Mirror, Mirror: Seeing Yourself in Dream Characters
The characters in your dreams are reflections of yourself. Granted, sometimes the reflections are like the distorted or unrecognizable image of yourself in a Fun House mirror, but as a rule of thumb your dream characters represent something about yourself. The better you understand your dream characters, the better you understand yourself.
Every rule of thumb has exceptions. While true that most dream characters represent something about yourself, some are observations about, or direct portrayals of, people you know. Some are used to help tell story, like extras in a movie.
A dream setting sets the stage to tell a story about yourself and your life. Dream characters are the actors on stage who move the story forward. They speak the lines. They play roles.
The possibilities for how characters can be used in dreams are endless. There is no easy, universal way to interpret what they mean in a dream-story. But in general, dreams use the characters to show you something about yourself, about someone you know, or as a vehicle to tell a story. Or all of the above.
Seeing Yourself as a Dream Character
Start with what it means to see yourself in a dream. Simply put, it’s you! But think of it as an aspect of yourself, not necessarily the complete picture: a personality or character trait, a role you play, a feeling, a thought process, a phobia, a habit, an archetype. The complete picture of “you,” all the various parts of the psyche integrated together, is known in Jungian psychology as the “Self” and it can be represented in the form of a dream character.
You also have a “dream-ego” that is basically your ego in dreamland. It is usually viewed from first-person perspective, the eyes through which you see in a dream, though sometimes you view your ego from a third-person point of view to be more objective. Let’s begin by looking at a dream in which the dreamer sees himself.
I’m on some sort of medieval battlefield without a weapon and see myself running toward me. We have an all-out fistfight, trying to kill each other. It’s worth mentioning that the other “me” is almost glowing, angelic and clean, and I’m all muddy and sweaty.
To figure out the meaning of this dream we begin with what it means for the dreamer to fight with himself. The most obvious answer is it represents an internal struggle.
Turns out, the dreamer is struggling with himself over a new role in life: doctor. He thinks doctors must be “clean and pure.” But the muddy, sweaty image of himself in the dream shows that he does not perceive himself that way. He struggles to reconcile the image with reality, to fuse the two images of himself together. The takeaway from this dream is he needs to think through the image he is expected to maintain as a doctor, compared with what he can deliver. Perhaps he can meet somewhere in the middle.
It’s helpful to categorize your dream characters as familiar or unfamiliar. Are they people you know, or are they completely imaginary? By doing so you give yourself a starting point for analyzing their roles in the dream story.
Familiar Dream Characters
When you dream about people you know, ask yourself if the dream is making an observation about the person, or if the person represents something about yourself. It’s not always clear at first, but a clue is in your interaction with the character. If you observe the character’s actions in the dream without being directly involved, you might be observing something about the person. If you are directly involved in, or the object of, the character’s actions, the familiar person in the dream might actually be a side of yourself brought to life. (Note: Being an observer in a dream can be a way of way creating objective distance. More about that later.)
Next are two dreams that illustrate what I mean.
My sister is in the kitchen by the sink. My brother is sitting at the kitchen table, talking. All of a sudden she grabs a knife, comes up behind him and cuts his throat. I am shocked and try to call for help.
Because the action happens between two characters and not between them and the dreamer, it is a clue that the dreamer is observing something about his sister and brother, not about himself. It would be easy to presume the dream is a warning that the sister has anger issues, but the dream is actually related to a recent incident in the family. The sister announced she was engaged to someone the family did not like. The dreamer and his brother know that the guy she is planning to marry is taking advantage of her—they know a player when they meet one—and try to warn her, but she is blinded by love and is having none of it. Her action of cutting her brother’s throat is a way of saying she doesn’t want to hear and think about what he has to say.
The dream is making an observation about the dreamer’s sister. Her dream character is not a representation of an aspect of the dreamer. The sister-character’s actions with the knife are based on the dreamer’s observations.
Now compare how the characters in that dream interact with the dreamer, with how they interact in this one:
I’m a female and I dream that I have sex with another woman…who has a penis. She is someone I knew years ago and haven’t seen in a long time. She talks me into it (having sex) and finally I agree.
In this dream the action happens directly between the dreamer and a character. The character is someone she knows but hasn’t seen in a long time. That’s a clue in itself, which I’ll explain in a moment.
To analyze this dream I asked the dreamer what she had in common with the woman in her dream, the one with a penis. She said they used to train together for triathlons. The woman is very independent and talked about how she didn’t need to get married to be happy. She focuses on herself rather than on what other people think of her.
Those observations about the person depicted in the dream get to the heart of the dream’s meaning. The dreamer is an open-minded, vocal, and assertive woman who likes to hang around with guys, not be one of the guys. The part about having sex with a woman who has a penis is a way of saying she is seeing traditionally masculine traits in herself, the same traits she sees in her training partner, and it’s bothering her. She wonders if she is perceived as being too masculine. The training partner is actually a side of herself brought to life in the dream.
