“Fictional,” “Fictitious,” And “Fictive”: Are They Synonyms?

Although some people absolutely love reading true stories, there are others who have no interest in nonfiction books. Instead, they prefer to dive into stories from made-up universes instead of immersing themselves in facts. So do they prefer fictional novels, fictitious tales, or fictive stories?

All three of these adjectives look and sound similar, but are they synonyms that can be interchanged? The answer is yes … depending on the sentence; although these are different words, all three have close denotations that make them synonyms except for a few slight distinctions. Let’s take a look.

What does fictional mean?

Fictional is an adjective defined as “invented as part of a work of fiction.” For example, Dr. Meredith Grey is a fictional character on a TV show and is not an actual medical provider. Fictional also means “of, like, or characterized by fiction.” In this case, Tommy read a fictional story about monsters for his book report instead of studying a historical figure.

This word refers to things that are made up from imagination instead of the truth. Fictional was first recorded in 1840–45 and is derived from the Latin verb fingĕre (“to mold, fashion, make a likeness of, pretend to be”). Synonyms for fictional include fabricated, fanciful, imaginary, imagined, made-up, make-believe, fictive, invented, and fictitious.

What does fictitious mean?

Like fictional, fictitious means not genuine or false and is defined as “of, relating to, or consisting of fiction; imaginatively produced or set forth; created by the imagination.” For example, a fictitious stranger who needed help is a perfect excuse for being late.

However unlike fictional, this word isn’t just about make-believe or the imaginary—the intention behind the fabrication can be just as important. That’s because fictitious is also defined as “created, taken, or assumed for the sake of concealment.” For example, when they entered into the Witness Protection Program, the Smith family had to take on fictitious identities and could never reveal who they really were.

Therefore, fictitious and fictional can be interchanged in circumstances referring to things that are made up or imaginary. But if the intention is to invent something in order to conceal the truth, then fictitious should be used and not fictional.

First originating in 1605–15, fictitious derives from the Latin word fictīcius meaning “artificial,” which can be traced back to fingĕre, like fictional.

Synonyms for fictitious include apocryphal, bogus, counterfeit, fabricated, fanciful, and imaginary.

What does fictive mean?

Lastly in this trio we have fictive: an adjective that is similar to fictional, as it means “pertaining to the creation of fiction.” However, it’s also defined as “a rare word for fictitious” and “fictitious; imaginary.”

That makes fictive a synonym for both fictional and fictitious as well as fabricated, fanciful, imaginary, and imagined. The first recorded use of fictive was in 1485–95, and it comes from the French adjective fictive (“invented”), which ultimately is derived from—you guessed it—fingĕre.

Since fictive can describe both something that is not real as well as an imaginative creation, it can replace both fictional and fictitious in a sentence. For example, to escape the horrors of his own reality, the little boy created a fictive (or fictional) world complete with an imaginary best friend. In order to scam her classmates, she came up with a fictive (or fictitious) product to sell and collected their money before she “delivered” it.

How to use each word

It can be slightly confusing to know which word can be used in what sentences since fictional and fictive completely overlap, fictitious and fictive can be interchanged, but fictional and fictitious can only be swapped depending on the intended meaning. So a general rule that completely simplifies this love triangle is:

  •   if the adjective is modifying a noun that’s a sham or created to mislead, then stick to fictitious.
    • That’s because fictive is less often used in the negative, scamming, sense and fictional never is.
    • For example, although it may not have been her original intention, Elizabeth Holmes had a phony product that was delivering fictitious results to patients.

However, if the intended meaning is something that’s purely pretend or make believe without the negative implication of faking something in order to mislead, then all three options can be used.

Examples of this include:

  • When they were younger, the Smith siblings created a fictional (or fictitious, fictive) language that only they could understand and completely stumped their parents.
  • Although it was only depicting fictitious (or fictional, fictive) events, the episode’s cliffhanger had his heart beating and palms clammy from the suspense.
  • Although The Handmaid’s Tale is a fictive (or fictional, fictitious) story first published in 1985, the recent TV adaptation incorporates many elements that feel uncomfortably current and realistic to viewers.