Children in their formative years have a lot of imagination. They also need guidance, support, love, and companionship. And stimulation for their imaginations. Happy, precocious children who are bored or just have more imagination than their parents can keep up with will dream up an imaginary friend - or even more than one.
In cases when the parent is physically present but emotionally and mentally a Missing Mom or Disappeared Dad; or when the child is abused or orphaned or otherwise put through upheaval — they cope by creating a friend from their imagination to keep them company.
The imaginary friend can be a Parental Substitute, confidante, playmate, and sometimes protector (especially if the child has mental issues). If the child has Powers, then their Imaginary Friend, if a genuine product of the child, is bound to be slightly more... substantial than usual.
In darker stories, sometimes the Imaginary Friend is a ghost or extradimensional entity who may not have good and kind intentions toward the child. These can be a variation on Our Ghosts Are Different. Sometimes it's just a manipulative or Jerkass adult preying on the child's imagination and innocence and pretending to be imaginary, counting on adults not believing the child if the child does happen to speak on it.
There are also the odd adult occasions of an adult imaginary friend turning up or hanging around. Sometimes this becomes a Split Personality.
Occasionally, though, the person who conceived of the imaginary friend is an adult rather than a child. In these cases, it is usually portrayed as a part of already-existing madness or else one of the warning signs of the character's Sanity Slippage.
Finally, it qualifies as Truth in Television, as many children (and adults) in Real Life have or have had imaginary friends. Some authors discuss their characters as if they're imaginary friends.
However, as mentioned in the source of the quote above, for better or worse, imaginary friends are becoming a thing of the past. Possibly due to widespread pop-psychology and a lot of hysteria in the '90s about Split Personality, having an imaginary friend was regarded as an indication of mental illness. Some doctors really believed it was an early indicator of dissociating personality, which is supposedly a flight from reality in response to trauma. Moral Guardians warn that they're a sign of Demonic Possession. None of this is true; numerous sociological studies on imaginary friends have concluded that children, teens and adults have them for many reasons. If we stop mentioning our imaginary friends, that doesn't mean that the friends aren't still around.
Related to I Just Want to Have Friends as the reason imaginary friends are made. Compare with Tulpa, a creature that began imaginary, but formed because people believed in the creature's existence. Contrast with Imaginary Enemy. Super-Trope of Not-So-Imaginary Friend, where the imaginary friend turns out to have been a real person in their own right.
The revelation that one of the characters is an imaginary friend is sometimes used as a major plot twist, so beware of spoilers.
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- One The Far Side cartoon features a father being held up in the air by an invisible grasping fist while his young son announces "Big Bob's tired of you saying he doesn't exist!"
- Calvin and Hobbes is built largely on playing with this trope. Watterson has gone on record saying that the "true" nature of Hobbes - imaginary friend or doll that comes to life - really doesn't concern him. In any case, though, there's definitely a lot of weird blending of the two interpretations, like Hobbes taking periodic baths in the washing machine or the time Calvin somehow got tied to a chair.
- Ultra Fast Pony: In the source material, Twist was implied to be Apple Bloom's close friend in one episode, then barely ever seen in any of AB's later episodes. UFP parodies this by revealing that Twist was Apple Bloom's imaginary friend all along. In later episodes, AB keeps talking to "Twist", and her other friends give up on trying to convince AB that Twist doesn't exist. Also, Twist is a toxic friend, constantly encouraging Apple Bloom to solve her problems with violence
- Neil Diamond's "Shilo", wherein a boy develops an imaginary friend to help him cope with a dad who just doesn't have time for him - and then, years later, when a woman enters his life but proves just as distant, he cries out for his old friend, who no longer shows up.
Shilo, when I was young, I used to call your name; when no one else would come, Shilo, you always came... come today.
- Trout Fishing In America's "Nobody", about a boy with an invisible imaginary friend with that name.
- Telekinesis's aptly titled song "Imaginary Friends".
- Freezepop did an album called "Imaginary Friends", including a title track about a girl who meets a mysterious man, who happens to be imaginary.
- The title character of "Whiskey Man" by The Who is the imaginary friend of an alcoholic. It's heavily implied that the friend disappears forever after the narrator is locked away in a mental hospital.
- Snow Patrol's "Favourite Friend" is interpreted by some as being about one of these.
- Reel Big Fish's "My Imaginary Friend", either taken literally or possibly about a real friend who "doesn't come through in the end" as the singer says has to "find a real one".
- Averted with the Nada Surf song "Imaginary Friends," which is about unreliable friends.
- Tom Smith inverts this trope with "Mythical Frederick", about a man's imaginary nemesis.
- "Tania" by Julie Ruin is about a girl who invents an imaginary friend to help her cope with the sexual abuse she endures.
- Changeling: The Dreaming had a story in which some of the Changelings survive through pretending to be the imaginary friend of a child gifted with vivid imagination.
- Furthermore, there are chimera, beings of the Dreaming that can interact with changelings but which are invisible to ordinary humans.
- Another RPG based entirely around this: Monsters and Other Childish Things - The imaginary friends are real, in fact they are manifestations of beings from beyond the veil with incredible power which just happen to latch onto children as their medium into the real world.
- Hilariously and disturbingly deconstructed in Mr. Marmalade. The title character is the imaginary friend of a five year old girl named Lucy, taking on the appearance of a short tempered workoholic who has a problem with pornography, cocaine and beating up his assistant. This contrasts with the plant imaginary friends of the character Larry, though Larry is somewhat suicidal.