For a dream to make an observation about someone you know, in most cases you have to have had recent contact or heard something about the person. The only exception I know to this rule of thumb is when you dream about someone you know because something major has happened in their life and you somehow pick up on it without directly hearing about it. For example, I know of people who dreamed about old friends or loved ones when those people got seriously ill or died, or were contemplating suicide. Otherwise, when you dream about someone you haven’t had any contact with or heard anything about in a long time, it’s almost a sure bet that the person is used to represent something about yourself.
Ask yourself what you know about the person and how it relates back to you. What do you see about yourself in the person, or what do you see about them in you? Alternately, what do you see in them that you wish you saw in yourself? You might not see in it in yourself yet, but it’s possible that new qualities, traits, or characteristics are emerging and you aren’t yet fully conscious of them.
Now let’s analyze a dream character that is recognized in the dream as someone the dreamer knows but still represents something about the dreamer.
In my dream I am at my family home and feel something bad is about to happen. Suddenly my step-dad comes out of a back bedroom holding a knife. He stalks around the house and I sneak by his notice, gathering up family members to run from the house. As we get ready to go I distract my step-dad by talking to him. He seems to know something is up.
The first fact that helps with the interpretation of this dream is the step-dad is not at all like the way the dream character is portrayed. He is not homicidal. He doesn’t abuse family members. He doesn’t bully or threaten, though years prior he was something of a dick and verbally abusive. Another helpful fact is the dreamer has not had any recent significant interaction with him. That rules out the possibility the dream is symbolizing a recent incident or situation with him. Now we can be reasonably sure that the step-dad represents something about the dreamer.
After reflection, the dreamer saw herself in the step-dad character. She could be short-tempered and irritable after getting home from a long day at work. That behavior is seen in exaggerated form in the actions of the step-dad stalking around the house acting threatening. It’s what he used to do before he got a handle on his temper. What the dreamer is actually seeing is herself. Her attempts to protect family members in the dream reflect her own attempts to curb her temper and irritability.
Next is another example of the way dreams use familiar people as characters to show you something about yourself. [Link to original]
My father died of a heart attack in 2008. Last night I dreamed he is alive. We are together as a family. Everything is perfect. Then he starts looking thinner and weaker. I ask him if something is wrong and he answers, “Everything is fine.” Typical dad answer. After while I became very worried and corner him. He just smiles and says, “I have cancer. There is nothing that can be done.” I beg him to go to the doctors, but he says the damage is irreversible.
This dream is about the dreamer realizing that the memory of her father is slowly fading, and also that the dreamer’s childhood is becoming more distant. It has been seven years since he passed away—she was 16 at the time—and since then she has become an adult. She isn’t his little girl anymore, and she has to handle the responsibilities of life without him. The cancer represents time, which is slowly eating away at his memory. It’s like she is losing him again. She has dealt with the grief and accepts the fact he isn’t around but it makes her sad. As she said in her own words, “My dream is about me being terrified of not being a child anymore. My dad is the symbol of my childhood. The older I get, the more it feels like my childhood is dying.”
Sometimes it is very difficult to see yourself in a dream character, especially when violence is involved or the character looks like someone you know. People tend to read these dreams literally and question their own morals and motives, but the imagery should be viewed as symbolism. Even the most violent and repugnant actions you take in a dream are symbolism and often relate back to some sort of conflict. Take the next dream:
I have a recurring dream I am outside of my work place at night, waiting for a co-worker to leave. Once she appears I grab her, tie her up, tape over her mouth, and toss her into the backseat of her car. I drive to the middle of nowhere, telling her, “I’m not going to hurt you, but I just need to get it.” I drive for what feels like forever, stop the car, pull her out and drag her down into a ditch.
She looks terrified as I take her clothes off (I assume I’m planning on raping her). She kicks me in the crotch and runs off into the bush. I catch up to her, pull out a knife, and she starts crying, a thick look of fear in her eyes. I walk up to her and she starts screaming, and at that point I wake up.
On the surface of it, the dream might be interpreted as a rape fantasy. But described in simplest terms it’s about the dreamer wanting something he can’t have. That interpretation resonates with him on two levels. One, the co-worker is the sort of female who is “out of his league.” He says he is physically attracted to her but not emotionally and sees no chance of ever getting what he wants from her (sex). Two, he is frustrated by lack of opportunity for advancement at work. He says he wants to advance but has to wait for his manager to quit or get promoted.
The dream has clues that both interpretations could be correct. One, he drives her car, not his own. Driving a car can symbolize movement in your life. Therefore, driving someone else’s car—in particular, a co-worker’s—implies that your own car (life) is not getting you to where you want to be. In this case, the dreamer does not have the sex life nor the job position he wants.
Two, he says “I just need to get it.” That could mean sex, but it could also mean opportunity at work.
Three, he pulls the dream character into a ditch. That can symbolize thoughts or feelings that are “in the ditch,” same idea as “in the gutter.”
Four, the co-worker character kicks him in the crotch. It could be a way of pointing toward the source of his conflict, or saying that his frustration over women and work is hitting him right in the manhood. The idealized image of a man is he gets what he wants and doesn’t let anything stop him.
A dream can have layers of meaning, so this dream could be addressing both his frustration about being physically attracted to his co-worker and unable to do anything about it, and about lack of advancement at work.
