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!
Woody: (loses himself in laughter)
Okay, so you start to be unable to tell the difference between fiction and reality. Often you will think a TV show is real, or believe you are actually in the show. You could be a Loony Fan who hallucinates things, a very small child who merely believes whatever you are told, or maybe a big Manchild. You might just lack the ability to understand that fiction is merely fiction and naively apply it to real life without necessarily imagining anything.
When the "reality" of the work is acknowledged in-universe, see This Is Reality.
A Super-Trope to:
- ...But I Play One on TV: Can't tell an actor from the role they played in real life.
- Actor/Role Confusion: The In-Universe version of that.
- Daydream Believer: Believing the fiction is real, but separate from our reality.
- Longing for Fictionland: Knowing it's not real, but really wishing it to be.
- The Tetris Effect: People can tell they aren't in a game; they just see things as a game.
- Lost in Character: Actor gets so immersed in their character that they forget they're just acting.
- Wrong Genre Savvy: When a character is so involved into thinking they're the real thing from a work that doesn't actually translate well into the real world scenario at hand.
- You Watch Too Much X: For the cases when another character suspects this.
- And You Thought It Was a Game: The character misperceives a specific real scenario for a bit of playacting.
- And You Thought It Was Real: The character misperceives a fictional object or scenario as being real.
- Through the Eyes of Madness: When it's established that the character cannot tell fiction from reality because of genuine insanity.
- The Haruhi Suzumiya novels and anime have a downplayed case (sorta) in The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya. The eponymous character, who unbeknownst to her is a Reality Warper, is creating and directing an (awful) amateur movie about the supernatural. And though she can consciously tell fiction from reality, shes affecting the world to resemble the movie, including making Mikuru shoot incredibly destructive Eye Beams (an ability her character has, but she herself does not) on the set, or making a cat playing a Familiar into an actual Talking Animal that can wax philosophical about how the sounds hes making may be taken by humans as appropriate responses. Also, at one point in the shooting she loses it and actually expects Mikuru to shoot eye beams in reality. At the end everything is resolved by having Haruhi read the This Is a Work of Fiction disclaimer a few times for good measure.
- In Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid, Tohru and Kanna end up believing that humans on Earth can fire energy blasts and perform feats of superhuman strength after watching "The Ma·rix" on TV. To be fair, they come from a World of Badass where such things are commonplace.
- Muteki Kanban Musume has Akihiko Ohta who watchs the last episode of the Sentai Star Rangers show, where a crying girl asks for help to the Red Ranger, and he manages to make her smile at the end of the episode. Next morning, when a crying Wakana asks for help to find Toshiyuki, Akihiko Jumped at the Call envisioning himself as the Red Ranger, her bicycle as a Ranger Motorcycle, and assigning Ranger's code names to the rest of the core cast, recruiting them into the search... and acting like a true Lord Error-Prone.
- On Yu-Gi-Oh! ZEXAL, Astral briefly had this problem, thinking the science-fiction program DD Esper Star Robin was real. (He can be excused, being an Innocent Alien at the time.) Later, however, Fuya Okudaira (the star of the show) develops this problem after being corrupted by a Number, believing he actually is the character he portrays.
- Detroit Metal City: The band's entire fanbase. None of them ever consider that the band are just regular joes dressing up and taking on scene personas, and will repeatedly Fail Spot Checks or rationalize a different explanation whenever the mask starts cracking.
- Since the daycare kids in Gakuen Babysitters are just toddlers, they often can't differentiate what they see in books or on television from reality. Taka believes superheroes are real since he once met the actors from a Sentai show he watches while they were in costume, and Kirin spends a whole chapter trying to fly on a broom so she can become a witch. Kazuma is shown to be scared of his father Kousuke at first since he saw a movie where Kousuke played a kidnapper, and later on the kids all become convinced that Kousuke is now a villain after they see him playing a Hero Killer on a Tokusatsu show they all watch. After Asahi intervenes, they're slowly starting to learn that actors are different from the characters they play.
- It's a major plot point for Ako Tamaki in And You Thought There is Never a Girl Online?. She's not completely delusional, but she does have difficulty telling the difference between real life and her favorite MMORPG to the point that she tries to use a vending machine via an imaginary overlay menu and considers having a real-life boyfriend to be a downgrade from him being her in-game husband.
