The Universe is a dream dreamed by a single dreamer where all the dream characters dream too.Arthur Schopenhauer, pioneering quantum physicist
Dream characters: The actors in your nightly dramas
Dream characters are usually central to a dream’s story. They move the action forward and enact the symbolism. They provide the drama.
Dream characters generally symbolize the dynamics of your life, especially your inner life emotions, feelings, and perceptions, though they can represent subjects, concepts, ideas, or structures of the psyche and mind. The outward appearance of the character is like mask that covers something deeper. Stop for a moment and absorb the implication that some of your dream characters look human but are actually walking, talking symbols.
Think of dream characters as actors chosen for the roles they play. It’s like a casting director is in your mind with movie script and deciding who to cast in the roles. It can invent characters out of pure imagination, or model them after people you know and know of such as celebrities. Some dream characters are archetypal, modeled after figures from myth, legend, fable, and other sorts of stories. Those characters are independent of your ego, possess their own points of view and agendas, and the roots of their existence extend beyond the personal space you call your mind.
Absorb that implication!
Know your dream characters through their roles
Some dream characters are main actors, some are supporting actors, and some are like movie extras used to set the scene. Noting differences in how characters perform within the dream’s story is important for story analysis because it helps you to understand what’s behind the mask.
Main actors tend to represent the most important aspects of yourself such as archetypes and major structures within the psyche such as Shadow, anima and animus. Supporting actors tend to represent aspects of yourself such as mental functions, thought processes, and emotional processes — not as major as main characters but still important. And extras, well, they tend to represent minor aspects of your subconscious mind. Your ego, which is the point of view through which you usually experience a dream, is but one of a huge cast of characters that exists in your psyche.
Take note of:
- How much independence does a character have?
- How much personality and intelligence does it show?
- How important is it in the scheme of the story?
- How do you react to and feel about it?
Most dream characters follow a script written subconsciously for their role in the dream’s story, but some of them such as the above-mentioned archetypal characters have a life of their own in the psyche. Your inner world is their living reality. Otherwise, it’s safe to say that a dream character’s behavior is programmed. Remember that, especially when someone you know appears in your dreams and does something you don’t like. They’re just playing a role. It isn’t really the person.
Don’t be fooled by appearances
Separate the actor from the role. It’s tempting to think of an actor as the characters they play. In the same way, separate the person from the dream character that depicts them. Your dreams will be populated by characters that appear identical to people you know, but it’s just a mask, a costume.
I hear statements that begin, “You won’t believe what you did in my dream last night!” No, the person you know was not in your dream; it’s an actor playing a role based somehow on that person. The dream character is a projection of your inner world. So the statement above would read truthfully, “My dreaming mind dressed up a character to appear like you.” The appearance of the character covers something deeper.
Dreams can directly depict people you know, and dreams featuring them are like reality TV. But more often the characters are projections of your inner world. So when you dream about people you know, it’s not really “them,” usually.
Nowhere is this lesson more important than with dreams about cheating:
Even when dream characters look like people you know, they’re still actors. And the way they are presented in a dream — appearance, behavior, demeanor — is based on your thoughts, feelings, perceptions, desires, observations and so forth. It’s characterization. It’s subjective.
If your parent or best friend is characterized in a dream as an axe-wielding maniac complete with insane clown costume, for example, it could characterize how you perceive that person’s recent behavior. It’s exaggerated and dramatized and has nothing to do with the person you know.
But… your observations about people can be spot-on and reflected by your dreams, in which case the character is presented objectively. You can even see things about people that are hidden or still to come in the future, such as a coming pregnancy or change of hairstyle (my wife has had dreams about my hairstyle changing that came true). Usually, though, characterization is involved.
Portrayal vs. characterization
An important difference is made here between a portrayal and a characterization. The portrayal given by a dream character is based on reality to at least some extent. Like when Anthony Hopkins played Richard Nixon, he portrayed Nixon as a character in the movie. A characterization, on the other hand, is more imaginative and doesn’t have to be based at all on reality, such as when Anthony Hopkins played Hannibal Lecter, a fictional character-ization.
Portrayals tend to connect more with dreams about outer life events and situations, whereas characterizations dramatize inner life. The difference can be especially helpful for recognizing why a character’s script is written the way it is. It can help you understand their role in the story, to reverse engineer the dream and understand it through its mechanics.
Direct representations of people
As a general rule, everything in your dreams is usually presented subjectively, not objectively. But sometimes the representations you see as dream characters are direct and objective, not subjective, and it’s tough to tell the difference.