Dreams can tell stories about recent events in our lives and make observations about people we know. In these cases the characters are based on observations of people we know, not personifications of aspects of ourselves. Take the next dream from a high school senior, for example. [Link to original post]
My mother and I are in her truck driving through a mountainous snowy nighttime landscape. She is driving and I am in the passenger seat. The area is really rural, and the snow is so bad the road can’t be seen. Suddenly we enter onto what appears to be a frozen lake covered with so much snow you can’t tell the lake from the bridge. Mom accidentally misses the bridge and we drive onto the ice, which breaks. As the truck is sinking I manage to bust open my door, pull my mom out, grab valuables out of the truck and swim to the surface. Once out of the lake I yell at my mom for her carelessness, then the dream ends.
First, let’s analyze the details of the dream. Driving can symbolize the movement of your life. For example, driving in reverse can symbolize a setback or going the wrong direction. The way you drive can symbolize the control you have, or don’t have, of your life. In this dream, mom is driving and the dreamer is in the passenger seat. At his age, mom still leads his life. She is “in the driver’s seat.”
Being a passenger in her vehicle and the actions that happen while she is driving are ways of observing her leadership qualities. And judging by the action of the dream, he doesn’t have much confidence in her. She misses a bridge and drives onto ice. The truck sinks and the dreamer has to save her. That paints a picture. The dreamer’s reaction of yelling at her for her carelessness also paints a picture.
The dreamer said he did not agree with many of his mom’s decisions. He loves her but lacks confidence in her leadership abilities. She makes poor decisions and he has to rescue her. The mom character in the dream is a representation of her, not an aspect of himself. While the portrayal of the dreamer’s mom is probably accurate, it is still based on the dreamer’s perceptions. It’s not an objective opinion, though if you were a fly on the wall observing the situation you would probably agree with him.
Next is a huge twist on the idea of familiar dream characters representing something about the dreamer. The dreamer is a writer, and the character he dreams about is a character he created for a story he is writing. [Link]
I am lying in bed with this character I created. The thing is everything is closely related to real life, not the the story I have created/writing about. We were mostly spooning, and at the end of the dream were making out. Woke up with me hugging my pillow…very strange.
The authors out there who read this might recognize right away what this dreamer is experiencing. The character this writer created came to life in his dream. Sexual intimacy with the character is used as a physical representation of a personal situation. He feels close and intimate with the character he created. Great writers say that the characters they create have a life of their own. This dream is a graphic example!
Unfamiliar Dream Characters
When a dream character is unfamiliar––is not someone you know––it’s an indication that the character represents something about yourself brought to life, or is used as a way of identifying the subject of the dream, such as a comedian in a dream representing your sense of humor. The caveat is that dreams can use surrogates for people you know, so you won’t recognize them by appearance. More about that in a moment.
The psyche is made of many interconnected parts that can take form as dream characters. For example, an irresistibly attractive person in your dream can represent a part of the psyche called anima (in males) or animus (in females). Anima and animus are the personification of your unconscious mind. They are attractive because you see yourself in them.
Then again, the same sort of character can represent something else that is irresistible, like a temptation to cheat to get what you want, or an ambition, goal, or vice. Other parts of the dream help you figure it out.
More examples of the psyche are the ID, ego, and superego, as classified by Sigmund Freud. Carl Jung went further in identifying parts of the psyche, such as the Persona, the Self, the Shadow, Complexes, and Archetypes. Discussion of the psyche can branch off in many directions, and it’s not my intention to distract from the main discussion here about dream characters, but I want to make you aware of the possibilities for what your dream characters can represent. For more information, check out this primer on the psyche from a Jungian perspective.
Dream Characters that Represent Something about You
Whether familiar or unfamiliar, dream characters can represent your feelings, emotions, thoughts, and perceptions. They are not technically what I mean by parts of your psyche (though they are). Instead, I call them parts of the mind. For example, a feeling of fear can be represented in a dream as a person with a weapon. Anxiety can be represented as a spider. A thought about escaping a bad situation can be represented as a pilot or bird. A perception that your privacy is compromised can be represented by someone looking in your windows. You might recognize the dream characters as people you know, or you might not.
Now we will analyze a series of dreams that all involve the same character. The character is unfamiliar, is not a representation of someone the dreamer knows. The dreamer is a male in college.
I dream that I’m back in high school, a senior, and am walking home. I pass by a cute Asian girl going the other direction. She is crying. I ask her if everything is all right and she says, “Not really, but don’t worry about me.” I give her my contact information and tell her to message me, and she does. We hang out and it becomes clear that she has had a really hard life and needs someone to provide stability. I feel like I am really starting to help her. Her name is Vera.
One day we are hanging out and she suddenly starts sobbing and yells, “Please don’t leave me!” I am taken aback since we are such great friends. I say of course I won’t leave her. “I’m just a part of your dream,” she replies, “and when you wake up you’ll forget me. Please don’t forget me.” I want to tell her everything will be all right, but that would be a lie.
The next night I have a dream I am playing League of Legends and ask the other players if they know Vera. I want to find her. Someone replies, “lol ur so desperate. She’s prolly a slut leading u on.” That makes me angry, knowing the hard life Vera had. But whatever. It is the internet and I guess I am desperate.
