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Noticing The Fourth Wall
Oh crap, hide!
"I see it all now! There's a reason we're all weirdos who make strange food! We're in...a CARTOON!"

A specialized form of Breaking the Fourth Wall. Fictional characters suddenly come to the realization that they are fictional characters living in a work of fiction. As you can imagine, this is often a terrible shock. How would you take it if you suddenly learned that you, your family, your friends, and your entire universe are all fake, and that everything you've ever said, done or thought was the product of someone else's imagination? Thus, characters who experience this trope seldom take it well. Popular in comic books and among writers who want to wax philosophical.

Compare Tomato in the Mirror. See also Real World Episode, Fourth Wall Observer, and Medium Awareness.

Not to be confused with Truman Show Plot, in which the characters are real, but the world is fabricated.

This is often used as The Reveal, so beware of spoilers.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • The Big O: You may not be able to tell by the confusing finale, but this was the true secret of Paradigm City: the reason nobody remembers what happened prior to 40 years ago is because they didn't exist prior to 40 years ago.

    Comic Books 
  • The sci-fi comic 2000 A.D. once ran a Mark Millar comic about a man who suddenly realizes he's in a comic, and it will soon end. He decides to make the best of his time left by going in a nihilistic rampage ("It's not really murder, you understand. None of these people have names.") It ends with the man being arrested and pointing the reader out to one of the policemen. He turns around in horror, screams, and grabs on to the panel border with tears in his eyes. "Oh God! Please don't turn the page...Please, read it again!"
    • Brian Azzarello would later pay homage to this story in his Doctor 13: Tales of the Unexpected miniseries.
    • This was also parodied in a Simpsons comic book, where Sideshow Bob revealed this fact to his prison guards. The scene ends complete with panel-grabbing.
  • A common epileptic tree is that this happened to The Joker, causing him to Go Mad from the Revelation. He has no problem killing innocent people because he knows they're not "real", and he does it entertainingly because he knows the audience will appreciate it.
  • Grant Morrison's Animal Man often goes to "Comic Book Limbo," where all the no-longer-used comic characters live, and meets his creators. But whenever he leaves, he loses all memory of the visit.
  • Superboy-Prime from DC Comics flips this around. He loses the real world (ours) and ends up going more then a bit nuts in the realms of comics that used to be fake to him.
  • The Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror" comic "Immigration of the Body Snatchers" ends this way. After a parade of Shout Outs to twist endings from The Twilight Zone, Planet of the Apes and even Monty Python, Sideshow Bob shouts that none of it is real and they're all just ink on paper. Everyone laughs at him...until he points to the surrounding panels and to the reader.
    Homer: If I don't exist...does that mean I can't eat doughnuts?

     Fan Works 
  • In Blog/Moonstuck Woona realizes everyone reading it at one point

    Film 
  • Stranger Than Fiction plays with this trope. Harold Crick starts hearing a voice narrating his life - accurately and with a better vocabulary - and realises he's a character in a novel and the course of his life is at the mercy of the author, which in this case is bad news. However, at the same time he is real and lives in the same universe as the author.
  • John Trent in In the Mouth of Madness. At the end of his stay in Hobb's End, Trent meets with Sutter Cane, the horror writer who created the town through his books. Cane reveals that Trent is in fact one of his characters. Trent refuses to accept this, exactly how Cane had written him.
  • Spaceballs features a scene in which Dark Helmet asks to watch a VHS copy of Spaceballs in order to find out what to do next. He ends up watching himself watching Spaceballs.
  • Half the plot of cheesy Schwarzenegger film Last Action Hero revolves around this, with fictional police officer Jack Slater not only having to face the repercussions of being transported to the real world, where the physics of his overblown action film world do not apply, but eventually even bumping into the actor who plays him. Hilarity Ensues. Naturally, Slater does not take any of it well.

    Literature 
  • A couple of characters in the later The Dark Tower books by Stephen King do this. Callahan angsts over it while some get pissed at the author for killing off their friends.
  • The whole point of the Elephant & Piggie book, "We Are In A Book!"
  • Pretty much the whole point of Sophie's World.
  • In "The Grimm Legacy" one character, in a conversation about a machine that can convert things into different versions of themselves, asks if they could be converted into fictional characters. Another asks how they know they haven't been.
  • A large portion of the plot of My Favorite Band Does Not Exist revolves around main character Idea Deity being aware that he is in a novel.

