A character is currently in a very stressful situation and may or may not be alone. It might be that they're dealing with the loss of someone dear to them, an event that traumatized them, or maybe the apocalypse has begun and life has become a daily struggle to survive.
As a means of coping, they quite literally pretend that things are not as bad as they are. Perhaps by making up imaginary people, or pretending that, in-between scavenging for food and running from monsters, the morning paper is still running. It could go as far as to pretend that the event that hurt them so never happened at all.
Cope by Pretending usually comes in two forms: aware and unaware. Someone who is aware that they are Coping by Pretending knows how bad their situation truly is, and knows that the pretending is just that. But it just makes things easier, so they keep doing it. Someone who is unaware that they are Coping by Pretending are most likely dealing with Sanity Slippage, or are experiencing some other psychological issue. Coping by Pretending, in this case, might be a sort of defense mechanism.
Related tropes are:
- Crocodile Tears
- Faking Amnesia
- Obfuscating Disability
- Obfuscating Insanity
- Obfuscating Stupidity
- Playing Drunk
- Playing Sick
- Stepford Smiler
- Stepford Snarker
Sad Clown, which refers to a character suffering from something despite being funny Comic Relief, is not synonymous with Cope By Pretending (their humor may not be done deliberately out of the desire to cope with their problems). When considering the Five Stages of Grief, someone who is Coping by Pretending is stuck in the Denial phase.
Compare this trope to Through the Eyes of Madness, in which a work is shown through the eyes of a character with questionable stability, thus making it unclear what is and isn't happening. May be a reason behind an Imaginary Friend if the person imagining the friend has no friends.
- School-Live!: The story begins as a very cute manga about a girl named Yuki who loves her school dearly, as well as the club she and her friends take part in. The true nature of the setting, however, is that a zombie apocalypse has begun, and most of Yuki's friends and classmates are dead. Pretending that things are still fine is a defense mechanism of hers.
- Junior Braves of the Apocalypse: Mrs. Garvey, a middle school teacher, insists on continuing to hold class throughout the zombie apocalypse - despite the fact that she only has one student left who isn't either dead or missing.
- Runaways: Molly copes with the fact that her late parents were supervillains by imagining that they're still alive and not evil. This illusion is shattered after she gets kidnapped by one of her parents' surviving victims. And then she has her heart broken all over again when she discovers that her Mad Scientist grandmother has been trying to make clones of her parents.
- In Coraline, when Coraline's "other mother" kidnaps her real parents, Coraline dresses up two pillows and addresses them as "mom" and "dad" so she can sleep.
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Quasimodo spends practically his entire life in the belltower because his "adoptive father" Judge Frollo refuses to let the world see how ugly he truly is, and is really only caring for Quasi to atone for murdering his mother. Judge Frollo and the three gargoyles are Quasimodo's only company, so he spends most of his time fantasizing that he is a normal person interacting with the people of Paris.
- Up: Part of how Carl deals with his wife Ellie's death is to speak to the house as if it's her. Russell catches onto this at one point and to get "Ellie" to make Carl keep Kevin.
- Throughout Downfall, several of the Nazis in the Fuhrerbunker try to pretend that things above the surface aren't a war-torn hellhole, even as the Soviets are invading Berlin. It works for a while, but after mortars start raining down above and shaking the entire bunker, even they can't deny what's going on anymore. Eva Braun keeps trying to lift everyone's spirits anyway, until a blast shakes the bunker like an earthquake, and then her Stepford Smiler mask shatters.
- I Am Legend: Neville is the last human in New York City after a supposed cure for cancer turns the population into zombie-like monsters. His only companion is his dog, Sam, whom he talks to as he would a person. Neville has set up mannequins in different places and talks to them as though they are real people. He has a routine of visiting a video store during days where he and Sam scour the city for supplies and food. Neville is, however, aware that this is just a coping mechanism, as once Sam dies and he returns to the store, he breaks down because he knows the mannequins won't be able to replace his only living companion.
- Sierra Burgess is a Loser: Veronica's mother constantly makes references to her father dying. This isn't what happened—he left the family for a younger woman, and her mother simply prefers to imagine him as dead to deal with the situation.
- A Little Princess: After Sara becomes destitute, she tries to lose herself in fantasies of being a princess locked in the Bastille who will soon be freed, or who is living among the common people to learn about them, to distract herself from her suffering.
- The Peter David novel Mascot to the Rescue! is about a boy named Josh who relates to Mascot, the Kid Sidekick in his favorite comic book, so much that Mascot is basically a Split Personality that he lapses into when stressed. It really does come across as unhealthy, but the school psychologist is portrayed as a villain for wanting to get him therapy.