Then last night I have a dream I am on a week-long cruise and am getting along really well with this girl. We are becoming friends. But then I remember Vera, and warn myself to not grow fond of anyone. The girl gives me some distance, and after a couple of days she asks why I turned so cold. I say, “I once had a very, very good best friend, but she disappeared. How do I know you won’t do the same?”
To understand what Vera means to the dreamer we have to know what he sees of himself in the character. In the first dream she is presented as sad and lonely and needing a friend. The dreamer, viewing the scene from the perspective of his dream-ego, readily accepts the role of friend and rescuer. In the second dream she is referred to as someone leading him on, and he must be desperate to think she is actually interested in him. In the third dream she is used as a reason to mistrust someone who appears to want to be a friend. The dreamer fears a repeat of the same situation.
The dreamer is not as sad and lonely as Vera in the first dream, so it is not a direct reflection of himself. Instead the scenario is used to invoke his response. He comes to the rescue of people in need because deep down he wishes someone would take the same interest in him. He responds to people in that situation because he sees himself in them. He does have a touch of sadness and loneliness, but not to the extreme as Vera is presented in the dream.
The second dream creates a scenario to show a perception of himself that he must be desperate to pursue Vera. It’s a way of saying he opens himself up to being used by people.
The scenario in the third dream reveals why he keeps his distance from people and avoids growing close. He thinks he will be left behind and forgotten. By not getting too close, he avoids getting hurt.
In one dream character—Vera—and the drama surrounding her the dreams bring to life a complex set of personality traits, feelings, thoughts, and perceptions. Vera is used to show him his need for stability and his mistrust of the motives and intentions of people who want to be close with him. With some self-analysis the dreamer can address these issues and clear the way for having healthy relationships.
That was a tough set of dreams to interpret, but once you know how dream characters reflect the dreamer, like looking in a mirror, it is obvious that the dreamer sees aspects of himself in Vera. She is a canvas on which a picture of the dreamer is painted.
Dreams can use unfamiliar characters to represent yourself. Or in the next dream, a character represents an aspect of the dreamer. Keep that in mind as you read.
Last night I dreamt that I found out that I had a brother that no one had ever told me about. The realization came when I was introduced to him by my mother while I was at a party with some friends. She explained to me that he had severe mental problems. He seemed to be autistic but he was very nonthreatening and functional. Due to his mental health, he had been placed in a psychiatric hospital for the entirety of his life. He broke out because he wanted to meet his family, so my mom put me in charge of taking him back. We did some fun things, like stayed and partied with my friends, then went to a playground before I took him back to the hospital.
The brother character is depicted as a long-lost sibling because it symbolizes an aspect of himself that he pushes away. He makes a poor first impression and doesn’t care how he comes off to people. The dream exaggerates these perceptions in the portrayal of the brother as lost and having mental problems. The dreamer feels alienated from society and is seen as an outcast. However, like the brother in the dream, once you get to know him he comes across as pretty normal.
Surrogates: Using Unfamiliar Faces to Represent People You Know
Dreams can use surrogate characters to represent people you know, so it’s possible for someone you know to appear in your dreams in a physically unfamiliar form. I’ve encountered a few dreams where a cat was substituted for a girlfriend, or a dog was substituted for a friend. I interpreted a dream where a spider turned into a glass dragon, representing a dreamer’s mother who was both dangerous and fragile.
Dreams use surrogates when the symbolism fits the person (or at least your perceptions of the person), or a dream needs to tell you a story without interference from your ego, which might react strongly to the obvious presence of a particular person and cause a dream to veer off course. Sigmund Freud said that dreams use symbolism as a “guardian of sleep.” By nature dreams bring up uncomfortable subjects, and if you are bombarded all night with uncomfortable subjects that cause strong reactions in you, you won’t get much rest!
Next is such a dream that uses surrogates to bring up an uncomfortable subject.
A man (not me) is abducted by another man with typical good looks. The abductor is an alien. The victim is taken is taken to the backroom of a storefront. The captor’s skin swells. He becomes bloated and warty and his clothes rip off. Blue light emanates from him. Instead of regular male genitals, the alien has a large, bald, wrinkled sphincter. He compels his captive to shove his arm into the hole. The man is horrified but unable to help himself. As the man sticks his arm in and out, the alien groans and glows brighter. Eventually, the bloated alien orgasms and a blast of blue light vaporizes the man.
Aside from being the one of the most obscene dreams I’ve encountered, it is one of the most interesting uses of symbolism. The meaning of the dream becomes clear when the characters are identified. The abductee symbolizes the dreamer. The dream uses a surrogate to give him objective distance. If he sees himself in the role of the abductee it might shock him awake and the dream can’t play out to the end. The alien represents a man the dreamer is working for as a freelance playwright. He is from a foreign country, thus the representation as an alien (alien can translate to “foreign” in dream-speak). He also has “typical good looks.”
With that in mind, the rest of the dream can be understood as a graphic representation of the dreamer’s feelings about the work he is doing. He said that the foreigner had unrealistic expectations and he regretted taking the job. He felt like a captive.He was obligated to finish the job, but at the expense of his dignity, symbolized in the action of fisting the alien.
