META: The Problem of Fourth Wall Breaking

Martin Phipps martinphipps2 at
Tue Jul 29 01:33:22 PDT 2008

Wikipedia provides various examples of fourth wall breaking and
metafiction.  (See and ).  The articles do not
address the issue of when, if ever, one should break the fourth wall
in fiction.

Critic Vincent Canby described the fourth wall as "that invisible
screen that forever separates the audience from the stage."  In the
case of a story, it is the requirement that the characters do not know
they are in a story and, thus, never refer to themselves or the events
that occur as fictional.  When the narrator addresses the reader
directly, it is not fourth wall breaking: it is the equivalent of the
narrator in a play standing at the front of the stage away from the
actors: the characters see neither the narrator nor the audience.  It
is fourth wall breaking when the narrator addresses the characters
directly, assuming the characters can hear him, because, in a story
that does not break the fourth wall, the characters are not supposed
to even know about the narrator.

In LNH stories, fourth wall breaking takes many forms: 1) the
characters make metafictional references, ie they refer to drama or
comedy as forces of nature or they predict the outcome of a situation
based on the genre of story they believe to be in at the time; this
particular technique appears to be favoured by Saxon Brenton, 2)
characters speak directly to the narrator / author, usually
complaining about what has just happened to them; this particular joke
has gotten old and is rarely used in LNH stories now, 3) a character
represents the writer himself; taken to its logical conclusion, the
character should know everything that has happened in the story so
far, have a fairly good idea what is going to happen next and chose to
change the course of events if he/she doesn't like how things are
going; given that LNH stories also allow for retro-active continuity,
all "writer characters" should have god-like powers and most
apparently choose not to and 4) characters will deliberately make "in
jokes" refering to current popular comics or movies and/or refer to
something as a "homage" or "rip off" of something from a popular comic
or movie.  Sometimes a real life person like Rob Liefeld or Stan Lee
will make a walk on appearance in an LNH story and this is fourth wall
breaking because we're reminded that it's "really him" and not a
fictional character.

Fourth wall breaking is typically used for comic effect, especially in
LNH stories, although this isn't always the case: sometimes the fourth
wall breaking is taken quite seriously.  For example, Saxon Brenton
sometimes has characters wax philosophically about what it means to be
fictional characters in a fictional "reality".  The logical result of
this is the "Church of the Fourth Wall" where parishioners go to
worship the writers as gods.  Other authors tend to step back a bit
and have most characters remain skeptical about the very existance of
these "writers", feeling that most characters need to be blissfully
unaware of the true nature of the "reality" they find themselves in if
the plots are going to advance at all.  Another example would be
stories in which fictional characters travel to the "real world" only
to find that the "real world" is actually a yet another fictional
reality that closely resembles the real world, something which has to
be true because any reality that exists in a fictioanl story is, by
definition, fictional.

Some of the comedy regarding fourth wall breaking comes about when
some characters are aware of the writers and readers and some are not,
thus resulting in some ironic comments that unaware characters either
miss entirely or simply remain puzzled over.  (That this is true was
actually explored by John Byrne when he wrote She Hulk for Marvel
Comics.)  When a character who is unaware of the true nature of the
Looniverse actually does discover that he/she is a fictional
character, however, it can be a very dramatic moment equivalent to a
religious experience.  (That this is true was actually explored by
Grant Morrison when he wrote Animal Man for DC Comics.)

Alas, breaking the fourth wall is not always a good idea.  For
example, it is my personal opinion that villains in LNH stories should
never be aware that they are in a story because it creates the
inherent contradiction of somebody _knowing_ that they are the villain
and yet doing nothing to change their ways.  Perhaps it would be
interesting to have a villain find out that he is not only in a story
but that he is considered the villain and see how he would react:
after all, nobody in real life actually sees themselves as evil.  The
problem arises then that when presenting an evil version of the LNH,
for example, the LNH's evil counterparts should not refer to
themselves as "the evil LNH" but should, in fact, see our LNH as weak
and disposable.  In is, after all, in the interests of "improving the
human race" that (what most of us consider to be) the greatest evils
commited in the real world were carried out.

Thus, fourth wall breaking is a useful techniue, used by LNH authors
for the sake of eliciting both drama and comedy, but it should be used
sparingly as, after more than sixteen years, it's pretty much been
done to death.


PS: I noticed before I posted this that I had misspelled "Saxon
Brenton" as "Saxon Breaking" :)

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