Cannot Tell Fiction from Reality

http://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/joe_played_skyrim_2402.jpg
"Jesus Christ, Joe. You've been playing way too much Skyrim, haven't you?"

Buzz: How dare you open a spaceman's helmet on an uncharted planet! My eyeballs could've been sucked from their sockets!
Woody: You actually think you are the Buzz Lightyear? All this time I thought it was an act! Hey, guys! Look! It's the real Buzz Lightyear!
Buzz: You're mocking me, aren't you?
Woody: Oh, no no no no— BUZZ, LOOK! AN ALIEN!
Buzz: Where!?

A character starts to be unable to tell the difference between fiction and reality. Often it's thinking a TV show is real, or thinking one is actually in the show. They will often be a Loony Fan.

This trope can either be Played for Laughs or Played for Drama. The dramatic versions can often come with a moral about not watching too many shows or not thinking stuff in shows is safe to do.

When the "reality" of the work is acknowledged in-universe to this person, see This Is Reality.

Related tropes:

A Super Trope to:

Compare:


In-Universe Examples Only:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 

    Fan Works 
  • In the For Better or for Worse fanfic The New Retcons, this sums up Elly Patterson's insanity in a nutshell; more to the point, she can't tell the past from the present and thinks she's in the 1980s in 2008.

    Films — Animation 
  • Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story sort of suffered from this, until he saw the commercial at Sid's house advertising for Buzz Lightyears. Zerg and the Toy-Barn Buzz Lightyear suffer from this in the second movie. It carries over into promotional media as Buzz still thinks that he is the real deal.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Science of Sleep has the main character Stephane unable to distinguish his dreams from reality. The film is presented in a way that it's difficult for the audience to tell what is real and what in imagined.
  • Mazes and Monsters has this with Tom Hanks losing his mind and thinking he's in a Dungeons & Dragons-type game.
  • In Galaxy Quest, the Thermians have no concept of deceit or fiction, believing everything they see and hear as fact. They think that the Galaxy Quest episodes they found in Earth's transmissions are "historical documents" of an actual space crew traveling the galaxy. When the crew tries to explain this to them and mentions Gilligan's Island, the aliens simply murmur sadly "those poor people". Their enemies, on the other hand, have no such problem and had exploited it to wipe out almost the entire Thermian race by the time of the movie (and their leader thinks the confusion with the show is funny as hell).
  • In the movie Nurse Betty, after a woman sees her husband murdered she has a brain snap and believes she's a character from her favorite soap opera, moving to California to work at the fictional hospital she now believes she works in.
  • Ghost from Ginger Snaps Unleashed seems to have difficulty differentiating between reality and her comic books. She seems to think she's living in some kind of horror comic where she's the villain.
  • European colonists in The Piano stage a play of Bluebeard; tribesmen in the audience, evidently not acquainted with the concept of plays, think the Bluebeard character really is murdering his wife, so they rush the stage and attack the hapless actor.
  • Sergius Alexander in The Last Command is a former Tsarist Russian general who barely escaped Red October and is now eking out a meager existence as a Hollywood film extra. He's cast in a movie about the Russian Revolution, appropriately enough. After getting dressed up in his general's uniform again, put in a trench warfare set, and told to harangue his mutinous soldiers, Sergius snaps. Thinking he's back in 1917 and fighting the revolutionaries, he grabs the Imperial Russian flag and tells his men to charge forward to "victory". Then he collapses and dies.

