For those who don’t know, the “fourth wall” is the theatrical concept of the illusion that in the world of the story being performed, everything is real and the audience is nonexistent—there is no gap in the living room wall and no crowd seated just outside it watching the family proceedings. In other words, the characters never acknowledge or address the audience. When a character speaks to the viewers directly, it is called breaking the fourth wall.
But the written word follows slightly different rules. Since a reader cannot actually see the scene, the physical environment and proceedings must be discussed and named in a way that they never would be naturally—when we get angry in real life, we never yell “I clench my fists and step towards him menacingly!” (unless maybe if we’re playing Dungeons and Dragons). So does that mean that in written fiction, the fourth wall can never be intact? After all, even in the case of third person perspectives, a narrator must perform this task.
Still, there are definitely levels. For example, some third-person narrators only speak to the reader in the vaguest way, providing the vital images and offering no further commentary, while others begin to show personality and make comments that alter the reader understanding of the plot. In the realm of first-person novels, we have stories that are written as diaries or are otherwise immediately acknowledged as a story being read (like David Copperfield, I guess, which I haven’t actually read.) And then, to take it a step further, there are cases where the author themself actually chimes in during the story—like Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated.
Personally, I like it when protagonists are chatty and speak to me directly. If it’s done well, it makes it easier to relate to that character, and to form an emotional bond with them. I also think it would be enjoyable to write a character that way. It just makes a character very immediate and very knowable.
Thoughts? Comments? What counts as the fourth wall in a novel?