Is there a word or phrase to describe when a fictional character quotes/references something that exists in the real (our) 'universe' (but can also therefore exist in the fictional 'universe'). Either a piece of fiction, like Shakespeare or something real like Martin Luther King Jr.'s I have a dream speech etc.

That reads as complex but it is a pretty simple idea really, some examples (and please note that it isn't limited to film and TV):

  • in Star Trek "The Voyage Home" McCoy quotes Hamlet: "Angels and ministers of grace defend us!".
  • in Star Trek "First Contact" they refer to Moby Dick - Lily compares Captain Picard's desire to kill the Borg to Captain Ahab and Moby Dick (also an extended metaphor in the film), and then Picard also quotes from it "And he piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race. If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it."
  • in the TV show Lost, Sawyer and Ben discuss Of Mice and Men by Steinbeck
  • in Die Hard, Hans quotes Plutarch's Life of Alexander "And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer." (though if you search online there is debate about the accuracy of the quote)

Please note - I actually intended on using the word/phrase to describe how ineffective it can be, how it can break the illusion, to have fictional characters quoting etc.

  • 1
    Sometimes a quotation is just a quotation.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 11, 2015 at 13:54

2 Answers 2


These references are called allusions. To allude to real literary works in a movie might contribute to verisimilitude, that is, these allusions might help the audience to forget that they're watching a fiction. Or they could be pretentious and heavy-handed, and remind the audience that they're watching a movie.

  • Brilliant! Thank you @TRomano. If like me you rely on Wikipedia - this narrative version not this philosophical concept
    – ja_him
    Jan 11, 2015 at 14:12
  • This answers OP's question about as well as Hot Licks' quotation. If The PM refers to Churchill, he is making an allusion. There is no hint that it is 'a fictitious character quot[ing] real writing/speech etc'. Jan 11, 2015 at 15:35
  • I don't understand your comment, @Edwin Ashworth. The characters in the movies cited in OP's question are making allusions. They are fictitious characters. So there is more than a hint that a fictitious character is involved; that the person making the allusion is fictional is an explicit feature of the OP's question. Although in one of the examples, the movie is alluding; the characters are discussing.
    – TimR
    Jan 11, 2015 at 15:43
  • You've answered 'Word or phrase that describes when a person quotes writing/speech etc' not specifically 'Word or phrase that describes when a fictitious character quotes real writing/speech etc'. You might as well say 'He's quoting ...' or 'He's referring to ...'. Jan 11, 2015 at 16:11
  • @Edwin Ashworth: Are you implying that there is a more precise word for this sort of thing? Is so, please advise.
    – TimR
    Jan 11, 2015 at 16:12

I wonder if these could be considered examples of mimesis: "imitation of the real world, as by re-creating instances of human action and events or portraying objects found in nature".

However, I think this concept may be too broad to describe what the OP is looking for. Mimesis doesn't just mean fictional people quoting real authors or referencing actual events; it's everything the actors, and the work of fiction itself, deploy in order to pretend that what they're showing is real: the feigned emotions, the sets, the sound effects etc.

  • This is not what mimesis means, Patrick.
    – TimR
    Jan 13, 2015 at 0:14

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