Story Elements | Dream Characters

The Universe is a dream dreamed by a single dreamer where all the dream characters dream too.

—Arthur Schopenhauer

Dream Characters | The Actors in your Nightly Dramas

dream characters

This character in a dream could appear to be hostile, but how dream characters appear and act largely depends on what you project onto them. For example, the guy in the photo might only be hostile because he represents something you feel hostile about.

Dream characters are usually central to the story. They move the action of a dream forward and enact the symbolism. They provide the drama.

Characters generally symbolize the dynamics of your life, especially your inner life, though they can represent people you know. They can represent subjects, concepts, or ideas.

Think of dream characters as actors chosen for the roles they play. Some are main actors, some are supporting actors, some are like movie extras used to set the scene. They generally follow a script, though some dream characters are completely autonomous and have a life of their own in the psyche. 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.

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 based on them. “You were in my dream last night, and you…” No, a dream character that looks like you was in the dream. Dreams can directly depict people you know, 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 in dreams about cheating:

Cheating Dreams Explained | What It Means to Cheat in a Dream


Even when dream characters look like people you know, they’re still actors. And the way they are presented in a dream — appearance, dress, behavior, demeanor — is based on your thoughts, feelings, perceptions, desires, observations and so forth. It’s a characterization. The character’s appearance is a costume that covers something deeper.

If your parent or best friend is characterized in a dream as an ax-wielding maniac complete with insane clown costume, for example, it’s an exaggerated portrayal of how you view something or how you feel — assuming it’s not a representation of the person’s actual behavior! Unlikely, but not impossible. For a wicked example of how a dream satirizes the behavior of the dreamer’s uncle by comparing him to Donald Trump, see the link at the bottom of this page.

Your observations about a person can be spot on and shown to you in dreams. 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. Usually, though, characterization is involved. The dream character is presented to you subjectively, not objectively.

Sometimes the representations are direct, but other times it’s easy to be fooled by appearances. Remember that the dreaming mind takes all input and translates it into symbolism. It’s like a computer that renders binary code (strings of 0s and 1s) into imagery. What you see in a dream is a rendering, but at the core of it are essential truths and facts. How it’s presented to you in dreams depends largely on how your dreaming mind works, the input you are receiving, and what sort of dream experience you are having.


J.M. DeBord

I teach dream interpretation. Learn more about me at

Direct Representations of People

Dreams can give direct representations of people you know, presented objectively. It’s not as likely as subjective representations, but it really depends on the dreamer and their experience of dreaming, which widely varies around a core experience common to everyone. Direct representation means, when you look at the person in the dream, you’re seeing an 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 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 chat.

Dreams can and do mix reality with fiction, though, so there are no hard rules here. Instead, analyze the dream-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.

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 the person 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. A rule of thumb in dream interpretation is, portrayals 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, and their role in the story. It helps you reverse engineer the dream and understand it through its mechanics.


dream interpretation dictionary

Throughout my dream dictionary I give examples of how dreams tell stories.

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.

Dreams have a variety of 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 the subconscious knowledge of the symbolism, 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 the characters in the dream 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. In another person’s dream, running at the sight of a baby shows her fear of parenthood. In one case, the character is a surrogate for the dreamer’s ex. In another case, an old friend symbolizes missing the closeness of friends, and in another the baby represents a fear. In each case, the reaction of the dreamer gives away the symbolism.


Make Associations

Association is your first step when interpreting a dream, usually. Associations are the first things that come to mind when you think about a detail from a dream.

For example, a woman dreams about a former training partner approaching her in a dream. 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 dream character becomes clear, which leads to the meaning of the dream. The dreamer associates the training partner with strong opinions and caring less what people think of her. That’s the sort of person she is. The dreamer is struggling because she thinks people view her as less than feminine because she expresses strong opinions, a typically male characteristic symbolized in the dream as a woman with a penis. When you put 2 + 2 together, you see in this dream a story about the dreamer coming to terms with an inner conflict.

Explore this subject further:

Penis Dreams: Interpret the Meaning of Penis in Dreams


Split Personality

A clever technique in storytelling is to use a side character or symbol to say something about a central character. Dreams LOVE to use this technique. They show something about one character through the appearance, demeanor and actions of another character. A classic example is given in the dream about Donald Trump coming over for dinner and wrecking the place. The dreamer’s uncle is a central character in the story, and the Trump character is used to show how the uncle ruins family holidays by arguing about politics. Learn more about that dream here:

The Trump Invasian: Donald in Our Dreams

A woman who has a uncomfortable sense of being watched everywhere she goes in her waking life dreams about a random man watching her everywhere she goes. The man represents her feeling of being watched. The feeling of the dreamer is split off and shown as a dream character. In the example detailed above about the training partner with a penis, a masculine personality trait of the dreamer is split off and shown as the partner with a penis.