Next is an example of a dream that uses a surrogate to represent someone the dreamer knows. The dreamer is female.
I am driving home and end up getting lost, so I pull into a parking lot to get directions on my phone. I start to drive away and notice a man following me on foot. For some reason my car isn’t fast enough to get away from him. He reaches into my car and takes a bunch of stuff. I chase him down and tell him to give me back my stuff. He apologizes and gives it back. It’s a pretty harmless scenario.
I go back to my car. He follows me, snatches my phone and runs away. I grab a knife and chase him. This time I am extremely angry, pure hatred for this man. He throws a rock at me. I throw my knife at him and it sticks in his back. He falls to the ground. I take my knife out of his back, roll him over, look him straight in the eyes and stab him through the heart.
Yikes! A dream story like this indicates very strong feelings are involved. The dreamer’s actions at the end might make you wonder if she is potentially homicidal. But no, it’s symbolism. The question that answers the riddle of the dream is, what does the thief represent?
The character could represent something that is “stealing” from the dreamer, in the sense of taking away something valuable from her. The character takes her phone, and she uses the phone to get directions at the beginning of the dream. The implication is that her direction in life has been taken from her. The thief could be a personality trait like laziness, or a feeling such as frustration over not knowing what do with herself or how to get to a destination in life.
However, the dream seems to say that stronger feelings are involved, especially in the scene where she stabs the thief in the heart and does it with malice.
Now we have to consider the possibility that the thief represents someone the dreamer knows, someone that took something valuable from her. Someone she gave a second chance to and the person took advantage of her. That describes her ex-boyfriend to a T. He is a drug addict who lured her into doing drugs with him, something she says she would not have done otherwise. It messed up her life and took it in the wrong direction. He kept her away from her friends and family, symbolized in the dream as looking for directions home. He robbed her of her innocence and she gave him many chances.
Stabbing him in the heart is a brutally honest expression of her feelings and points right to where the most damage was done. She hates him and what he did to her. Her broke her heart and it is poisoning her feelings.
Take note that the man in the dream is not recognized by his appearance as her ex. He is unfamiliar. Instead, he is recognized in the symbolism of the character’s actions (stealing her phone and taking advantage of her) and the dreamer’s reaction (stabbing him in the heart). If the character looked like her ex, the dreamer’s reaction to the sight of him might change the direction of the dream. Instead, by showing him through a surrogate character, the dreamer can freely act out her feelings and the story can proceed to the finish without interruption. After all, she knows subconsciously who the character represents. When she stabs the man in the heart, she is expressing feelings about the harm her ex did to her and her life. She subconsciously knows who she is stabbing.
Though the man in the dream represents her ex-boyfriend, the character is still an aspect of the dreamer. The character is a stand-in for her feelings about her ex, and quite possibly some of the hatred she acts out in the dream shows anger with herself for allowing him to take advantage of her and mess up her life. After all, it takes two to tango.
Dreams can refer to someone you know by using a third-party associated with that person. Do you remember having dreams where some random person you know is in it? Well, there is a point to it. Nothing is random about dreams unless they are induced by fever, delusion, or medication. For example:
In my dream I get word the price of gold is going up. A co-worker’s husband is in the scene with me, and I think about going to the bank to cash in my stocks.
The dreamer has an investment in gold-related stocks and has been waiting for their value to rise so she can cash them in. The dream could be interpreted as a premonition that gold stocks are going to rise, or as related to hope that they will rise. But the presence of the co-worker’s husband adds a twist that reveals the true meaning of the dream.
The dreamer had been thinking about what she was getting paid for her work as an adjunct professor. She was teaching a course requiring more time and energy than usual, and when added up and compared to her pay, the pay wasn’t commensurate. The co-worker, referenced through her husband, identifies the subject of the dream because the co-worker was teaching a similar class for the same pay. The dreamer and the co-worker were in the same boat.
The co-worker’s husband is used in the dream as a surrogate for the co-worker. Dreams prefer to make oblique references instead of direct ones, and this dream is an example of it. The reference to gold stocks rising and cashing them in expresses the dreamer’s hope that she can find work that pays better.
Sorting out whether a dream character represents an aspect of yourself or someone you know can be particularly confusing when the character looks like someone you know. It’s easy to assume that the character must represent the person you know, but that’s the exception to the rule. Usually, dream characters represent something about yourself or are actors in the dream story.
Characters are portrayals, not actual people. Remember the difference. For example, “I had a dream last night that my husband cheated on me.” Then the dreamer goes to her husband and says, “You cheated on me last night in my dream.” No, actually a character in her dream that looked like her husband did the cheating. Her husband, who might have been faithful throughout their marriage, was probably asleep next to her.
Characters as Markers for the Story
Like actors in a movie, your dream characters tell you what the story is about. If all you know about a movie is that Arnold Schwarzenegger or Drew Barrymore are in it, you immediately get an idea of what sort of movie it is. Arnold is known for being in action movies. Drew is known for romantic comedies. Put Arnold and Drew in the same movie and it’s likely to be a romantic action movie.
