When we talk about ‘breaking the fourth wall’ what we mean is when a character directly addresses a reader/audience. Recent examples would include Deadpool and House of Cards, it’s also a technique often used in theatre to externalise a character’s internal monologues, such as the soliloquies in Shakespeare. While we might associate it with television, film and theatre it also appears in novels when characters address the reader, perhaps by posing a rhetorical question, using ‘you’ though this may be used more generally that a direct address, or phrases like ‘and we all know’. We can also use breaking the fourth wall the same way we would in visual mediums so we shouldn’t assume that we can’t use it just because we haven’t got an actor speaking to a camera or audience.
One of the ways this can be effective is by creating a bond with the reader/audience because they are privy to the character’s thoughts as a direct address. From my previous examples you may also notice that it can associated with characters who are morally grey who might otherwise be difficult to empathise with. Deadpool himself says, more than once, the he isn’t a hero and he’s technically committing murder but the humorous use of his speaking to the audience lets us in on his dark humour and internal thoughts.
We might assume that first-person must therefore be breaking the fourth wall and not necessarily. Although in first-person the character is telling the story as opposed to a detached authorial voice which can make the reader feel they’re being let into a character’s internal world the first-person narrator doesn’t necessarily address the reader directly. We can create the sense that the character is sat somewhere telling the reader their story or they are writing the story do for the reader to find it’s not quite the same as addressing them directly. This doesn’t mean that we have to break the fourth wall to create the intimacy between character and reader, a well written first-person narrative can have all the benefits of a fourth wall break without addressing the reader.
On the other hand breaking the fourth wall doesn’t mean we have to address the reader directly rather than using a traditional internal monologue. We can use a mix of both, as I mentioned in television and theatre the fourth wall break can be used to make the internal external because the audience doesn’t have the character’s internal thoughts written down to read.
One problem we might have is the overuse of the fourth wall break, like any internal monologue it can begin to break up the main action of the story and make a narrative appear fractured. Even in stories where the fourth wall is broken a lot it always serves a purpose; introducing new elements, backstory or a witty aside to break the tension. As with anything in fiction writing we should always be thinking, during editing remember, about whether or not something is in the right place. This applies to breaking the fourth wall too.
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