How your dreaming mind presents everything to you depends largely on how you process information and see the world and yourself. The type of dream experience you have also affects how information is rendered as dream imagery and sensation. Most dreams originate in your body and subconscious mind, and everything you see and experience in them is subjective. But less common types of dreams involve shared experiences of dreaming with other people, and they extend beyond the usual boundaries. They show objective truth and reality.
For example, usually when you dream about a deceased loved one it’s subjective. The dream character is not the person who died and continues to exist in another reality. However, I am convinced after many years of researching this subject that we really can communicate telepathically with the consciousness of people and other life forms in dreams.
Explore further: Deceased Loved Ones in Dreams
Even when you dream about someone or something like it’s reality TV, it’s still a representation, same as when you view a reality TV program — you’re not seeing the actors live, you’re seeing a video representation. Always assume first that all your dream characters are projections of your inner world.
But a direct representation means, when you look at the person in the dream, you see an objective representation or even the essence of the real person. Dream telepathy is so common it’s been discussed at the highest academic levels of dream study, and it raises the question of what you actually see in the form of a dream character: a figment of your dream imagination, or the essence of the person?
Experiments in lucid dreaming at Stanford University and elsewhere prove that people can meet in dreams and pass accurate information. Precognitive dreaming about future events is a common experience. Shared dreaming is commonly accepted in cultures around the world and throughout history. In those sorts of dream landscapes, you can see people objectively, beamed into your dreamscape like a video feed.
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Dreams can and do mix reality with fiction, though, so there are no hard rules here. Instead, analyze the dream’s story. Understand how it’s put together and why. You will learn to spot the subtle differences and obvious signs of the use of symbolism that will help you discern a direct representation from the much more common subjective representation. I’ve researched cases of dream ESP and had personal experiences that are so lifelike and mirror reality so closely, you can’t tell the difference.
But that’s not to say that dreams never use symbolism when they directly represent a person. For example, a precognitive dream foretold the death of a woman whose life was sinking under drug addiction. The dream an acquaintance had about her showed her on a boat that was sinking. It’s a metaphor, symbolic, but the dream brought forward information about the woman that showed what was soon to happen to her in the future. The person who had the dream did not consciously know at the time what was happening with the woman. She died soon afterward from a drug overdose.
The clever storyteller that is your dreaming mind likes to use the storytelling technique of projecting something about a person, subject, or situation onto another dream character, split off and viewed separately.
For example, after a holiday occasion marred by the person’s uncle getting drunk and starting political arguments, he dreams that Donald Trump comes over for dinner, gets drunk, and goes off Hulk Hogan-style smashing tables, overturning furniture, shouting obscenities and throwing haymakers. Trump, the uncle, and the dreamer end up in an epic fistfight. The Trump character perfectly sums up how the dreamer perceives his uncle. In fact, his uncle is a big Trump supporter, and his spouting of angry Trump rhetoric is what spoiled a holiday dinner and sparked the dream. The dream compares the uncle to Trump and shows the uncle’s behavior through the Trump character’s actions.
Example #2: A young man dreams about a big, potentially dangerous gorilla in his bedroom. He asks his roommate — a real person in his life and not a fictional character, who’s not pictured in the scene until that moment — to lock up the gorilla. The gorilla character is a projection of the dreamer’s perceptions of his roommate. The roommate’s habit of entering the dreamer’s bedroom uninvited annoys him, but the roommate is strong, unpredictable and wild, like a gorilla. By asking his roommate to lock up the gorilla, he’s actually saying “please restrain yourself.”
Dream characters can be surrogates for people you know. Surrogates don’t necessarily look like those people, but something will connect them symbolically. Such as when a dog — “man’s best friend” — is used to represent your best friend. Or a nun — a “sister” — represents your sister or a sister-like relationship.
Remember the lesson about the use of dream characters which are “split personality.” They’re inserted into the story to show you something about a person, situation, subject, or circumstance. The last examples I gave — the Trump and Gorilla characters — use surrogates.
A young man whose older brother was deployed overseas in the military dreamed about his brother’s dog showing up in various dream scenes — the same brother who is like a best friend. In another dream, the brother motorcycle parked in the garage of the family home is used to symbolize the brother. He misses his brother and awaits his return, symbolically represented as the motorcycle parked in the garage of the family home, so the motorcycle is thought of as a surrogate for the idea of his brother and missing him.
Important! Notice how the last example uses an object, not a character, as a surrogate.
Here’s another variation of the same use of a surrogate. A young woman dreams about a ghost in her sister’s room in the family home. The sister left home and has been out of touch, and for the sibling who had this dream the ghost represents her sister — or, more accurately, her perception that her sister is like a ghost. Her memory remains but her physical presence is gone.
