Fourth Wall (glossary term)

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See also: Breaking the Fourth Wall, metafic, Fan Service
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The fourth wall is a term that has different meanings in the context of popular culture and fandom culture:

  1. A concept that originated in theater: with three-walled sets and an imaginary fourth wall between the audience and the actors that prevents interaction. When "breaking the fourth wall" in theater, actors on stage acknowledge the audience. More broadly, the fourth wall the division between characters in a story and the audience in any type of media.
  2. the division between fandoms and the creators of their canon

In fanfiction, fics that involve characters who are aware of the fourth wall (or the audience, the author, the fact that they're characters, and so on) are called metafic.

Breaking the Fourth Wall is the act of breaching the divide between audience and subject. The term initially referred to characters becoming aware of the audience or the fact that they are in a work of fiction, but in fannish circles now often refers to TPTB acknowledging the existence of fandom within the canon of a source. Some fans enjoy the attention from TPTB; other fans are upset by it and consider it taboo.

The phrase has special relevance to RPF fandoms, where the content created is about real people. Tinhats, Bandom, Radio 1 RPF, and Hockey RPF have had issues with people noticing RPF about themselves.

Canonically Breaking the Fourth Wall

The following list includes examples of characters and media that have canonically broken the fourth wall

  • The BBC TV series Gangsters[1] (1975-78) deliberately broke the fourth wall on several occasions, most notably in its second series which had repeated cuts and pans to the author, Philip Martin, dictating the script to a typist near the location of the previous or next scene, e.g. outside an Indian shop when the previous scene was set in a room above the shop next door. Martin also played several secondary characters in the series, one of them an assassin who killed the star of the show. The series ended with a party scene in which the characters walked off the set, revealing the studio setting as they left.
  • The British animated TV series Danger Mouse (1981-1992, 2015-) has characters who are aware that they are in a TV show, occasionally argue with the narrator, etc.
  • The web comic 1/0 by Tailsteak (2001-3) was devoted to breaking the fourth wall; from the outset the characters interacted with their creator.
  • Several comics characters are in canon sporadically aware of their status as fictional characters and comment about their writers. In the comics this refers to the comic creators, in fanfic this often refers to the person writing the story, its readers, etc. Deadpool and She-Hulk, and occasionally The Joker are the most obvious examples. The Marvel supervillain The Purple Man appears to have this power, and can make others believe that they are part of a fictional world. He is also aware that his history with Jessica Jones is a retcon. Several other comics characters have some version of this ability; similarly, many animated characters are portrayed as aware of their artists and/or audience, e.g. Bugs Bunny.[2]
  • Malcolm, the main character of the Fox TV show Malcolm in the Middle, routinely breaks the fourth wall by addressing the audience directly over the camera.

Breaking the (Fannish) Fourth Wall in Media

Show creators have been breaking the fourth wall since the beginning of media fandom. For example, by issue #3 of the Star Trek fanzine Spockanalia (1968), Gene Roddenberry and his production staff had taken note of the fanzine and submitted a letter to the editors stating: "Spockanalia is 'required reading' for everyone in our offices....We have used all the extra copies to make sure that every writer ,and anyone that makes decisions on show policy, have read your fanzine...The reason for this is that if we all understand what the fans see in the show; and try to understand why they are fans at all, we can continue to hold those fans."

Almost 40 years later, in 2006, Doctor Who aired an episode focused on a fan obsessed with tracking the activities of the mysterious man and his blue box (The Doctor and the TARDIS), and Stargate SG-1 aired an episode that alluded to the fandom's main slash pairing, the show's many near-cancellations, and interest in a younger, edgier version of the show.[3]

Shortly after that, TPTB behind Supernatural referenced slash fanfiction about the main characters of the show in one of the episodes, introduced a slash fangirl as a character, and aired an episode in which the main characters are temporarily transported to an alternate reality where they are believed to be actors who star in a television show named Supernatural.

Some Print Zine Examples of the Fourth Wall

Additional Reading


  1. ^ Gangsters on Wikipedia (accessed 25th July 2015)
  2. ^ Superpower Wiki - 4th Wall Awareness accessed 24th June 2015
  3. ^ See Metafic page.