In the same way, your dream characters are markers to identify the subject of the dream-story. If a doctor features prominently in a dream, the first guess is the story relates to health or prestige. If a teacher features prominently, the story might relate to learning, school, or authority. If your parents feature prominently, the dream might relate to your relationship with them or their influence on you.
“Generic” dream characters like the ones just mentioned are a big clue that they are used as markers for the story. They play a minor role in the story, and are usually not depicted by someone you know. The doctor in the dream is not your doctor or one you know, nor is the teacher. Usually (though not always), people you know that are used as characters in your dreams represent something more specific.
While dream characters are usually representations of something about yourself, and dreams can make observations about people you know, sometimes characters are best described as supporting actors, or just “extras.” For example, you dream about being on stage to give a talk in front of a big audience and the microphone doesn’t work. That can mean you have opinions and valuable things to say and want to express them publicly but don’t have means of communicating it. The audience in the above scenario represents society. They are not aspects of the dreamer brought to life, nor are they representations of specific people.
This excerpt from a long dream illustrates what is meant by dream characters being markers for the story:
…I land the plane on an alien planet and get out. All around me I see aliens killing people. I walk among them, unafraid.
In this dream, “alien” means “foreign,” as in “foreign place in life.” The dreamer has made big changes by studying harder, taking a second job, and exercising, and the dream tells the story in the image of aliens killing people. Killing people means “killing off” her lazy ways. The aliens are used as markers to tell the story.
I’m standing outside a building, it looks like a library or school. I go in and freeze in the middle of the entrance way. There’s a large crowd of people and they start dropping dead. The way they die varies, but the two I remember most are either shot or stabbed. And I can’t see the murderers.
The crowd of people is a way of setting the scene to tell a story about the dreamer being uncomfortable in large groups of people. He tends to freeze up. Dropping dead is a way of symbolizing his feelings in such a situation. It’s an exaggerated way of saying he’d rather drop dead than face a crowd.
The next dream uses a variety of characters to tell the story. They are all “generic” in the sense that they aren’t people the dreamer knows and aren’t aspects of himself brought to life. The are used to tell the story.
My dream starts out as the first day back to some class. Class starts and some of the other students wonder why I’m sitting in a different seat than usual. I can’t remember ever having another seat. The teacher starts explaining our assignment syllabus and how grading will work. I ask the teacher about some assignment and feel irritated by the response.
While we are all working on an assignment, a few of my peers tell me I won’t graduate for some reason. Somehow I know this is the guidance counselor’s fault. I’m enraged by this point so I pick up my desk and throw it across the room.
The other students in the dream are a general representation of the dreamer’s peers, used in the dream to tell a story. Compared to them he feels behind in life. He graduated from high school four years previously and is trying to figure out how to take the next step by starting a career and getting on with his adult life. The dream shows him sitting in a different seat than usual as a way of saying he is not in the same place in his life as when he was in school.
The teacher character is an extension of the idea of preparing for adult life, another marker to tell the story. The assignment referred to is to prepare for adult life. High school is a step to college or career. As a student, your assignment is to figure out how to take the next steps in life. The dreamer’s irritation expresses his feelings about the lack of good answers the adults in his life have given him about figuring it all out. Graduation refers to that next step. Graduation means he leaves the limbo between high school and what comes next.
The reference to the guidance counselor uses another dream character as a marker for the story. Guidance counselors help students figure out the steps to take to getting to their goals. The counselor is not pictured in the dream and doesn’t need to be because it’s a generic representation. The dreamer is seeking “guidance.” His rage in the dream is another expression of his feelings. He is really frustrated.
After analyzing the dream and understanding it, the person decided to join the Navy. Six months later he emailed me to say he was happier than he’d ever been and found his place in life.
Most of the examples mentioned so far have used human characters, but what if you dream about animals? Makes no difference, animal characters represent something about yourself, someone in your life, or are used as props to tell the story.
For example, a mom dreams that she is walking through a woods with her teenage son and a bear jumps out of the brush and mauls him. In the bear she is seeing a side of herself brought to life—the side of herself that is smothering her son. ‘Momma bear’ is overprotective and stifling her son’s development. The bear is a surrogate character that symbolizes her overprotective nature.
In another example, a dreamer finds a gorilla in his room and tells his roommate to lock it up. The gorilla symbolizes the dreamer’s perception that his roommate acts like a wild animal.
Dream Characters that Are Direct Representation of People You Know
Though rare for most people, the next possibility to consider does happen. You can dream about people directly. For example, a mother has a powerful dream about her pregnant daughter giving birth to a baby. At that moment her daughter really is giving birth, and all of the dream’s details correspond: the hospital room, the hospital staff, the position where the father is standing.
Another example: A father dreams about his son, who is in the military and deployed in a war zone, in a heated battle and getting shot in the leg. At that moment the son is in a battle and is shot in the leg. To the father’s relief, he sees his son whisked away by his comrades and taken for medical treatment. Reality plays out precisely as the father saw it in his dream, down to the last detail.