- In Midnight, it's revealed that the reason Violet is biological and William is adopted is because the parents had a son named William, but William died when he was a baby so they adopted a similar-looking baby boy with the same name so they could pretend the original William never died.
- The Stormlight Archive: Shallan privately admits that Stepford Smiling is the only thing keeping her on the near side of the Despair Event Horizon, and is suppressing the memories of having killed both her parents in self-defense to such an extent she has a hard time even thinking about the events. This causes her problems when she becomes a Magic Knight since her powers cause her various personas to develop into full-fledged Split Personalities that threaten to overwhelm her.
- It turns out Dalinar is doing a magically enhanced version of this as well. After being accidentally responsible for his wife Evi death they are driven into drunken despair, and then his brother Gavilar's death sends them over the edge. They seek out the mysterious Old Magic to forget the entire thing. This actually is very effective, as the memories aren't repressed, they are literally gone. At least until the memories return, and he's forced to face what happened
- In the Arthur Slade novel Tribes, Percy deals with his parents' divorce by believing that his father died on a research expedition to the Congo, and with his unhappiness and isolation at school by pretending to be an anthropologist studying adolescent "tribes". The act begins to alienate his only friend, and the strain of maintaining it pushes him toward Self-Harm and an eventual Heroic BSoD.
- Anne with an E: Anne copes with her loneliness by speaking to her reflection in a mirror as though it's a friend.
- The episode "Symphony of Illumination" of How I Met Your Mother starts with the unusual change of Robin talking to her future kids about the time she revealed to their father that she was pregnant. The episode builds up the implication that Barney is their father because Robin was not yet intimate with her current boyfriend. Towards the end of the episode, her doctor tells her that she's not pregnant. Her doctor also tells her she'll never have children because she is infertile. Once that's revealed her "children" disappear, as they were merely her way of coping with the devastating news.
- Downplayed in the Laverne & Shirley episode "Why Did the Fireman...?". The titular fireman dies, and while Laverne really does think Lenny and Squiggy were joking about being dead, she pretends that there isn't a chance they were serious and stays up all night waiting for him, only accepting he might be dead when her father proves he is dead.
- Lodge 49: Sean Dudley lost his father in an apparent suicide. He keeps insisting that his dad must have been killed by a shark. At the end of the season finale, after finally accepting that his dad probably killed himself, Dud goes out to the beach... and gets attacked by a shark.
- Scrubs: The now-infamous episode "My Screw Up" has Cox spend the episode with his best friend (and ex-brother-in-law) Ben, laughing and hanging out and generally having fun, with Ben convincing Cox to let J.D. attend Cox's son's first birthday party despite being angry over a patient who died in J.D.'s care. The patient ends up being Ben himself, and the episode reveals he was Dead All Along (and what we thought was Jack's birthday party was actually Ben's funeral), with his and Cox's interactions being a way for Cox to cope with the loss of his best friend.
- In a Sesame Street episode, Bert is away and Ernie pretends he's at home because he's lonely.
- In Star Trek: The Next Generation:
- In the episode "The Survivors" reveals that the "woman" is actually an artificial copy of a real woman she was based on, who died and her husband had special powers so he created a copy to pretend she never died.
- In one episode, it's revealed that Data's "mother" isn't really his creator's wife but rather an android based on the wife, which the creator made after the wife died. Notably, this was specifically this trope on the part of Data's creator; his "mother" truly believed herself to be human.
- At the end of the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The Conscience of The King", after Lenore Karidian accidentally murders her father (the notorious Kodos The Executioner) her already fragile sanity completely shatters. After she is taken into custody McCoy tells Kirk that Lenore believes her father is still alive, performing to packed theaters all across the galaxy.
- Borderlands 2:
- Shade from the Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate's Booty DLC is the Sole Survivor of the desert town of Oasis after the rest of the population died of thirst. He strung up their bodies and rigged them with tape recordings of himself doing bad impressions of what were presumably their voices, and pretends as if they are all still alive. When the player first enters Hayter's Folly, a cave filled with plenty of water that is pretty much right underneath the town, he doesn't take the revelation that such a place existed very well at all.
- This is the main point of the Tiny Tina Assault on Dragon Keep DLC. Beneath the wacky fun of watching a crazy 13-year-old explosives expert running a D&D game and battling fantasy monsters with guns is a sad story of how Tina is trying to cope with Roland's death at the hands of Handsome Jack by denying that it ever happened and pretending that everything's alright. The other characters in-universe are rather unnerved by this, trying to get her to face reality, but she won't listen. The climax reveals that she's quite aware that she is doing this, but needs it to cope, so the other Vault Hunters agree to indulge her.
- Fallout 4: Codsworth, when you first find him after leaving the vault, acts as if nothing at all is wrong. After talking to him some you can ask if everything is alright with him, at which point he breaks down telling you how he's tried to keep up the house despite all of the large problems.
