Follow TV Tropes


Cope by Pretending

Go To

"I'll pretend the crysanthemums turn to a bed, of delphiniums (blue) and geraniums (red)."
Unnamed Dormouse, "The Dormouse and the Doctor"

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:

in that they pretend to have amnesia/insanity/illness/etc, and coping with their problems (usually by escaping responsibility) is one of the reasons they may do so.

A character who is Coping by Pretending specifically due to being alone and is unaware that they are doing so has probably Gone Mad From The Isolation. See also Cope by Creating.

Sad Clown, which refers to a character suffering from something despite being Plucky 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.

In the Dreaming Stage of Grief is a sub-trope. 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.

See also Magic Feather, when a character copes by pretending (or believing) some neutral object has the power to help them overcome their problems. Related to the Placebo Effect, in that believing something will make you feel better may have a limited ability to actually make you feel better.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • The 100 Girlfriends Who Really, Really, Really, Really, Really Love You:
    • Miss Naddy was born Nadeshiko Yamato and was being raised to be a Yamato Nadeshiko. She derived no joy whatsoever from this life and instead fell in love with American culture. She's introduced as if she were a bona fide 'Murrican, wearing and exaggerating the stereotypes with glee. Any time she can not or does not do this, her mood takes a severe downturn. This is best demonstrated in chapter 80, when she's stranded in the woods with Yaku. She drops the 'Murrican act because Yaku is incapable of understanding it and the situation is serious, only for Yaku to notice her depression and tell her to go right ahead because she likes the cheerful-if-incomprehensible Naddy just fine.
    • Tama Nekonari's office job was so soul-crushing that she considered suicide in the hopes of reincarnating as a cat in her next life. However, when it occurred to her that she could potentially reincarnate as a human and go through that hell all over again, Tama instead decided she would become a cat in this life. To that end she dons a sweater with "cat" on the front and wears cat ears and a tail, determined to be a lazy cat. She takes it so far that she's prepared to die of starvation as a stray than be a human again. Her entry into Rentarou's Family helps her begin to cope better. While she never stops with the cat routine, she is willing to put it aside long enough to get a part-time job so as to not be a burden on others.
  • 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.

    Comic Books 
  • 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.

