Now About that 4th Wall

Deadpool from Marvel Comcis

Deadpool from Marvel Comics

One of the most popular tricks to do these days is ‘Break the 4th Wall’.  For those that don’t know, this means for a character to interact with the audience.  The 4th wall refers to where the audience is sitting since a stage would have a back wall, right wall, left wall, and then nothing in the front.  As you see above, Deadpool occasionally talks with the knowledge that he’s a comic book character.  So a level of self awareness seems to come into play here.  Here’s one of my favorite 4th breakings, which is apparently really hard to find on Youtube:

I’m talking about Puck’s Monologue from A Midsummer’s Night Dream.  This is when it was done in Dead Poet’s Society.  I see the 4th Wall Breaking as coming out of the Aside, which is when a character in a play talks directly to the audience.  The current version is done more often for comedy like when Bugs Bunny or Groucho Marx used to look at the camera to say something.  Yet, it does come from a place where the 4th wall was taken away to interact with the audience and put a little bit of narrative magic out there.  Then again, Puck also sounds like he’s voicing a disclaimer, which we now do before the movie in case people walk out.

This appears to be a trick that is done more for visual media like comic books, television, plays, and movies.  This isn’t to say that you can’t use it in a book, but I can’t see it working beyond First Person Narratives.  Maybe it can be done, but this is done by a character talking to the audience, which requires a personal touch.  Third person might look strange because it would be someone telling the audience that a character is telling them something.

Colonel Mustang from Fullmetal Alchemist

Colonel Mustang from Fullmetal Alchemist

A dangerous part of this is going too far, especially if you use it for comedy.  If you have a 4th wall breaking every few pages or every other scene then it loses its appeal.  This goes for every tool, but you can see in present day culture how this is going with the 4th wall breaking.  If the entire gag of a character is that he or she knows their fictional and keep talking with the audience then the overall plot can get hurt.  Why should you be invested in a character who knows they’re not real and seems to be determined to remind you about this fact at every turn?  Part of reading or watching fiction is suspension of disbelief, which means we step through the 4th wall.  A character breaking it doesn’t work into disbelief, but it does hamper it for a few laughs.  Realize that after such an event, you have to work on drawing the audience back into the story.  Too many breaks and you have an audience who will stay at a distance.  They might still enjoy your story, but you risk losing any connection they could have to the characters.  People might also speak only of your breaking of the 4th wall and nothing else.

So, what is your opinion on breaking the 4th wall?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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31 Responses to Now About that 4th Wall

  1. L. Marie says:

    I had a discussion with another writer friend about this topic. I don’t mind breaking the fourth wall. In Jane Eyre, Bronte broke it with her “Dear Reader.” You see it done all the time in metafiction and in young adult novels when the character introduces himself or herself, like in Julie Kagawa’s The Iron King.


  2. I haven’t tried it. I think on the next story (next Wednesday) I might see if I can do it. No promises and it won’t be like doing scenes in a book, but might be fun.


  3. Jade Reyner says:

    I have never used it personally and I have to say that I would perhaps find it more difficult as I tend to write in the third person anyway. Having said that, I am always open to learning and trying new things, so who knows.?


  4. I don’t like it when characters break the 4th Wall, either. It bugs me almost as much as when a character turns up acting Godlike and it’s obviously the author projecting him/herself into the tale. Bleah.

    I do think it can work best in a live theater setting, when an actual audience is present to address. Just talking to the camera doesn’t work for me.

    As you mention, I think this 4th Wall is often used as a vehicle for humor, but humor, for me, is most effective when it springs from the characters and their world. It shouldn’t depend on outside influences.


    • I agree for the most part. I have read a few humor books where the 4th wall breaking works to its advantage and helps me connect to the narrator. It’s a very delicate tool to use. Word-only literature is at a disadvantage with this beyond first person, so I think it’s a very limited trend.

      Whenever I think of this, I remember Groucho Marx looking at the camera to talk to the audience and nobody reacted to him doing this.


  5. Has to be used, if at all, very sparingly, IMO. It can quickly become a big negative. It does work with House of Cards on Netflix, which surprises me.


  6. I’m a huge fan of the style. I tend to agree with you though…not sure how I’d go about trying. Good practice, if anything.


  7. I like it. But mainly for comedic purposes. Deadpool is an excellent character. I love him. I think (as you stated) it has to be done in moderation though.


    • I’m torn on Deadpool. I’ll admit that I haven’t read comics in years, but his original series was one of the last ones I tried to keep up with. Now, I keep hearing how he’s in everything and he’s ‘edgy’. The few comics I’ve read with him doesn’t really capture what I remember about him. Then again, I’m old and need to get back to yelling at imaginary kids on my lawn.


  8. tommiaw says:

    If the style is done right, it could be enjoyable. Evidence of this – the play, “Under the Lintel.”


  9. Pingback: Break the Fourth Wall – Happy Hump Day | Fiction Favorites

  10. interesting piece. I must give this some thought!


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