You see yourself in people you know. You see the person you are, have been, and want to be. And you see yourself in your dream characters representing people you know and ones that are completely imaginary.

See Yourself in Dream Characters

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 you can learn about yourself from your dream characters.


Dream Characters | They’re All You

Seeing yourself in dream characters

Dreams can reflect back the ego in sometimes uncomfortable ways.

Think of your dream as a movie projector, the screen as your mind’s eye, and the film as a picture of your inner world. Everything you see on the screen is a projection from within you, especially the characters. In your dreams, parts of yourself personify, and while they can take form as objects and settings, they usually take form as dream characters. They’re all you.

Or the character represents part of you: a personality trait, thought, emotion, feeling, perception, attitude, behavior pattern, belief — or a whole mess of thoughts, emotions, etc (see “Groups of Characters” below). A dream can sum up something in one image, but is more likely to use groups of characters to represent related groupings. For example, turbulent thoughts about something that happened at school can be symbolized as a group of students fighting or causing trouble. But if the dream focuses on a particular student, it’s more likely to connect symbolically with something singular, such as feelings about a particular event or person. It’s a general tendency to note about dream storytelling.

You Are a Character in the Story, too.

This is another important lesson to absorb. You are a character in the story of the dream. You have a role. You act that role and follow a script, sometimes through part of the dream until you react and the story continues like a Choose Your Own Adventure, and sometimes the role is scripted beginning to end and you follow it subconsciously. Sometimes the role’s a portrayal — it’s based on you and your life — and sometimes it’s a characterization, completely imaginary. Understanding the role you play is important for understanding the dream.


What Dream Characters Symbolize

The spectrum of what dream characters symbolize is as broad as an ocean. Be sure to read the chapter on dream symbolism to get the gist of how it works. For now, here’s a quick rundown. These interpretations are understood in the context of an overall dream and the person’s life and are only summaries.

  • Dream Character: Walrus in a cage in the dreamer’s garage. The walrus represents her mother, who’s a “load to deal with,” especially when she visits the dreamer’s home. The dreamer would like to keep her under control and at a distance, symbolized respectively by the cage and the garage. The walrus is a satirical representation of the dreamer’s mother.
  • The Grim Reaper: Tied to an experience of toying with death, a message that’s amplified.
  • Man with gun shoots dreamer in the head and kills him. The man symbolizes the dreamer’s deep desire to change himself. He’s stuck and needs a dramatic jolt.
  • Charon the Ferryman:  Symbolizes the idea of moving on from the past.
  • Mom dies multiple ways: The relationship between the dreamer and her mom is changing.
  • Hitting father in dream: The character represents the dreamer’s father, basically, and is used in the dream to help her work through issues from their past. The character in the story is “bad dad,” and while based on the actual person, it’s still a portrayal.
  • Donald Trump: The link takes you to a post that gives a few examples. In one dream, Trump is a projection of the combative side of the dreamer’s uncle (a big Trump fan). In another dream, Trump represents hatred of Mexicans. Be sure to read about the dream where Trump is a young woman’s new gynecologist. In that dream, Trump symbolizes Big Business and heartlessness.
  • Adele: The dreamer volunteers to become Adele’s new stylist. Adele represents a side of the dreamer that wants to be seen but fears being judged. By assuming the role of Adele’s stylist, the dreamer is saying to herself that she can be comfortable in the spotlight by showing her personal style.
  • A cute grey kitten: Represents the dreamer’s unborn son. The dream convinces her to keep the baby rather than abort the pregnancy.
  • Animals and creatures: They symbolize personal qualities, traits, instincts, and much more.
  • Dad dies and sister is in a pageant: The dream characters and what happens to them in the dream personify the dreamer’s observations.
  • Finding your soulmate: This person dreams about her soulmate then meets him in waking life.

Notice the variety of ways characters are used as symbolism in the story. It’s why understanding dream characters is vitally important for understanding dreams.


Dream Characters | Notice How They Act

Some characters have no choice, no real intelligence. They never veer off script. But some are distinctly intelligent and able to think and react on the fly. You say or ask something unexpected and the dream character either responds like a robot (“does not compute — can’t think for myself”), or like it’s intelligent — even clever, wise, erudite, funny. Dream characters can know more about you than you do, a sure sign of something deeper at work. Noting these differences between characters is essential to understanding their symbolism. Characters with distinct intelligence are more likely to represent an aspect of yourself personified, a part of the psyche, the complete you, the Self archetype or another archetype, or something like that.

