What would you write when referring to a fictional character in a non-fiction work? e.g. Tom Sawyer is a boy, he has no parents, he goes on adventures or Tom Sawyer was a boy, he had no parents, he went on adventures.

  • 9
    What are you writing that would require you to reference a fiction character in a non-fiction work? How you would use the answer seems likely to influence the answer, here. Please Edit your question to clarify.
    – user
    Jun 12, 2019 at 8:29

3 Answers 3


If the non-fiction work is an essay or similar analysis of the literary work, I would use present tense.

Tom Sawyer's friendship with Huckleberry Finn represents unity between middle and lower class Americans. In the scene where Tom is painting his fence...

(I've never read the book, I just made something up for an example)

  • So what if the character is mythical rather than fictional? I guess this leads to choices about when the historic present is appropriate. "In Greek mythology, Priam was the legendary king of Troy during the Trojan War." [Wikipedia] vs "In Greek mythology, Priam is the legendary king of Troy during the Trojan War." Both work. Jun 13, 2019 at 15:14
  • @MichaelKay I suppose it also depends on what context you're working in. If I was referencing a text about mythology, like the Iliad, the Bible, or the Mahabharata, I would still use present. Maybe references to religious 'myths'/ characters would vary in tense based on whether there are still people who believe in them or not?
    – tryin
    Jun 14, 2019 at 5:21
  • "still"? - I think belief in the historical veracity of characters in the Iliad has probably increased in recent times. Jun 14, 2019 at 8:47

The book exists in the present, so the characters do as well.

The author, though, exists in the past, since he's no longer with us.

Mark Twain wrote about a boy, Tom Sawyer, who has adventures with his friends.

It would not be wrong to write about the character in past tense if describing his actions that have already happened (because you finished the book). But present tense is okay here too.

Tom Sawyer nearly spoiled his friend's plan to run away.


Tom Sawyer nearly spoils his friend's plan to run away.


A rule-of-thumb is that characters may become part of the past only in their universe, where they are a "real" person. In this case, you can use the past-tense if you are referring to a "previous version", or "younger version" of the character. You would still use the present for the contemporaneous one.

In any other universe, e.g. in those where they are fiction, they are elevated to timeless absolutes. The use of the present-tense is preferred. This should hold true for most non-fiction works about fiction.

  • 2
    You can can use The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as an example here... if your report is on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is a sequel. Any discussion of the events of Tom Sawyer would be in the past relative to Huckleberry Finn. Since Finn is the subject of the report, for the purposes of this report, Tom is in the past.
    – hszmv
    Jun 12, 2019 at 20:39
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    When writing in-universe, it's partly a matter of style. For example, Memory Alpha prefers past tense for nearly all statements about the fictional world of Star Trek. They do this because it encompasses many different time periods and tenses would otherwise be awkward and inconsistent.
    – Kevin
    Jun 13, 2019 at 2:20

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