    Literature 
  • Don Quixote of La Mancha, the protagonist of the eponymous classical Spanish novel by Miguel Cervantez, from whose name the word "quixotic" was derived, didn't know the difference between reality and chivalric romance.
  • The Hoka stories are practically built around this trope. The teddy-bear-like Hokas constantly act out scenes from human literature because they have a fuzzy grasp of what's real and what's fictional. And they really don't care anyway.
  • The clones in Galaxy of Fear have a version of this defect. Stranded on Dantooine, some have made a "spaceship" out of leaves and sticks and such. It's not Bamboo Technology, it's basically something like a kid would build, except on a larger scale. The clones all sincerely believe it's a real spaceship and as soon as they have all the parts and finish it will start working. The protagonists are highly dismayed to realize this, but are too unnerved to try very hard to talk them out of it.
  • In one of the Doctor Who Eighth Doctor Adventures books, there's a footnote that mentions that due to traumatic events that also caused him to lose his memory, the Doctor went a bit extra-batty for a while and started getting weird ideas about underwear from Superman, and suicidal depression from tragic soap operas.
  • In Red Diamond, Private Eye and its sequels by Mark Schorr, cab driver Simon Jaffe suffers a complete breakdown after his wife sells his precious collection of pulp magazines and he starts believing that he is a pulp detective called Red Diamond. As part of his delusion, he believes that many other fictional detectives are real and friends of his.
  • Just a single aspect of Annie Wilkes's whole insane mindset in Misery. Many fans can relate the to the nightmare of having their favourite fictional character being Killed Off for Real, but when Annie reads a a draft of Paul's final Misery story and learns of the character's ultimate fate, Annie basically freaks her shit and attacks him, almost reacting as if he just murdered a real person.
  • Umberto Eco:
    • The Name of the Rose (for a given definition of "fiction", since Eco was an atheist): the killer is driven by religious fervor to carry out murders resembling the circumstances of the Book of Revelation, while around him the monastery bickers about highly esoteric Christian minutae, such as whether Jesus Christ owned his own clothes or not, to feed their politicized agendas by pointing to the Bible for evidence. The hero is a Franciscan friar who tries — and often fails — to teach people it's okay to be skeptical about the things we read in books.
    • Foucault's Pendulum: The main characters, Milanese book editors who cook up a scheme to publish crowd-sourced occult manuscripts, start to believe their own bullshit as coincidences pile up and the seductive allure of their made-up plan makes too much sense.
    • The Island of the Day Before: Roberto, a 17th century man marooned on a deserted ship, starts writing a book about how his secret twin (whom he made up) has been toying with him his entire life, but the loneliness and isolation to drive him to believe that his secret twin is real and is responsible for his current situation.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Night Court:
    • An elderly lady couldn't tell TV wasn't real anymore, and brought a grenade to the court to try to free a guy in jail who was a character in a Soap Opera.
    • Another episode had a friend of Buddy's, whose problem wasn't so much that he couldn't tell fiction from reality, but that the concept of fiction, lies, opinions or anything other than true, objective reality was alien to him, and he was rendered essentially catatonic due to his inability to tell what was actually real, since both sides of every argument seemed equaly valid to him.
  • Joey of Friends had to deal with a fan (played by Brooke Shields) who thought he was actually Dr. Drake Ramoray, the character he played on Days of Our Lives.
  • In Blackadder, Prince George believes that the actor in ''Julius Caesar' is about to be killed and says "Look out, Mr. Caesar!" He later mistakes an actual assassination attempt for All Part of the Show in an unrelated incident.
  • In The IT Crowd, Douglas Reynholm believes that Sherlock Holmes was a real person.
  • Father Ted: Father Dougal apparently needs to keep a chart explaining what's real and what isn't.
  • In the first season of Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, there was a Running Gag of a restaurant patron with a Crazy Memory, who would tell stories about his past, all of which were plots of movies.
  • The Criminal Minds episode "True Night" had a serial killer, played by Frankie Muniz, who worked as a comic book artist. He went crazy after gangbangers killed his girlfriend and hunted them down one by one under the delusion that he was a vigilante from one of his comics. Possibly an inversion though, as it's suggested that he may have created the comic book character based on the delusion.
  • NCIS has an episode where a serial killer started targeting people that McGee had featured as characters in his book because he was convinced that the book was real and that the individuals in question were plotting to kill Agent McGee's fictional counterpart.
  • Abed in Community is often accused of this trope, with several characters questioning whether or not he can recognize what is or is not real. However, throughout most of the series he can can distinguish TV from reality, but uses TV as a filter to understand reality. In gets weird in the final season when it seems that he does completely succumb and lose his grip on reality, culminating in "Basic RV Repair and Palmistry". Though it is not referred to as such, Abed has a psychotic break and believes that he literally can change the past by having a "flashback" to earlier events. This puts himself and others in actual danger, and they need to resolve the situation by playing into his delusion, claiming that the present is a flashback from the future.
  • Misfits has a character whose "superpower" is that he believes himself to be in a Grand Theft Auto pastiche. Sequences from his vision show that he imagines everyone around him to be characters in the game, believing Simon to be his current mission's endboss and Kelly to be his traitorous ex-girlfriend. Later appearances have him aware of what's happened and actively trying to keep his mind planted in reality.
  • In Once Upon a Time, Emma first thinks this about Henry with his book, before she finds out the events it tells really are true.
  • An episode of CSI: Cyber has the team tracking down some hackers who are pulling off crimes inspired by the first-person shooter video games they play. One tries to escape by leaping across a roof and falls hard, breaking his legs. The team realize the guy was so used to pulling the move in the game that he honestly thought it would work in real life as well and that the rest of the gang had come to see shooting people are just "gaining points."

    Music 
  • Flight of the Conchords: The Prime Minister of New Zealand has trouble distinguishing fiction from reality. When he sees two people dressed as Elton John at a party, he believes that it's a glitch in The Matrix.
  • In "Foxy's Tale", a fan song for Five Nights at Freddy's, Foxy the Pirate Fox, an animatronic for entertaining kids designed after a pirate, suffers from a delusional belief that he really used to be a pirate in the past. This belief slowly drove him mad, causing him to attack someone (possibly referring to the Bite of 87).

    Tabletop Games 
  • In GURPS, there is a disadvantage called "delusion".

    Visual Novels 
  • Red from Nameless - The One Thing You Must Recall - is a doll that has been turned human designed to be an action hero. As such, he treats life like he's the main hero in a Sentai show and the rest of his friends are fellow Sentai.

    Web Comics 
  • Igor from Dork Tower has reached a point where his memory can no longer distinguish between events that happened in real life and those that happened in games.
  • Mark from Weregeek has such a powerful imagination that unless told something isn't real he will treat it like it is. This becomes apparent when It's found out the whole hunter/ geek conflict was just a Larp, and all the shadowy monsters were just people in cheap masks that from Mark's and the readers P.O.V looked totally real.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • Family Guy:
    • When Peter crashes his car into the Quahog cable ground station, shutting down all TV, he goes a little crazy and straps a cardboard TV shaped box to himself to look at the world through. He then starts to think that everything he's seeing is a TV show.
    • Stewie decides to run away from home to England in order to live on Jolly Farm Revue, not realizing until he gets there that it's just a TV show. Justified, since evil genius or not he's still just a baby.
    • Mayor Adam West sends Quahog's police force to save fictional Joan Wilder's sister from Romancing the Stone.
  • Kim Possible episode "The Fearless Ferret" has both the actors who played the hero and a villain believing the show they used to act in was for real.
  • Arthur: When Mary Moo Cow visits Elwood City, D.W. fantasizes that they will become best friends and she will live with Mary Moo Cow during the summer.
  • In one episode, Johnny Bravo got set up with some VR equipment advertised to be so good the user wouldn't be able to tell the game from reality. Cue Johnny going on a rampage through town as he plays the game. Eventually the VR game batteries run out... only for Pops to charge them up with jumper cables as the madness was getting pretty amusing.


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