The last two examples are why I think it can’t be said that all dream characters represent aspects of the dreamer, which is taught by the Gestalt school of dream work. While a good rule of thumb, there are exceptions. Some dreams can even show you people you have not met in your waking life, then you meet them later and recognize them. Obviously in such a case the dream character is not an aspect of the dreamer. It’s a direct representation of the person.
For example, a man dreams about meeting a woman and getting along really with her. They have an in-depth conversation. She fascinates him. He learns specific details about her life. At the end of the dream she tells him her name. A few weeks later he is in the grocery store and walks past a woman. The familiarity of her strikes him hard, though at first he can’t pinpoint how he knows her. However, her first name comes to mind and he blurts it out. She turns around, curious, and asks if she knows him. He then says her last name, remembered from the dream, and it is correct, and pretends like they must have met somewhere.
He knew the first and last name of a person he’d never met in waking reality because he met her first in a dream. They became friends and she told him about an accident she had that required hospitalization. He remembered talking to her about it in the dream, and knew where the injury was on her body (on her back), ruling out the possibility that the whole incident is a fantastic coincidence or case of foggy memory. He had no other way of knowing about the injury.
Let’s dig into some dreams that feature prominent characters, analyze their roles, and decode the symbolism.
I dream that I am the age I am now, but that I had attended a summer camp while growing up (I did no such thing in reality). One summer while I was at camp a man who lived nearby stole a box from me. This box contained dress clothes, a sweatshirt, and a few small toys.
For some reason, as an adult in the dream, I decide to go to the man’s house and steal my box back. He lives in a rundown house, with a no trespassing sign outside. I wait till the man leaves, break into his house and steal my box back.
I take it home, show my father and tell him what I did. He is flabbergasted and tells me I am in very serious trouble, that I could go to prison, and is horrified that I went to this man’s house at all. He says I should think about going back and returning the box, since the man would surely notice it is gone and know that I had taken it.
I debate in the dream whether or not to risk going back and returning the box, and try to think of ways to avoid prison over this. I realize that if I went to teach English in China, I could get out of the US and avoid prison. But I am worried I will never be able to come back.
The dream has two characters other than the dreamer: the man who stole the dreamer’s box, and her father. First, I will give you some background information about the dreamer, and with those clues you will see how the characters relate to her life and tell a story about it.
The detail about going to China to teach English is an opportunity the dreamer really is considering at the time she has the dream. She has a job offer, just doesn’t know if she will take it.
The reason why she doesn’t know if she will take the offer is because her parents—specifically her father—are pressuring her to stay home. She is 25 years old but her parents still largely control her life, as if she is a child.
These clues point toward her father’s role as a character in the dream. Think of it this way, the dreamer taking back her possessions symbolizes gaining her independence, so the person or situation keeping her dependent is portrayed.
With that in mind, look at how the father character reacts when the dreamer tells him she broke in and took back her box of items. He is “flabbergasted” and “horrified.” He tells her to return the box, a way of saying that she should go back to being dependent and quit this nonsense of trying to direct her own life and make her own decisions.
Do you see how the symbolism tells the story of an adult child gaining her independence but feeling pressure to revert back to being dependent?
Now the question is, what does the man who stole her box represent? If you said “her father,” you’d be correct, although it takes two to tango and the man might be more accurately described as the part of the dreamer programmed by her parents to be dependent. The man represents her father’s influence. Oftentimes, the surrogate and the person represented are both present in the same dream.
If the dream used the image of her father in that scene instead of a random man, the story would be too obvious. The dream wants her to make the connection on her own; it wants her to think for herself. Remember, she is an adult. As a child she couldn’t help being dependent. As an adult she can make her own decisions if she will take the initiative. The dream is strongly hinting that the time is now to take back the power.
The detail about the house the man lives in being rundown is probably a reflection of the dreamer’s feelings about her life when she allows her parents to run it. As you learned in the settings chapter, a house commonly represents a person’s life. When the dreamer allows her parents to run her life, it lowers her self respect and image.
The symbolism of the items in the box are understandable when viewed through the lens of the dreamer’s life. The dress clothes symbolize her romantic life, taken from her by her parents’ interference. She said they tried to control who she dated. It got so bad she had difficulty being intimate with the men she dated.
The sweatshirt has two possibilities for symbolism. One is it could represent her work life, which she is trying to take control of by making the decision to go to China for a job. Sweat is associated with work. Two, it could represent the freedom to just be comfortable being herself. Sweatshirts are worn when we don’t care as much about our appearance. When I was in college my female friends used to joke about loving the fact they could roll out of bed, throw on a sweatshirt, put their hair in a ponytail and go to class, as opposed to high school when they would rise early to “doll up.”
The children’s toys represent the overall idea of being dependent. Children are dependent on their parents. By taking back the toys, the dreamer is saying she wants to be her own parent now. There could also be a reference here to having fun. In some situations we have to “allow” ourselves to just relax and live in the moment. People whose lives were highly structured by someone else (like their parents) can have a hard time with that.
Those ideas are also expressed in the detail about having once been to a summer camp where her box was stolen. A summer camp is a place we go to with our parents’ permission. It’s supposed to be a fun place, and an opportunity to experience a limited amount of freedom. I think that idea could tie in with the dreamer’s decision about going to China. It’s a chance to get away, to experience something new.