Anima and animus characters are two such characters:

Understanding Anima | The Woman in Every Man

Understanding Animus: The Man Within Every Woman


Shadow is another autonomous part of the psyche brought to life in dreams:

Shadow Dreams: Everyone Has a Dark Side | Carl Jung


These parts of yourself are able to draw upon the intelligence of the whole of you and even tap our collective knowledge and wisdom (the “collective unconscious”) and other dimensions of reality. They’re autonomous and have their own viewpoints, opinions, and knowledge.

Archetypes, by definition, originate from outside of ordinary space and time. It’s a little-known part of the theory originated by Dr. Carl Jung in consultation with Wolfgang Pauli, a Nobel Prize physicist. When these characters take form in your dreams, they show outside forces working through you that draw upon timeless wisdom and knowledge, and they appear in dreams as distinctly intelligent and aware.

On the other hand, characters that act programmed are more likely to represent something such as a function of the body that’s way outside conscious control: digestion, circulation, organ function. They can represent autonomous functions of the mind such as intuition. Or they can represent a subject, idea, pattern, wish, and so on.

Dreams can use characters just to fill a scene and create atmosphere like movie extras, less important in the scheme of things. They don’t veer off-script and can’t answer pointed questions very well.


Groups of Characters

Dreams 1-2-3: Remember, Interpret, and Live Your Dreams

Let me introduce you to working with your dreams.

Groups of characters can express the idea of “in general,” “group opinion or consensus,” or “group effort.” Our lives our shaped by our roles in society and our interactions with groups. Dreams use groups of characters to tell stories about how you interact with specific groups such as family members, classmates, and co-workers, and how you interact with society.

A group of co-workers can symbolize something about work such as how you feel about it in general. Groups of co-workers can symbolize combinations of personal traits you use on the job, such as the co-workers of the ego: drive, discipline, creativity, social skills, time-management, organization, etc. The co-workers of the intellect: rationality, intuition, skill, factual perceptions. The co-workers of the spirit: honesty, restraint, dedication, love.


Groups of dream characters can be used to show you how you act and react among groups of people, or where your place is among the masses or within a particular group such as a social circle. For example, if a dream wants to address the subject of your place in society, it can show you among thousands of people in a stadium and they all play one role: to represent society. Or, one character can represent a group, such as when one family member is used to represent the entire clan, or one co-worker is used to represent them all.

Groups of dream characters have many possible symbolic uses and connections with the individual dreamer. Different dynamics come into play with a singular character. For example, a specific co-worker in a dream can refer to your work relationship with that person, something you have in common such as work situation or position, something you see about yourself in the person, or how you resonate or not.

For example, a woman has recurring dreams about striking up an office romance with a co-worker. She’s bothered by the implications — she doesn’t get involved with people at work. But the romance in the dreams is an exaggerated depiction of her feelings about working well with her co-worker. They have chemistry. There doesn’t have to be anything romantic about it. Romance is a symbolic way of capturing the dynamics of the situation. It’s metaphorical.

The Intangibles

Characters can symbolize something intangible such as authority or ambition. In which case, the character is a physical representation of something deeper. It’s like a costume. For example, principals and police officers are authority figures and can be used to represent authority. A celebrity can symbolize ambition — becoming a celebrity often begins with the ambition. Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist, can symbolize intelligence — he’s well-known for his intelligence. Donald Trump can symbolize bluster.

Even if a dream only refers to a character or type of character, analyze it as part of the story. ”Everyone hide, the police are coming!” If that’s part of a dream, the symbolism of a police officer comes into play.

 Virtual Reality

Dreams create virtual realities to help you better understand yourself and your life, answer questions and work through issues. Some dream characters are invented simply to populate the environment. They’re part of a simulation. These characters have no real autonomy and act programmed when observed closely. Remember, though, that the virtual reality of dreams can also include dream characters that are distinctly intelligence and able to react on the fly.


Other Techniques for Dream Interpretation and Story Analysis

Everything in dreams, including dream characters, is understood in context.

Connect the dots between the details of a dream. You can find out what characters symbolize by how they connect in the story with other story elements and narrative components.

Reflect on your life and zero in on recent events in your life — outer and inner life — if the people who appear as characters in your dreams are part of them. It’s a clue that the dream is processing a memory associated with the event.

Watch out for wordplays and other storytelling devices.

And be sure to note when comparisons and contrasts are made. See the second link below for more on that subject.



Analyse Dream Character Based on Roles

Use the first link below.

Explore further:

Dream Interpretation | Analyze Roles Played by Characters

Opposites Attract: Using Contrast with Dream Characters to Create Symbolism

Interpret Meaning of Dreams about Your Ex


Here’s an especially good time to know when a dream character is “real” or not:

Dream Interpretation Dead Parents and Relatives. Is It Real?