- If you miss a couple of things while playing Iji, the title character will lose someone very close to her and start sliding off the sanity slope. She copes with the loss by imagining he's still alive and talks to herself. It's bad enough that the final boss feels sorry for her.
- Silent Hill: Shattered Memories: The true nature of the game is revealed at the very end. The audience sees that the patient with Dr. Kaufmann is Cheryl, Harry's daughter, and not Harry himself. Harry has been Dead All Along and actually died in the car crash at the beginning of the game. The entire story has been a fantasy of Cheryl's, pretending that her father survived and went on a journey to find her. Whether or not Cheryl moves on from Harry's death or continues to hold onto the fantasy is up to the player's choices.
- Unsounded: Daddy's Little Villain Sette doesn't so much hide from things like being Ambiguously Human and her fears that she's an Inadequate Inheritor as she purposely creates a reality where those things aren't issues.
Sette: I'm the best liar to ever climb to the highest peak of Mt. Bloodbasin.
Duane: The volcano? Without shoes?
Sette: I didn't really climb it.
Duane: Then why did you—
Sette: Because I'm the best liar! Lyin' ain't about lyin', it's about pickin' the best world and livin' in it, no matter what.
- A Softer World: "I don't know how to make things right. So I'll just keep pretending that nothing's wrong."
- Critical Role: The Wildemount Campaign's Loveable Rogue Mollymauk espouses this as a life philosophy, hence why he spent two years in a carnival as a hype-man and faux Fortune Teller after crawling out of a grave with Identity Amnesia.
"Never trust the truth. The truth is vicious. The truth thinks that you owe it something. None of that. I like my bullshit. It's good, it's happy, it makes other people happy."
- Everyman HYBRID: Jeff and his little brother Alex had lost their parents a year before. Alex struggled with moving on and continued to act as though they were alive- even using a tape recording of their voices to answer his questions. Later, after the Rake killed his dog Sparky, he wore a sock-puppet and insisted it was Sparky.
- Batman: The Animated Series: Mary Louise Dahl, aka "Baby Doll" (which doubles as the episode's title) is a woman with a rare condition that makes her appear forever three years old, even in her twenties and thirties. Baby Doll was a star in an old sitcom show called Love That Baby where she played the title character. After the show's end, Baby Doll tries to get into real acting, but her young appearance keeps her from being taken seriously. In the episode, she kidnaps the cast of Love That Baby so she can have her old fictional family back (and also get revenge on Spunky, a Cousin Oliver character in the show that doubled as a Spotlight-Stealing Squad).
- BoJack Horseman: Done brutally in the episode "Ruthie"—it begins way in the future with Princess Carolyn's distant descendant, the titular Ruthie, commentating the events of the episode, telling her class about Princess Carolyn and how even though this seemed like a very bad day, it would end up being a turning point for the rest of her life. And then at the end, Carolyn tells BoJack what she always likes to do whenever she has a really bad day - she imagines her descendant talking about her and how great she was, so that way she can feel like everything works out. BoJack points out that that's not actually real, and she can only say "yeah, well, it makes me feel better."
- In an episode of My Gym Partner's a Monkey, Adam is home from school due to either being sick or Playing Sick. Jake, his best friend, hangs out with a dummy Adam instead of the real one.
- In the Rugrats episode "I Remember Melville", Chuckie's pet bug Melville dies and Chuckie, being a toddler, thinks that if he just pretends Melville is alive, maybe he will come back to life.
- SpongeBob SquarePants: In "Gone", Spongebob wakes up to find all of Bikini Bottom completely deserted, except for him. His immediate response is to imitate everyone in town, giving up only when he realizes the task is impossible.
- Ninjago: After the ninja are trapped in another realm, Jay pretends everything is normal, even acting as if a piece of driftwood is a video game.
- The final episode of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, "The Last Problem", has each of Twilight Sparkle's friends acting like nothing is wrong as Twilight prepares to leave Ponyville to be crowned ruler of Equestria. Twilight is hurt about it, thinking that it means they won't miss her, but it turns out everyone is only doing it so that they can lose themselves in their work and not have to think about Twilight leaving.
- A common way that those who suffer from depression deal with their darker thoughts is to just pretend that they aren't having such thoughts. As one might expect, this only helps so much. Psychologists and psychotherapists also sometimes take this Out-of-Character Moment as a red flag, since depressed people who suddenly display much happier emotions may be contemplating suicide, the happiness coming from being at ease with the concept of death. In any case, pretending that one isn't sad shouldn't be a replacement for actual help.
- Sometimes, if people like a character in a story who then dies, they write fanfiction where the character never died or post fan theories about why the character might be alive.
- Some ex-parents cope with their baby's death by playing with lifelike baby dolls.