- Wonder Woman (1987)'': When Kris Lazarus' grieving father attempts to bring him back as an AI the one thing he seemed to get right was Kris' addiction to gaming. However he failed to put any protection between "Kris"'s housing and his laboratory where he was doing Hard Light AI experiments or give "Kris" any stimulation to keep him from getting incredibly bored so Kris started manufacturing superheroes and villains thinking it a game when they were actually hard light constructs doing damage in the real world.
- 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.
- In The Parselmouth of Gryffindor, this seems to be the main cause of the Quibbler's inaccuracies. Chapter 20 shows that Mr Lovegood apparently took The Wizard of Oz at face value, deeming it a groundbreaking documentary on the wrongdoings of the American Dark Wizard Oz.
- In Partially Kissed Hero, Harry is able to trick all of Hogwarts into believing that The Lord of the Rings is ancient magical history by showing the films in class (even though they wouldnt be released for eight years) and also that Muggles are able to copy magic by showing Ghostbusters (1984). This is despite the existence of half-bloods and Muggle-borns who are aware of Muggle life, and also despite the fact that wizards are shown to have their own fiction, which they know is such.
- In The Victors Project series, Loomer from Fall Into the River is revealed to believe that the Hunger Games he's a tribute in is a video game that he was playing when he came over, which leads to him saving the man characters life while trying to recreate The Quest.
- Bolt has the titular character believe the TV show he stars in is real as is the director's intention until he accidentally escaped the film set and got lost.
- 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. Supplemental material reveals that for some reason this is the case with all space toys, unlike everyone else.
- 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 is 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 fiction, and were only recently introduced to the concepts of lying and deception courtesy of the Big Bad, a Galactic Conqueror who exploited their ignorance of these concepts to nearly wipe out their entire race. They think that the Galaxy Quest episodes they found in Earth's transmissions are "historical documents" of an actual space crew traveling the galaxy, and mourn for "those poor people" trapped on Gilligan's Island. Once the Big Bad watches the "historical documents" for himself, he knows exactly what they really are and takes sadistic glee in forcing the actors to come clean.
Sarris: This is a moment I will treasure. Explain to him who you all really are. [grabs Nesmith and drags him over to Mathesar] Tell him! Explain!
Nesmith: Mathesar, the-uh... there's no such person as Captain Taggart. My name is Jason Nesmith. I am, uh... an actor. We're all actors.
Sarris: He doesn't understand. Explain as you would a child.
Nesmith: We, uh... we pretended. [beat] We lied.
Mathesar: [sad noise]
Sarris: Yes! You understand that, don't you, Mathesar?
- 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.
- 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 to the nightmare of having their favourite fictional character being Killed Off for Real, but when Annie reads 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.
- Nim's Island: At several points, it's clear that Nim doesn't understand the difference between fiction and reality, even stating her belief that the boy from the tourist group isn't actually real. While you could argue that it's simply an over-active imagination, it doesn't really paint a good picture for her mental health overall.
- 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.
- One episode of Barney Miller features a lady asking the detectives for a welfare check on some neighbors, but the "neighbors" turn out to be Soap Opera characters in her TV. Although not written by Reinhold Weege, this episode may have been the inspiration for the above Night Court episode.
- 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. Unlike many others, its not out of being obsessed with fiction, but rather because of being too dim-witted to comprehend the concept of pretending to be someone else.
- On The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will gets into a fight with a drunk guy dressed like Nicky's favorite TV character. Nicky naturally refuses to accept this was just a guy in a suit and Ashley warns Will of telling him the truth.
Ashley: Didn't you ever have a huge hero when you grew up?Will: Yeah. Shaft!Ashley: Okay, so do you remember how you felt when you found out Shaft wasn't real?Will: (staring in confusion) Wh..what are you talking about? Shaft, that was a real guy!
- 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. The "fictional" column includes "Magnum, P.I." and "non-Catholic gods". Ironically, despite being a priest, he's skeptical about the existence of God.
- 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. He also seems to be completely unaware of the murders except while under the delusion, and they catch him because he recreated the scenes in his comic without realizing it.
- 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.
Killer: Cancer patients. I could put them into a state of hibernation. And when science has cured cancer, my test subjects can live healthy, productive, lives.
- A Season 14 episode had a guy who killed three people by freezing them with liquid nitrogen. He was honestly convinced that he managed to find out how to keep people cryogenetically frozen and that he could unthaw his "test subjects" with no ill effects.
Gibbs: They're not test subjects! A couple of homeless guys, and you froze them while they were still alive!
Killer: I had to. If you wait until they're dead, you can never bring them back.
- 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 distinguish TV from reality, but uses TV as a filter to understand reality. It 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".
