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.
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.
- 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.
- 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 memorably did this in a full-page panel, which provides the current page image. He 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 (1959), Planet of the Apes (1968) 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?
- Deadpool has known for years about the man with the typewriter, but in Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe he does something about it. After killing the heroes and villains of the Marvel Universe, he then travels through the multiverse and walks into the Marvel office where the writers are discussing what Deadpool will do next in Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe. He kills them while they are talking about him killing them in the comic. And then he turns to you, the reader.
- In issue 15 of the Muppet Babies comic book, Gonzo accidentally casts a spell from a magic book, trapping the Muppets and their world in a comic book. The only way to undo the spell is to make the reader laugh. Things go From Bad to Worse for the gang once Animal starts chewing on the panel borders...
- In Moonstuck Woona realizes everyone reading it at one point
- 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.
- Happens in-universe in Toy Story: Buzz Lightyear is initially convinced he is a real space ranger, and not a toy, and only learns otherwise when he sees a commercial for a Buzz Lightyear toy like himself.
- Sausage Party contains a straighter example. The characters discover at the end that they are fictional creations of cartoonists in the real world, and use a wormhole to get revenge on their creators for the suffering they've been forced to endure.
- 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. It doesn't stop them from asking Stephen King to write a good ending to their story when it looks like the villain might win, though.
- 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.
- The Reveal at the end of Bernard Werber's Gods cycle of books is that the characters were fictional all the way. At the end, thanks to some Applied Phlebotinum, they turn themselves into photons who travel just behind the surface of the pages of the book, and at one point one of the characters bounces against the "wall" of the page, creating an impact seen as a dot by the reader. The hero doesn't take this well, but his philosophical mentor is rather happy to learn he's effectively immortal, as he'll live again every time someone reads the book.
- A Pack of Lies, a short story collection by Geraldine McCaughrean, has a frame story about a man in an antique store telling prospective customers improbable tales about the histories of the items on sale. As the book progresses, the other people who work in the store start noticing oddities and inconsistencies, and eventually discover that they themselves are just characters in a story.
- 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 ignores Valerie's pleas that she can't exist outside the house, only for her to vanish. Shortly afterwards Rob realizes that he is a fictional character as well and everything he did was written by the boarding house residents. He dissolves into a pile of written papers, the last line of which is "And so it came to pass that Rob Hanisey never became a published author".
- The entire plot of the Korean Netflix series Extraordinary You (adapted from July Found by Chance). The main character of the series realises that she's a side character in a romance comic, and sets out to take her story into her own hands. Unfortunately, this is quite the task as during the Scenes of the comic, she must act her part or everything resets.
- The Mario Opera has an in-universe example, as everyone but Mario knows about him being a video game character. After dying, Mario meets the gamer controlling him and learns the truth of his existence, deciding to trust the player with his fate and come back to life.
- Deltarune: Each of the Shadow Crystal Holders interacted with a mysterious figure, who told them about the virtual nature of the world. This causes them to Go Mad from the Revelation, making Jevil turn into The Hedonist, fighting others for pleasure, and drives Spamton to create a plan to free himself of the game.
- 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.
- Undertale: If you play as a complete and unrepentant sociopath who slaughters mooks, guards, small children, heroes, TV stars, and anyone else stupid enough to get in your way, you'll awaken the demon overlord Chara from the sleep of the dead with your violence. They'll call you out on defining their purpose through every EXP you ever earned. Then they'll attack you with such force that the game screen fills up with DPS-nines and the entire underground dies. And they'll never go back to sleep.
- The whole premise of [redacted] Life is that the main character realises that he's in a video game and is trying to escape it.
- In Doki Doki Literature Club!, this is the reason why the game starts to deteriorate and the characters start behaving oddly during Act II. Monika became self-aware at some point and realized that she and the other club members are fictional characters in a romantic visual novel, and is messing with the game's code in order to make direct contact with the actual player.
- The entire premise of Kid Radd. The title character already knew he was a video game character being controlled by a player, but still had no idea there was a universe beyond his game.