    Films — Animation 
  • 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, and carves a wooden diorama of the city with figurines of all the people he wants to live among.
  • Opal: Claire's coping mechanism for dealing with her nightmarish home life is to fantasize about having the family depicted on the billboard across the street.
  • 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.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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.
  • This is how the protagonist in Precious copes with her hellish existence: she has repeated fantasies about herself as a successful and beloved actress with a loving boyfriend who is going to sweep her off her feet. The fantasies end after she learns that she has AIDS.
  • 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 Dr. Franklin's Island, Miranda Fallow is an excellent companion on a Deserted Island, resourceful and positive. At the end of a given day she likes to play "the tomorrow game", where she and Semi take turns making up good things that will happen tomorrow, from finding tasty fruit to being rescued by tourists in a glass-bottomed boat. When the girls are captured by a Mad Scientist Playing with Syringes and they find they have no recourse, Miranda acknowledges that their situation is terrible but decides to exercise the only choice she has, which is how to respond. She talks Semi into pretending they're brave volunteers about to get superpowers, going on an exciting adventure. Gradually Semi starts to find her delusional, but it's a very bad sign when Miranda stops.
  • 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 titular Ivan in The One and Only Ivan, kept in a small glass-walled cage for twenty-seven years, can often Cope by Creating but he can't paint all the time. Instead he represses his bad memories and pretends his situation is fine. Not ideal, sure, but you can get used to anything. He even insists that he's not in a cage, he's in his domain, using the same word he applies to the territories of wild gorillas. When a baby elephant is brought to the next cage over and he's faced with the prospect of her growing up in these same circumstances, Ivan stops being quite so able to pretend.
  • 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 he is driven into drunken despair, and then his brother Gavilar's death sends him over the edge. He seeks 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.
  • How Anne Shirley coped with her abusive childhood before coming to Green Gables in Anne of Green Gables, which included two imaginary friends and pretending that she was a beautiful, pale, dark-haired woman named Cordelia Fitzgerald.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Andromeda: The crew finds Andromeda's sister ship, whose crew hadn't aged since the fall of the Commonwealth. It turned out that the ship's AI was having an affair with the captain. When the captain ordered her to self-destruct, she went insane and killed him along with the rest of the crew, then recreated the entire crew with robots.
  • Anne with an E: Anne copes with her loneliness by speaking to her reflection in a mirror as though it's a friend.
  • Cheers: In "Diamond Sam", Carla reacts to the news of Sam and Diane getting engaged by completely blocking it out. The episode ends with her denial ending, resulting in a Big "NO!".
  • 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 Star Trek: The Next Generation:
    • In "The Survivors", it's revealed that Rishon Uxbridge is actually an illusion created by her husband Kevin (a Douwd with incredible mental powers) after the real Rishon and all of the other colonists on the planet were killed by the Husnock.
    • In "Inheritance", it's revealed that Data's "mother" Juliana isn't really Noonian Soong's wife but rather an android based on her, which Soong made after she died while fleeing from the Crystalline Entity. Notably, this was specifically this trope on the part of Soong; Juliana truly believed herself to be human.
    • In "Hero Worship", the crew finds a wrecked ship with only a single survivor, a young boy named Timothy. Upon meeting Data, the boy decides he'd rather be an android — since androids don't feel emotions, he can avoid dealing with the grief of his parents' death. Counselor Troi encourages Data to play along, because she knows that Timothy will give up the charade when he's ready to deal with his emotions properly.
  • 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.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Dax and Odo find a village in the Gamma Quadrant where people were mysteriously disappearing. It was revealed that everyone in the village was a hologram, except for one old man who created the village to get back what he lost when the Dominion took over his homeworld.
  • Star Trek: Enterprise: The crew finds a wrecked ship whose crew had been marooned for decades. Then it was revealed that the crew died, except for one man and his young daughter. He recreated the crew with holograms, and spent so long pretending they were real that he and his daughter had trouble dropping the fantasy when actual people arrived.
  • Touched by an Angel episode "Shallow Water" has a woman (played by Delta Burke) who copes with a devastating bus accident that killed several family members years earlier by clinging to her young son, although it's eventually revealed that he also was killed in the accident and this had shattered her so much, she had spent the last three years in a mental institution.
  • In the first season finale of Ugly Betty, Santos was shot and killed in a robbery. Hilda spends the first episode of Season 2 pretending he survived, only accepting that he's really gone at the end.
  • Yellowjackets:
    • In the past, when the starving teens decide to eat Jackie, they envision themselves as part of a bacchanal feast to deal with the trauma of what they're doing.
    • In the present, Shauna ends up being chosen through a Lottery of Doom as the one selected to be hunted down and killed to appease the "Wilderness". She tries telling the others that the entire Wilderness cult was just them pretending to serve and appease a deity to avoid dealing with the reality of their actions:
    Shauna: There is no "it", okay?! It was just us!

    Puppet Shows 
  • In a Sesame Street episode, Bert is away and Ernie pretends he's at home because he's lonely.

  • In Cinderella (Rodgers and Hammerstein), Cinderella uses her imagination to cope with being abused and treated as a servant by her stepfamily. In the song "In My Own Little Corner," she sings of all the different people in different far-off places she pretends to be.

    Video Games 
  • 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.

    Visual Novels 
  • Amanda from Daughter for Dessert tries this after the protagonist rejects her initial advances. Once he figures out what’s really going on, he gets sexually involved with her so that she can stop doing this.
  • Lampshaded by the protagonist of Double Homework, who says that one should always be the most concerned about Johanna when she acts the most cheerful, because she has trouble confronting people about things she doesn’t like.
  • The title character of Melody has a version of this. She puts on a hard exterior to telegraph that she can take care of herself. In truth, though, she’s a teenager who’s had more than her share of hard situations, and she desperately needs a mentor or authority figure to steer her in the right direction.

    Web Comics 
  • A Softer World: "I don't know how to make things right. So I'll just keep pretending that nothing's wrong."
  • 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.

    Web Videos 
  • 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.

    Western Animation 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Real Life 
  • 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.
  • Basically what a Fix Fic is. If a story does something that fans dislike — say, killing off a beloved character — they write fanfiction where the character never died and/or post fan theories about why the character might be alive. Or if the "wrong" pairing is canonized, disgruntled shippers will write fics where their preferred pairings happen instead.
  • Some bereaved parents cope with their baby's death by playing with lifelike baby dolls.