Suppose you’re at a coffee shop and you’re telling your best friend about your workday. You’re saying so-and-so is building a case to take to human resources and will file a lawsuit soon. So-and-so has evidence of coercion and retaliation. Maybe it’s based on gender. Maybe it’s based on race. So-and-so will also file with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as a federal employee complaint due to implicit biases at work. Then you notice someone at the next table staring and listening with interest at all the juicy details.
At this point you could choose to ignore the person and finish the story with your friend. But instead you acknowledge your listener by saying, “You should’ve been there,” and then continue.
Breaking the fourth wall is acknowledging the reader or disrupting the illusion of a fictional space. In post modernist literary terms it’s called metafiction or authorial intrusion and meant to disrupt a structured order, especially one bent on maintaining hierarchies. Metafiction can happen in a variety of ways, such as an author inserting themselves into the story line or using a second person narrator or using a peripheral narrator who slips into the second person use of “you.” The latter gives the audience the sense of listening over someone’s shoulder, like the coffee shop scenario above.
So why use this method? It’s not common in literature. In fact, breaking the fourth wall is a stage or screen term and it happens in a movie when a character either looks at the camera or addresses the camera, meaning the audience.
Many authors insert themselves into the story line and typically this is more of self congratulating behavior rather than having any real substance. In Bronte’s Jane Eyre, she has Jane address the audience as a reaction to her loneliness. It enhances the story and character, as opposed to drawing attention to the author.
As many of you know, I’m working through the final revisions of my novel. In this phase, I tend to contemplate anything and everything. I like to reason all the variables. Why I would approach a story a certain way. Or in this case: a novel.
As a Native American writer, it’s especially important to have readers understand the Native world is not a fantasy world. It’s real and filled with real consequences. I have to say this aloud because unfortunately many readers view our world as “romantic.” Tragic, yes. But romantic. Meaning, Native lives are so far removed that many readers feel they can get lost among our pages in the same fashion as following around Frodo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings.
Ultimately, I insert myself into one of my story/chapters in order pull the reader out of the pages for a moment so as to consider these circumstances are not fantasy, but these types of things really happen in the Native world. Moreover, I harness the use of the “you” as a second person narrator addressing the main character so as to give the reader an opportunity to reflect on the character as potentially like themselves, where they have a short period of time where they get to “walk in his shoes.” More or less, to humanize the character and allow the reader time to step back from their fantastical perspective.
When you come from a world where colonization has transformed itself into distorting Native ideologies, you’re going to want to help people understand it’s not okay to romanticize us because it leads to exploitation. In that case, breaking the fourth wall or authorial intrusion becomes a tool for liberation.
(Images were borrowed from Wikimedia, Wikipedia, and ferris.edu)