Books with characters who know they're characters?
June 7, 2012 7:00 AM   Subscribe

What books feature characters who realize that they are characters in a book, or related concepts of that sort?
posted by shivohum to Writing & Language (50 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series.
posted by rtha at 7:03 AM on June 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series is all about that.
posted by Captain Shenanigan at 7:04 AM on June 7, 2012

Sophie's World
posted by bardophile at 7:05 AM on June 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

Typewriter in the Sky. It was good when I read it, but I read it as a young teen a decade ago.

A movie (in case this is of interest) that features the same concept is Stranger than Fiction (not Will Ferrel's best, by any standard).
posted by DoubleLune at 7:05 AM on June 7, 2012

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut.
posted by jcreigh at 7:07 AM on June 7, 2012

Redshirts by John Scalzi
posted by lyra4 at 7:07 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's also the larger TV Tropes category Fourth Wall.
posted by zamboni at 7:10 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

My memory of the book is not good enough to explain it 100% coherently but the concepts you're looking for appear in Dhalgren [spoilers ahead]

where the city of Bellona is constantly remixing itself and repeating in something resembling a loop. The main character becomes aware of this, but I'm not sure if it's to the point of him realizing he's fictional. It certainly has other metafictional aspects as well, such as the main character's writing feeding in to the book itself.
posted by CheshireCat at 7:11 AM on June 7, 2012

At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O'Brien.
posted by Francolin at 7:11 AM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Robert A. Heinlein's The Number of the Beast treads those waters.
posted by DWRoelands at 7:11 AM on June 7, 2012

The Neverending Story :)

The Book of Lost Things

The Diamond Age except one more layer in kinda.

Dante's Inferno in kind of a weird fictional-autobiographical way.
posted by Sayuri. at 7:13 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Douglas Coupland has a number of books that approach or play around with these concepts. In Generation X and Generation A, the storytelling is a huge part of the plotline and the characters are very genre savvy and aware of the nature of storytelling. (And I don't want to be much more explicit because, well, spoilers, esp. for Generation A.) jPod has a character named Douglas Coupland who mucks about with the characters. A lot of his work deals with these kinds of themes. (And loneliness. Lots of loneliness.)

Of the three I noted above, I'd start with Generation A; it's the most recent and if you like it, you'll probably like a lot of the rest of Coupland.
posted by pie ninja at 7:14 AM on June 7, 2012

At Swim-Two-Birds is exactly what you're after - and I'd also suggest If on a winter's night a traveller by Italo Calvino, where the central character is you as you try to read the book.
posted by Ted Maul at 7:15 AM on June 7, 2012

The Golden Notebook doesn't have characters who realize they are characters in a book. It does, though, have a character who is an author writing a book about a character who is an author writing a book about a character who is an author. The lives and personalities of all these characters and meta-characters reflect each other, and also reflect the aspects of the real-life author, Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing.
posted by alms at 7:15 AM on June 7, 2012

Cornelia Funke's Inkheart series is sort of close - people can be pulled into the real world from books and vice versa.

(and everyone should read corpse in the library's suggestion)
posted by routergirl at 7:23 AM on June 7, 2012

The Stinky Cheese Man is another children's book which plays heavily on this theme.
posted by jquinby at 7:24 AM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Stephen King writes himself into his own Dark Tower series (somewhat pretentiously, I might add).
posted by wolfdreams01 at 7:26 AM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sorry, let me clarify - he writes himself into the book, but the other characters in it ALSO realize that they are characters in his book.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 7:27 AM on June 7, 2012

The characters in John Crowley's Little, Big recognise that they are part of a tale, although perhaps not that they are in the book per se. Something similar but more complicated happens in AEgypt, and there's also Engine Summer which has quite a poignant take on this idea, which I can't say more about without a major spoiler.
posted by crocomancer at 7:30 AM on June 7, 2012

Oh, and also Karen Joy Fowler's Wit's End, which has a protagonist whose deceased father was written into a book as a character, and became a beloved fanfic protag. That might count as a second-order case, though (fictional works inside the book have characters who are aware they're in a book).
posted by pie ninja at 7:30 AM on June 7, 2012

The Illuminatus! trilogy. Sort of.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 7:31 AM on June 7, 2012

As a follow-up to the above, you'd have to hunt for a back issue or succumb to the lure of piracy, but Morrison (the writer of Animal Man among many other great comics) appears in John Ostrander and Kim Yale's Suicide Squad years later on the premise that, after he inserted himself into the DC continuity, he couldn't leave, and is now trapped in other people's stories.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 7:38 AM on June 7, 2012

Salvador Plascencia's People of Paper plays with this idea, especially when the relationship between author and characters turns ugly.
posted by gladly at 7:45 AM on June 7, 2012

Christopher Priest's "The Glamour" kinda, sorta does this.
posted by greatgefilte at 7:49 AM on June 7, 2012

I'll add two more quirky examples. The game Max Payne has a wonderful hallucinatory sequence where Max mulls over the ideas that he might be in a cheesy crime noir comic or that he might just be a video game character.

