The answers to it can vary from a statement as simple as "It's the opposite of non-fiction," to as abstract as "It's the essence of life." However you identify fiction, one thing is for certain: it is a lie that's constructed in order to reveal a great truth.
Cervantes's Don Quixote, Hardy's Jude the Obscure, or even Meyer's Twilight saga...they are all made-up stories that entertain while they make a point about human behavior in the face of crisis.
I got to thinking about what fiction is after I had a conversation with my sister about an Arabic TV show. The hero of this TV show is hardly a hero. For one thing the show opens with him getting the cold treatment from his wife for an offense we're not privy to in detail right away, making us sympathize with him for having to put up with such abuse.
Our hero, being warm with his cold wife.
Yet as the show progresses, we realize that he is a repeat-offending cheater, and we know this because he begins to have an affair with one of his employees at his law firm and does it expertly, continuing to plead with his wife to warm up to him, all while getting warmth from someone else.
Our hero with his mistress, during after-hours.
The discussion got interesting, mainly because although this protagonist hardly ever does the right thing in any facet of his life, he does possess a certain charisma, and I would venture to say a romantic vulnerability that makes viewers sympathize with him, even though he doesn't deserve to be sympathized with. Aside from being a cheater, he also obstructs justice in order to win his cases defending far-from-innocent clients.
Our hero at work.
As someone who knows a little bit about the craft of storytelling, I knew that the ending would not be good for this character, that his wife would never warm up to him again, and that the woman he is having an affair with throughout the show is not going to stand for his dishonesty at work, or in the bedroom.
But the guy is just too freakin' likable, my sister and I agreed. And herein lies the greatness of fiction.
Although we wanted his wife to warm up to him, and we wanted him to get what he wants, knowing fully well that he doesn't deserve it, justice had to be served in the end. He had to lose the big case and lose the people he lied to and used.
I had an easier time with the outcome than my sister did, which I'm glad to report was one where justice was served and our hero was dealt the blows he needed to finally understand the repercussions of his actions.
Our charismatic hero, all alone.
My sister felt bad for him though and said that the show had ended in a very depressing way; she wished that he hadn't lost everything the way he did. I knew she was only saying this because the hero was likable, like I mentioned before, so I had to put things into perspective for her to accept that this sad ending was the only possible ending in what is ultimately what every piece of fiction and drama is: a made-up story about real life.
"If you heard about someone like him in real life, and didn't know what was going on in his mind," I began, "you just knew that he lied, cheated and schemed to get what he wants without any regard for anyone else's feelings along the way, wouldn't you want him to have an end like this one?"
"Yes," she said, "but still, he's so likable, I wanted him to have a better end than this."
"Well," I said, "that's the beauty of fiction and drama. It shows you the psychology of why someone does what they do, and makes you sympathize with the human condition, no matter how evil or horrible it is. It teaches you that not every evil act stems from the same place."
And with that, I suppose I added a new definition to fiction. Fiction is the dissection of human actions to help us understand, and, perhaps, treat each other with more compassion. Fiction teaches us to simply accept each other, for it proves we are all human, fighting the same fight. In the end, fiction is humanity.