Dreams have various reasons for using surrogates. Oftentimes, it gives you the distance to observe. Use of a surrogate for a person you know obscures who the dream refers to, when seeing that person in a dream might veer you off course from following along with the story. For example, you see your ex in a dream and it brings up a load of charged emotions and associations. Instead, the dream uses a surrogate to represent the person. You will still react from your gut based on subconscious knowledge of the symbolism — you know deep down what the surrogate represents — but at least you can step back enough to stay within the parameters of the story.
You subconsciously know what everything in a dream symbolizes and react based on that knowledge, usually.
Take note of your reactions
How you react to dream characters can tell you what they symbolize. For example, in a dream where a woman stabs a man through the heart, the man symbolizes her ex-boyfriend, and when you learn what he did to her you understand her reaction. The dream uses a surrogate character to stand in for her ex; otherwise, just the sight of him would blow her off course.
In another dream, the person’s joyful reaction to seeing an old friend reminds him that he misses having close friends. A few years prior to the dream he moved to a new town and started a job, and he’s been so busy working he hasn’t bothered to make new friends.
In another person’s dream, running at the sight of a baby shows her fear of parenthood.
In the first case, the male character that the dreamer stabs is a surrogate for her ex. In the second case, an old friend symbolizes missing the closeness of friends, a surrogate for the subject of friendship. In the third case, the baby represents a fear. In each case, the dreamer’s reaction gives away the symbolism. Decoding the symbolism leads to the meaning.
Your reaction can tell you a lot even after the fact, after the dream concludes and you are awake and reflect on it. If you think about a dream character and feel a sharp reaction, take it as a clue that the character represents something felt sharply or strongly. And keep in mind that as a general rule, you react most strongly to what you see about yourself in other people. For our purpose, “people” can mean “dream characters.”
For example, I dream that three dangerous-looking teens come through the front door of my home and search the place. My initial reaction while dreaming is to presume they’re robbing me. I act cool and wait as the lead teen comes up to me and reaches for my necklace. What choice do I have? I feel the necklace slip off my neck and into his hand, and I’m relieved that he didn’t strangle me instead.
Days later the dream is still on my mind when I visit a friend who has a deeply intuitive sense about dreams. As I describe the dream to her and think about the teen I feel strong reactions. My body twitches. My mouth turns dry. My friend asks me, “do you think the teen is there to rob you, or does he need something from you?”
Bingo! Immediately I sense the truth that the teen needs something from me. He symbolizes personal needs which have stuck with me into adulthood for structure, guidance, and recognition, typical things that teenagers need. I picture the teen reaching for my necklace and say to him, “go ahead and have it, my gift; what’s mine is yours.” I then cried for a long time — talk about a strong reaction!
Association is your first step when interpreting a dream, usually. Associations are the first things that come to mind when you think about a dream’s detail.
For example, a woman dreams about a former marathon training partner who approaches her. The partner, a female, has a penis and talks the dreamer into having sex. On the surface, the dream appears bizarre, but by using association the symbolism of the partner character becomes clear, which leads to the meaning of the dream. The dreamer associates her old training partner with strong opinions and caring less what people think of her. That’s the sort of person she is. Now for the personal context that explains why this person shows up in her dreams many years after the last time they talked. The dreamer is struggling because she thinks people view her as less than feminine. She expresses strong opinions, a typically male characteristic symbolized in the dream as a woman with a penis.
Put 2 + 2 together and you see in this dream a story about the dreamer coming to terms with an inner conflict and drawing from the memory of an old friend to give her the perspective she needs..
You associate with anyone you know or know of such as a celebrity in a dream and ask yourself, what do I see about myself in the person? What do they mean to me? What words come to mind when I think about the person? For example in the dream featuring Donald Trump wrecking a family dinner, the main association the dreamer think of in relation to Trump is “divisive,” and that’s exactly how to sum up his uncle’s behavior at a recent family dinner.
You have a lot more to learn about association technique, covered in Step 2: Dream Interpretation and Story Analysis. My intent here is just to remind you that whether it’s a dream character, setting, action or other detail, association is a primary way to decode the symbolism.
See yourself in dream characters
You see yourself in people you know, and you see yourself in dream characters representing people you know, and in characters that are completely imaginary.
This is one of the most important lessons in dream interpretation. Most dreams at most times are your inner world brought to life, and the dream characters are your guides to understanding it. They are the most likely to show you something about yourself. They give voice to the many parts of you. Listen to them! There’s always something new to learn about you from your dream characters.
More about that subject in Dream Character Lesson 2.