- All of the characters in 1/0 know that they are fictional and constantly Contemplate Their Navels, pondering subjects such as whether they exist and whether they will continue to exist after the author stops writing the comic. The comic has No Fourth Wall to speak of, however, the trope comes into effect when the characters' "personal fourth walls" break.
- Deconstructed in Captain SNES: The Game Masta, where video game characters Touched by a particular Eldritch Abomination realize that they're video game characters... and don't take it well at all.
- An xkcd strip features this, when the subject of this man's daydream realizes the truth and it all goes Off the Rails.
- In Half-Life but the AI is Self-Aware, Dr. Coomer was already a Cloud Cuckoolander, but he gets worse after attempting to climb up a cliff to escape Black Mesa only to discover "there's nothing there." He later reveals that he feels intense pain whenever Gordon shuts the game off, and even tries to steal Gordon's body to escape it.
Dr. Coomer: Gordon. If you woke up one day, and realized everything around you was a lie... was FAKE... what would you do?
- In RWBY Chibi, one short has the girls encounter one of the silhouetted background characters that were prominent in Volume 1. They mention how creepy they are, how they never seem to talk to them and how some of them look like them, in which we see a Ruby version who bashfully waves hi to them.
- Episode 6 decided to break the fourth wall's legs when Chibi Pyrrha, whose canonical counterpart was gruesomely Killed Off for Real at the end of Volume 3, shows up and Chibi Nora telling everyone that "Nothing. Bad. Ever Happened. Ever."
- One of the proposals for the nature of SCP-001 is that it is the collective of writers and editors of the SCP Foundation website itself, portraying them as careless or malevolent gods who rewrite reality at a whim. And the Foundation have prepared countermeasures to kill the authors if it becomes absolutely necessary, even though they're aware this may destroy reality.
- It's implied that SCP-2786, a being that can jump between different narratives and insert itself to solve every plotline quickly, finally realized during containment that not only were the "universes" it was entering works of fiction, its reality itself was also a work of fiction (the above SCP-001 is linked), and thus it's nothing but a fictional character. It's also implied this realization completely broke the entity.
- The protagonist of "Nothing Like The Sun" scours the multiverse trying to discover how she became omnipotent and why, despite this, she can't turn her Glowing Eyes off, eventually coming to the horrible realization that she and everyone she knows is a fictional character, and that she was only created in the first place as a joke because the authors wanted to write a Self-Parody. She is able to take this in enough stride to realize that because she is omnipotent, she can bring her authors to her own world, and force them to fix things, after which she spends the rest of her life living it up with her omnipotent powers.
- The Amazing World of Gumball:
- "The Signal" centers on Elmore experiencing numerous anomalies that turn out to coincide exactly with a number of television signal interruptions. Just before Darwin and Gumball can conclude they're also on a TV show, another jump sends them to an "Everybody Laughs" Ending, which seems to have taken them off the topic.
- Rob, after spending time in a metafictional Phantom Zone for bad ideas and travelling through time (and the show's credits) via television remote, realizes the world he lives in isn't real. This makes him despise Gumball even more, as Rob concludes Gumball being the hero is why he became a villain, and that he could be whoever he wanted if he got rid of Gumball. (Gumball actually went to the Void twice and also heard Rob explain Elmore wasn't real, but remains ignorant of such because of Victory-Guided Amnesia experienced after both incidents.)
- Chowder: Chowder realizes he's in a cartoon 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. With that in mind, the show regularly broke the fourth wall with all its characters, both before and long after the episode in question.
- The Fairly OddParents: Done In-Universe, 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. After Timmy gives him a pep talk about how his actions still matter to the people living in his world, the Crimson Chin continues his superheroic and retains Medium Awareness in following appearances.
- OK K.O.! Let's Be Heroes: In "Your World is An Illusion", Holo-Jane convinces K.O. that his world is an illusion, and he starts to notice things like he can only pick up rocks that aren't part of the background, he gets extra arms when he moves them too fast, and big impacts produce a Hit Flash. After K.O. suffers a brief existential crisis, Holo-Jane assures him that even if his world isn't "real", his experiences and feelings are real.