- One episode of Star Trek: Voyager had some aliens performing some sort of hack on the Doctor's program to try and steal information, only to accidentally intercept several of his (comically self-indulgent) idle daydreams and sexual fantasies. Several hilarious misunderstandings ensue before one of them finally catches on.
- The Twilight Zone (1959):
- In "Execution", the temporally displaced Joe Caswell mistakes a scene from a TV Western for reality. When the TV cowboy pulls his gun, Caswell shoots the television.
- In "Once Upon a Time", the likewise temporally displaced Woodrow Mulligan sees a man on television, which he mistakes for a window, while in Jack's Fix-It Shop. Believing that the man is talking to him when he warns another character that someone can't be trusted, he becomes concerned that the repairman is up to something. Rollo sets him straight, though Mulligan still does not understand what television is.
- Discussed in "What's in the Box". Dr. Saltman believes that Joe Britt seeing himself kill his wife Phyllis on television is a delusion caused by an inability to distinguish between TV and his own life.
- In Frontline, after Mike insults the Greek community live on air, Jan's approach to damage control is to have him interview Con the Fruiterer. Brian has to explain to her that Con isn't Greek, he's a sketch comedy character played by Mark Mitchell. "Oh, so that's the joke!"
- 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).
- This is one interpretation of the end of Theatre/Pagliacci , when Canio, an actor in a play about a man finding out his wife is having an affair, confronts his actual real-life wife, who coincidentally is also having an affair. After breaking down and stabbing her (and her secret lover) to death on stage, he remarks "The comedy is finished!", implying that he is now unable to tell theatre from reality, and believes that the murder was the culmination of the play which he was performing.
- Omega in Final Fantasy XIV is said to collect all available knowledge, but is unaware of the distinction between fact and fiction. This is irrelevant to it, since it has the power to shape life into being by manipulating aether. As long as it is logical, it's real to Omega.
- Among the random civilians you meet in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a homeless man who thinks he's a superhero named Quantum Man, he brags of his "abilities" and claims among other things that your punches are mere mosquito bites to him.
- 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.
- Takuji from Subarashiki Hibi suffers from 'delusions'. It's usually obvious to the player when one is occurring, but he seriously believes a lot of what is told to him during these.
- Many of the delusions are H-scenes during his chapter, because of the kind of person he is...
- 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. When Joel hears this ( and that Mark apparently doesn't even remember their character creation process), he tells Mark to get psychological help, because there's no way he can adequately function in life, before realizing that Mark was faking at least some of it to mess with Joel in revenge for Joel dumping him into games before without telling him.
- 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.
- Darkwing Duck: In "Star-Crossed Circuits", D-2000's ability to distinguish between real life and the storyline of the soap opera Gosalyn and Honker showed her gets shaky after she gets showered with cola.
- DuckTales (1987): Justified in the episode "Where No Duck Has Gone Before." Scrooge's nephews visit the set of a science-fiction TV show that Gyro has just finished "improving the special effects" for. Only Launchpad, who happened to be looking out a window and saw the Earth receding in the distance, realizes that they're on a functioning spaceship facing real aliens.
Gyro: Well, you said to make it as realistic as possible, so I did.
- DuckTales (2017): In the episode "Terror of the Terra-firmians!", after Launchpad McQuack watches a horror movie about mole monsters, he spends the entire episode thinking that the film's plot is true and fearing that one of his friends is a mole monster in disguise.
- 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.
- In one episode, Johnny Bravo gets set up with some VR equipment advertised to be so good the user won'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 is getting pretty amusing.
- The Kim Possible episode "The Fearless Ferret" has both actors who played the hero and a villain, believing the show they used to act in was for real.
- The Simpsons:
Homer: Oh, how was I supposed to know it's not a real spaceship?
- An episode sees the family at a sci-fi convention when a fight breaks out. Homer attempts to escape by going inside a prop that is part of the convention.
- This is the major conflict of "Homer Goes to College"; Homer's main experience with college is what he's seen in movies, leading to him believing that College Is "High School, Part 2" where you take part in Wacky Fratboy Hijinks and teach mean old Dean Bitterman a lesson. As it turns out, he's completely wrong; the episode ends up being about a mostly realistic college with a likable and competent Dean and a student body that mostly just wants to be left alone to their studies. Homer's attempts to instigate Slobs vs. Snobs conflicts or elaborate pranks end up getting people expelled instead.
- Totally Spies!: One episode involved a Loony Fan who kidnapped the star of a soap opera she was watching in an attempt to "save" him.