:
    Alice in Wonderland is a fictional character created by the mathematician Charles Dodgson.
    But Alice in Wonderland is a book, not a character. Alice itself is a character. Correct me if I am wrong, but shouldn’t the sentence be altered?

  • Maeve

    Lai Ka Yau
    No, the example does not need changing.

    Alice in Wonderland is a character. She’s often referred to with the identifying prepositional phrase in order to distinguish her from numerous other fictional Alices.

    The title of the book in which she appears is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, commonly referred to as Alice in Wonderland.

    When the book is meant, Alice in Wonderland is italicized. When the character is meant, the name is not italicized.

  • Mario

    Actually Maeve, “Lai Ka Yau” is correct. “Alice In Wonderland” is not a character. The character’s name is Alice (and she even has a last name). You just don’t want to admit that you made a (human) mistake, so instead of just being a big person and admitting that and correcting it, you put a false spin on it without giving a care in the world that you’re purposely giving false information to people who are genuinely asking and trusting you to provide them with an answer that, to your knowledge, is correct.

  • Maeve

    Mario,
    I suggest that you ask for a second opinion from one or two English teachers of your acquaintance.

  • chim55

    Lai Ka Yau is actually correct, ……and I have taught English for 14 years.

  • Mario

    Thank you! It’s good to know the teachers out there (well, at least those like yourself), actually know their stuff! 🙂

  • beansent

    it’s not about the exmaple that matters, its about clarifying the difference between fictional and fictitious.
    people in the right sense of mind would not question the examples given even if they are incorrect because it is given only to give clarity to the topic so stop these nonsense talk and just thank the author for the wonderful guide.
    thank you sir I appreciate your work.

  • Steven

    Lai Ka is not correct and it explains why in the comment directly underneath it.

    Alice in Wonderland is the character in the books and it could be taken both ways by most people, I could be referring to the book, movie, or character itself in speaking, and the words around it will give it the definition in itself.

  • Steven

    and also, I know plenty of teachers who have taught English far longer. When I was sixteen I asked an English teacher of thirty years if it would still be classed as pedophilia if the child was deceased, or if it would become singularly necrophilia, and he actually couldn’t answer me straightly, and teaching doesn’t make you right at whatever you are doing.

    Characters adopt personifying names in many books or movies, and occasionally their entire name is one personifying statement.

    Little Red Riding Hood, as far as I am concerned that is the name of the character, name of anything else she has been involved with, and there isn’t a name to be found. This character is one entire statement, and that is what she is known by.

    The statement could without the personification be said to be wrong, because Alice is not a fictional character, Alice is a name, a real person, and there is plenty of them. Alice in Wonderland is the title she is most known by, people use that name and have used that name since it was first created to talk about the character, and the movie, and the book, in the same way as Little Red Riding Hood would be, and it is no more incorrect than if you swapped those names around just because she is known by more than one name.

  • Allison

    The Library of Congress refers to Alice (fictitious character: Carroll)

  • venqax

    Well, I tuss that shows their Library, like most things Congress, can be incorrect more than average. Twice in one ref.

  • Matt

    It seems the distinction is not very clear. I’ve just watched “Captain America: The First Avenger” and in the end credits I’ve found a line “The persons and events in this motion picture are fictitious”. Shouldn’t it be “fictional” in this case?

  • Breed

    Let’s get back to Alice. The character is NOT “Alice in Wonderland,” because the character is NEVER referred to in that manner in the book. “Little Red Riding Hood” is called that within the text, so it is the character’s name.

    The “fictional” vs “fictitious” discussion is similarly flawed, as the person making the original posting is basing his argument own merely his own speculation, not on fact. It must be sad to have to try to pass yourself off as educated, when you’re clearly not. Must be some sel-esteem issue (obviously related to the pathological inability to admit a mistake).

  • venqax

    Okay then, down the rabbit hole. It IS perfectly fine to call the character Alice in Wonderland, REGARDLESS of what she is actually called in the book, because that is how the character is widely known in all circles concerned, including literary ones. Anne of Green Gables is similar character. Anne Shirley is ALSO the character, in that case the character’s actual name, but the literary character is universally known by the Green Gable tag. Who know who Anne Shirley was? If you were alluding to the character for some reason, NOT calling her Ann of Green Gables would be beyond pedantic.

  • Andrew

    I’m not sure that comparison works. Anne of Green Gables would be a correct reference to the character because the statement “of Green Gables” is a part of her identification (that is, she is Anne and she is from Green Gables).

    Alice in Wonderland does not work the same way because “in Wonderland” can only be used to identify her while she is in Wonderland. You could not call her “Alice in Wonderland” while she is not in Wonderland, but Anne of Green Gables will always be of Green Gables.

    That and saying “Hi, I’m Anne, of Green Gables,” sounds fine while saying “Hi, I’m Alice, in Wonderland” would be incorrect; “in wonderland” isn’t a part of her identity but only her current state. It would have to be “Alice of Alice in Wonderland” or “Alice, the one who is in Wonderland.” or some such.

    Also, I’ve never heard of Alice as the character being referred to as “Alice in Wonderland” before now.

    The article itself is mostly correct but I would suggest a clarification, to answer Matt’s question:

    Fictional can only (correctly) refer to a story or other narrative (fiction) and the characters / events / et cetera within, fictitious can refer to anything.

    In other words, if something is fictional, it is fiction. If it’s fictitious, it is not real and/or not true. Fiction itself is both.

  • Jay

    In the original article above, the following example is used to illustrate the usage of ‘fictitious’: “The man used a fictitious resumé to obtain the job.”

    I feel this is not a correct use of ‘fictitious’. In this example, it’s more appropriate to say something like “The man used a false resumé to obtain the job.”

    The second example in the article is correct: “…we condemn a journalist who incorporates fictitious elements in a news story.”

  • Andrew

    I was initially questioning “fictional” versus “fictitious” and was directed to this page by Google. I was only able to find my answer through the first Andrew’s comment, and for that, sir, I thank you. I didn’t imagine there could be such a debate over how to refer to a fictional character such as Alice from Alice in Wonderland. I would assume both references would be correct as long as Alice is being distinguished as the little girl from the story. However, I’m certainly no English professor, I merely majored in it for a few years, so I’m open to criticism by someone with more experience.

  • Jerry

    You guys need to calm down a bit. Apart from that, it was a good article 🙂

  • Gary Johnson, PMP

    I am both relieved and saddened to see this much bickering over correct word usage. It’s not just politics or climate change or immigration policies.

    It appears that Earthlings need to bicker about everything.
    No, they don’t.
    Yes they do.
    Nuh-uh!
    Nuh-huh!

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