The webcomic Homestuck is massively recursive. [Also spoilers ahead] It features the fourth wall as an actual object in the storyline that can be literally broken. The author appears frequently in the comic, tampering with events even. Plus all the characters have various different iterations of themselves that they meet and interact with due to alternate dimensions and time travel shenanigans. I don't think any of them are literally aware that they're just characters, but they have to deal with the same issues regarding their subjective reality and the level of genre savvy they display is through the roof. In addition there are in-universe books, webcomics, and miscellaneous writings in which additional quasi-metafictive layers are added where they read about characters in different universes, gain prophetic knowledge, or read fictionalized snippets of their own future actions.
posted by CheshireCat at 7:51 AM on June 7, 2012

Nabokov played around with this kind of metafiction, most especially in the conclusion to Bend Sinister. Another example is Janet Frame's fascinatingly odd 1988 novel The Carpathians, where a good portion of the characters recognize their own fictive nature and obsess about having their "points of view" stolen by the protagonist.
posted by Sonny Jim at 8:14 AM on June 7, 2012

There's that scene in Annie Hall in which Woody Allen pulls Marshall McLuhan out of the scenery to refute a point that one of the other characters is making. Classic!
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:30 AM on June 7, 2012

Jasper Fforde's Nursery Crime series has this too. Some characters deal with the revelation better than others...
posted by the latin mouse at 9:05 AM on June 7, 2012

Gene Wolfe's has an excellent short story about a character who tries to rebel against his author: "The Last Thrilling Wonder Story," found in one of Wolfe's best collections, Endangered Species.
posted by straight at 9:40 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System, sort of. It's definitely about stories within stories, and the main character has sort of a feeling/suspicion that she's just a character in a book.
posted by naoko at 9:47 AM on June 7, 2012

The Athenian Murders, by Spanish author José Carlos Somoza.
posted by cricketsong at 9:55 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

In addition to Animal Man, several other comic book characters are aware that they're comic book characters, most famously Deadpool. He can read and interact with the narration boxes.

Some authors indicate that The Joker is aware that he's a comic book character as well, including the animated Batman cartoon, which showed him whistling along with his own theme music at least once.

Others listed here.
posted by Clambone at 10:04 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mark Leyner's The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is a good recent example.
posted by activitystory at 10:15 AM on June 7, 2012

The play Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello falls into the "related concepts" category, where characters from an unwritten/unfinished play show up at a theater company's dress rehearsal and try to convince the director and actors to perform their story. The author inserts a lot of jabs at himself throughout (e.g. the interrupted play is another Pirandello play, which the director spends a lot of time insulting).
posted by jessypie at 10:25 AM on June 7, 2012

Seconding recommendations for People of Paper and if on winter's night a traveler.

Julio Cortazar's short story Continuity of Parks also has something similar.
posted by spanishbombs at 10:41 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

In comics, She-Hulk is fully aware that she's a comic book character. She hasn't addressed this in a long time, but every once in awhile the writers pull it out of the box. It tends to severely upset the characters around her when she addresses the narrator.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 11:03 AM on June 7, 2012

There are a number of flirtations with this idea in House of Leaves.
posted by cortex at 11:08 AM on June 7, 2012

In Muriel Spark's novel The Comforters, the main character starts hearing the sound of a typewriter and a voice narrating her own thoughts. Her friends think she's going mad, but we the readers know that what she's actually hearing is Muriel Spark writing The Comforters. In an effort to assert her own freewill, she starts talking back to the author, with unfortunate results. Spark stated that she based this on the hallucinations she experienced while taking Dexedrine.
posted by verstegan at 11:10 AM on June 7, 2012

Milan Kundera breaks the 4th wall on occasion. If I remember he sometimes converses with the characters directly.
posted by MillMan at 11:21 AM on June 7, 2012

It's been about 15 years since I read it, but I think that Martin Amis was a character in the Martin Amis novel Money. Like I said, it's been a while, but I'm pretty sure that Amis knew that he was a character in the novel he was writing.

Then again, does a character have to explicitly state that they know they're a character in a novel? Could Martin Amis have not informed Martin Amis that he was fictitious?
posted by One Hand Slowclapping at 11:23 AM on June 7, 2012

Several of the dialogues in Godel, Escher, Bach feature this theme.
posted by googly at 11:49 AM on June 7, 2012

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.
posted by rlk at 12:29 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I understand that Don Quixote does something of the sort, but I'm only about 20 pages in.
posted by polecat at 12:32 PM on June 7, 2012

Dick's Valis also has a cool twist halfway through regarding the main character.
posted by aquanaut at 3:07 PM on June 7, 2012

Also Woddy Allen, The Purple Rose Of Cairo has movie characters suddenly turn to address the audience and then decide to leave the movie and go explore the " real" world.
posted by The Whelk at 8:42 AM on June 8, 2012

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