    Live-Action TV 
  • A Show Within a Show example from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Moriarty character from a Sherlock Holmes reenactment miraculously learns that he's not only a fictional character but that he's a computer generated recreation of said character.
    • In a later episode he (Moriarty) does the same thing for his computerized girlfriend Regina.
  • In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode "Once More With Feeling" Anya notices the sudden lack of a fourth wall in their apartment:
    "It's like we're being watched. Like there was a wall missing from our apartment, like there were only three walls, and not a fourth wall."
  • Parodied in a TBS commercial for The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon and Leonard are sitting in their living room trying to remember what show comes on before Conan on TBS. Before they can look it up, though, Conan O'Brien bursts into their apartment, looks at the Fourth Wall, and exclaims that the two can't learn that they're in a sitcom. Sheldon's response?
    Sheldon: We're in a sitcom?!
    • In another ad, Sheldon wants to know why the TBS logo is in his Chinese food. Leonard tells him to ignore it because they aren't supposed to know they are on TV.
  • In Hikonin Sentai Akibaranger, the Otaku heroes realize their status as fictional characters living in a show when a series of increasingly blatant cases of Executive Meddling start piling up. Being Genre Savvy enough, they realize that their true enemy is the production staff itself, intending to terminate the show early, and decide to combat them by averting and subverting all the Ending Tropes they can. They fail, however, to extend their story for even one episode.
  • At the end of the Masters Of Horror episode "Valerie on the Stairs", Rob takes Valerie out of the house, upon which she vanishes. Rob realizes then that he is a fictional character and everything he did was written by the boarding house residents. He dissolves then in a pile of written papers, whose last line is "And so it came to pass that Rob Hanisey never became a published author".

    Newspaper Comics 
  • The Dilbert strip for 10/20/2011 plays with this: After the Pointy-Haired Boss tells Dilbert to change lines on a page to dotted lines because they were "not made of ink," both glance toward the reader with comments about things they were not meant to know.

    Video Games 
  • Inquisitive Dave begins as a side-scrolling adventure game, but after the evil wizard Zardolph is defeated, he comes back with the knowledge that their entire world is just a video game, and this knowledge had given him the power to escape the game and become a virus, destroying every system "because only through chaos can they know true freedom!" This leads to a final confrontation with him at the top of his tower, where the trick to beating him is to hide in an alcove his magic can't reach and refuse to fight back. As a villain character, the point of Zardolph's existence is to fight the hero, so if the hero doesn't fight him, his existence is redundant. Thus, he disappears. After the credits, the creators reveal to Dave that Zardolph hadn't really escaped their control; it was just a test of Dave's lateral thinking.
    • This Let's Play video explains that the whole point of the game was for the amusement of the audience, and it is pointed out that the system and the player are being watched. The player is given his freedom from the game, and the video watcher is called a voyeur. From the perspective of the watcher this seems like Breaking The 5th Wall as the player and audience are separate entities.
  • One of the dream sequences in Max Payne has Max realize he's in a comic book/computer game. In the course of the dream he observes that each of these revelations are "Funny as hell, it was the most horrible thing I could think of." Upon awakening, he says that the drug-fueled dream left "dark stains on my soul that would never come off." As a confirmation of this, he observes in the game's sequel that "when I slept, my dreams were nightmares."
  • There's a secret ending in The Nameless Mod where the player character learns he's just a character in a video game. He addresses the player and decides he's actually pretty cool with it, as giving people pleasure isn't a bad vocation. He'll see you next time you want a New Game.
  • One of the endings to The Stanley Parable has Stanley, wandering through a seemingly endless loop of rooms, start realizing the video game nature of his world, which is started with him questioning why he couldn't see his body when looking down. The original mod has Stanley realize he's in a video game, while the HD remix downgrades it to the more realistic assumption that he's dreaming.

    Web Comics 

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • The above quote from Chowder, who is able to notice it because an overdose of "Brain Grub" grants him superhuman intelligence. He then uses his mental powers to make the show smarter, turning it into a boring intellectual program.
  • Fairly Oddparents: When Timmy wishes the Crimson Chin out of his comic and shows him he's fictional, he suffers a Heroic BSOD. When he's returned to the comic, every panel is just him sucking his thumb in a fetal position.
  • The Genre Savvy Deadpan Snarker Digeri Dingo from Taz-Mania has more fun with the fourth wall than any other character in the show. Subverted as he's not very concerned that he lives in a fictional cartoon.
  • In Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear finally realizes he's a toy when he sees a commercial advertising him. This probably counts as an in-universe example, because what he doesn't realize is that he's a CGI animation.

No Inner Fourth WallFourth WallThe Player Is The Most Important Resource
No Inner Fourth WallMetafiction Demanded This IndexPainting the Medium
Higher Understanding Through DrugsImageSource/Comic BooksWriter on Board

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