Ask the Trope Fairy: When Imaginary Friends Go Bad
Updated: Jan 17
Ask the Trope Fairy is an advice column for characters navigating science fiction and fantasy realms. In this dimension, advice is published monthly.
Dear Trope Fairy,
I am losing my MIND over here!
I have a friend, a very nice friend. A very good friend. And she has a pet rock. That would be fine, but she insists on taking it everywhere and translating for everyone what the rock says. She threw it an actual birthday party, and we all had to buy gifts for a rock. What do you get a rock?
She’s the only one who can hear, we’ll call him “Stone-o”, and is it weird to say that I hate Stone-o? That he’s always mean to me?
He takes the last of my favorite cookie, right after I’ve said I want it. When he doesn’t even have a mouth to eat it with! He takes my turn on the swings. He He steals my thunder by making announcements and always determines which games we play, and even when I try to just ignore the whole mess because he’s a rock, my friend insists that I play along.
Everyone else plays along. Am I the problem? Is Stone-o more than a rock and I can’t see it? Are they all just playing around with my friend, pretending that Stone-o is her imaginary friend? How long do we have to do that? Do I have to give her imaginary friend my cookies forever? Why is her reality the only one that matters?
Dear Last Sane Muppet,
It’s true that it can be a kindness to indulge a friend’s imaginary friend. And there are realms where it’s just good policy because, 50% or more of the time, they are real. You might talk to Big Bird about Snuffleupagus sometime. I know those two really went through it, back in the day, which might explain everyone on Sesame Street’s caution around “Stone-o.”
The problem is that your friend is trying to have it both ways. She wants Stone-o to be treated as a person with wants and needs that should be honored, but she also wants a pass on Stone-o showing any common courtesy to anyone else.
It’s not okay for Stone-o to demand your favorite cookie without even talking to you about it. If you were able to talk to Stone-o, you two would have a conversation about the cookie and could decide to share it. Or you could ask if Stone-o can even eat the cookie. Or decide together what game to play, on and on. Instead, your friend presents it as if Stone-o’s needs should automatically trump your own.
That’s the problem. If Stone-o is to be treated as a person, Stone-o should be held to the same standards: self-control and common courtesy. Compassion and understanding. Kindness and care.
I think you will get much further with your friend having that conversation than debating Stone-o’s real-ness. Don’t get me wrong, you’re objectively right, but the point of communication in friendship isn’t just “being right.” It’s about understanding your friends and having them understand you.
So I recognize that it might make you feel gaslit to talk to your friend as if Stone-o is real, but if you want the behavior to stop, I think that’s your best option. Instead of talking about how Stone-o isn’t real…talk to your friend about how Stone-o makes you feel. How Stone-o's selfishness has affected you. How it seems like they never considers your feelings before they acts. How they make you feel bad, and then you can’t talk to them directly about it because you don’t speak rock, and your friend refuses to translate any criticism of Stone-o. How Stone-o makes you feel bad, and then your friend acts like you are in the wrong.
I’m not saying it will be pleasant, and it’s probably more satisfying in the short term to tell your friend off for pretending that Stone-o is real, but the real problem here is not the imaginary part. It’s the friend part.
Whatever Stone-o is to your friend when they’re alone, Stone-o is a bad friend to you. And to the extent that your friend is aware that everyone knows Stone-o is really her…well…it’s important to tell her that she’s crossed a line and is hurting your friendship.
Transcribed and annotated by Katy Mulvaney with permission from the League of Fairy Surrogates and the Interdimensional Meta—Fantasy Council. The Trope Fairy can be reached by offering your letter to any turtle living in the wild. If you do not have the leisure or patience to wait for them to accept your offering, you may attempt to catch a hare in the wild, but I should warn you that this delivery method will take more time than the certified turtle mailcarriers.