- The South Coast Repertory children's play Imagine is about a lonely boy with an imaginary friend. The boy meets an unimaginative girl, and lends her his imaginary friend. This goes well until the boy gets trapped in a sort of Imaginationland, causing the imaginary friend and the girl to journey there to rescue him. At the end of the play, the imaginary friend says goodbye to the two friends, who no longer need him, and disappears for good.
- The play The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of is about an adult who never outgrew his imaginary friend.
- The tragi-comic one-act play Goodbye To The Clown is about a little girl with an imaginary clown friend who is constantly getting her in trouble at school and home and eventually reveals himself to be a coping mechanism for her father's death.
- Higurashi: When They Cry: Rika Furude, who is regarded by some as a prophet, had a childhood imaginary friend named "Oyashiro-sama", which is coincidentally the name of Hinamizawa's guardian god. (This is only briefly referenced in the anime, in Meakashi-hen, but is more explicitly spelled out in other material). Oyashiro a.k.a. Hanyu is real, though no one else can see or hear her until Matsuribayashi-hen.
- Umineko: When They Cry has a few different cases of this, depending on which explanations you go with. Most evident is Maria's relationship with Sakutaro, a plushie of hers. Lord help you when he breaks. Later on, Ange has Maria, Sakutaro, and the Stakes of Purgatory as her imaginary friends. More spoileriffic is an example from the seventh arc - Sayo Yasuda originally created Shannon and Kanon as imaginary friends, but later dresses and acts as them as a way to cope with their various issues. This series really knocks around the line between Imaginary Friend and Not-So-Imaginary Friend.
- A rather creepy example comes from Chaos;Head, where Takumi experiences regular delusions of Seira, the lead character from Blood Tune. Seira tries to encourage his hikikomori habits every time she appears. In the final episode she is one of the last opponents he faces as he goes off to rescue Rimi. After he defeats her and continues on his way, the discarded Seira figure says "I've been dumped..."
- When she was young, Mio from Little Busters! wasn't very good at making friends and was quite lonely. To ease her sorrow, she created a friend for herself. Who then turned out to be real, even if no-one else could see her. Or not. Given the nature of the world Kyousuke created and Kurugaya's comments, it seems highly likely that Midori never actually existed and that Mio really was always hallucinating.
- Homestar Runner
- Teen Girl Squad has Brett Bretterson, So and So's imaginary boyfriend introduced in Issue 4.
- According to the Strong Bad Email "imaginary", Strong Sad had an imaginary friend as a kid named Scotty Titi. After several failed attempts at getting rid of Scotty, Strong Bad eventually drank three gallons of Blue Drink in one sitting and made up "Frishy Freshy Dragon Man" to take out Strong Sad's imaginary friend. Strong Bad discusses the phenomenon of imaginary friends in general in the email, claiming that "insane parents made imaginary friends illegal for kids to have" since he was a kid, largely because of the creepy names they always have.
- Chadam: Manda, Ripley's panda puppet, who she talks to and claims to listen to, as though he was a real person.
- TomSka's sketch "Imaginary Friend": Subverted as one of the characters might just be insane.
- There exists a scary series of videos on Youtube about an alleged ghost in a house's pantry that is a young girl's imaginary friend Mabel. It is generally under "Pantry Ghost", though a few of the videos that focus on "Mabel" are not actually in the pantry.
- Gaia Online has an evolving item called "imaginary friend", featuring various types of strange creatures (and a robot) that correspond to the colors of the rainbow.
- Mirrorfall has a fairy court that organises imaginary friends for troubled children (in particular victims of abuse or neglect).
- The narrator of The Places the Mind Cannot Go from The Wanderer's Library is one, created to help boost a child's self-esteem. When the child begins to feel good about themself again, it's left without purposes, begging to be noticed again.
- The Music Video Show has Fluttershy.
- El Chigüire Bipolar: Maduro beings dialogue with imaginary friends and they leave the table.
- Board James has Motherfucker Mike and Bad Luck Bootsy.
- In the SuperMarioLogan episode "Bowser Junior's Imaginary Friend!", after finding out that his friends are too busy to play with him, Bowser Junior makes one up from his imagination and names him Gumbo, with the episode continuously switching between Junior's P.O.V. and reality. However, Junior later finds out that part of Gumbo's body disappears when he comes into contact with water, and when he tries to tell Chef Pee Pee, he accidentally sprays water all over Gumbo, disintegrating him. At the end of the episode, Chef Pee Pee himself is revealed to have an imaginary friend as well, named Lippy the Lion.
- In Twig, Sylvester has frequent hallucinations of Evette, the Lamb whose place in the gestalt he took after her project was canceled and she was stillborn. She provides him guidance and direction as he delves into forbidden sciences.
- In the The Last Podcast on the Left's series on Mark David Chapman, killer of John Lennon, Chapman is described as having had an imaginary society of Little People he ruled over as a child. As an adult, as his mental state deteriorated, the Little People came back of their own accord and actually proved to be more sensible than Chapman himself. He credits them with balancing his home budget and trying to talk him out of his eventual assassination of John Lennon. Henry Zebrowski is quick to note the issue with this scenario.
And if the Little People aren't the problem, that's a problem!