The really telling part of that detail is she had never been to summer camp, so it stands out as symbolism because it’s completely made up by the dream. Also, in the dream she is her present age and thinking back on an event that never happened. Again, the discrepancy screams “symbolism!”
Finally, the dreamer’s reaction of thinking about going to a country with no extradition treaty with the US shows that she is worried her parents will try to reel her back in if she decides to break out of the prison her life feels like when they control it. All her life she has been programmed to do what they want, and she is still under their power.
After analyzing the dream and thinking through its messages, the dreamer decided to take the job in China.
The next dream to look at it is another example of how dream characters are used to tell a story. They are clues to follow, signs that point in the direction of the meaning.
I dream that I find a dead rat in my bed and it leaves a stain on my mattress. I throw out the mattress and scream at my parents about it.
Begin analyzing this dream by thinking about the symbolism of a rat. If the dream was a movie like The Godfather and someone made a reference to a rat, it means a rat is “someone who betrays.”
Something in bed with you can symbolize that it’s close to you—very close, and probably very personal, too. A stain left in the bed is a sign that the dreamer has experienced something that left a mark on his psyche.
So use those ideas and ask yourself why the dreamer screams at his parents in the dream after finding the rat in his bed. It’s because he feels betrayed by them. They had done something recently that he considered a betrayal, though he wouldn’t tell me exactly what happened. How does he know that they left the rat in his bed if it’s not pictured in the dream? Because he knows subconsciously what the symbolism means. Even though his parents aren’t pictured, he knows they are the reason why a dead rat is in his bed.
Take note of the dreamer’s reaction. There must be a reason why he screams at his parents. It is the clue that leads to the correct interpretation of the dream.
When dream characters transform, it’s a sign that symbolism is at play. Use that idea to analyze the next dream.
So I had a dream last night (after a weird night of fighting with my boyfriend) that I am in a very large bedroom with only a large comfy bed in it. A large black dragon is with me. He flies around the room to entertain me. The dragon swoops down and transforms into a person, who in fact looks just like my boyfriend.
My boyfriend/dragon lays with me. There is sexual tension but nothing happens. We talk and things seem positive. He again turns back into a dragon to fly around the room some more. I love when he does this, the dragon looks really bad ass. I remember really admiring the dragon and its fierce beauty, then he transforms and comes back. I feel so much love and admiration for him.
We discuss that I only paid him $80 dollars (I guess I’m renting him?) when I needed to pay him $120. I think to myself, “Well, if he loves me then maybe he won’t make me pay him back the full amount, or maybe he will let me have him for free.” It is very strange to me that I would be paying him, though, and I don’t want to have to pay him.
A detail about the dreamer’s situation will help us to analyze this dream. She has been supporting her boyfriend while he was unemployed, paying for everything. That explains why, in the dream, she feels like she is renting the dragon’s time. He recently got a job but isn’t making much money yet because it’s based on commission. The detail about him giving her a break with paying the full amount, or giving his time for free, relates to the dreamer’s hope that her “investment” in her boyfriend will pay off when he is able to shoulder some of the financial burden.
The dragon’s transformation into her boyfriend is a clear indication it’s a symbol for him. Why a dragon? It is related to the intensity of his personality. There is something about him that the dreamer finds fascinating and magnetic. Another possibility is that dragons are known for protecting their treasure, and money is a theme of the dream. Either way, the most important and telling part of the dream is the dragon’s transformation.
A bedroom and bed are used as the setting because the dreamer is thinking through a situation that’s very close and personal.
Among the most fascinating uses of dream characters is to reveal valuable and timely information. Take the next dream, for example.
I dream that there is a serial killer in my warehouse and I warn myself to be careful. I am working and get a text message, which I ignore. Then I get more insistent text that says, “The serial killer is here, be careful.”
In my life I am dealing with a variety of new people right now because I’m buying a building for my business and the neighborhood is kind of sketchy. Plus I’m hiring new people. And I’m working remotely with a couple of contractors, but don’t feel like any of them are ill-willed.
The serial killer is not pictured in this dream, but its presence in the dreamer’s work place is a clue that something is wrong in his work life. He explains that he is making some big business decisions and feels exposed to subterfuge because he is dealing with new people. But when he thinks about it, no one sticks out as suspicious. The “serial killer” is not discernible.
A serial killer character can be a dream’s way of saying that someone systematically works against you. People in business who play a “zero-sum game” are out to win at any cost, including by eliminating their competition. They are killers in the sense that they can kill your business. Serial killers are often indistinguishable from ordinary people. They disguise themselves behind a facade of friendliness and affability in order to avoid getting caught and take their victims unaware.
With those observations in mind the dreamer thinks about who might be “stalking” him with the intent of “killing” his business, and realizes that a supplier who is close to him business-wise has been furtively positioning himself to deliver a fatal blow to his business. While a supplier, this person is also a business competitor. The dream delivers a timely warning to watch his back, and by doing so he prevents a bad outcome.
Somewhere deep in his mind the dreamer knows that his supplier is planning something nefarious, but he has a blind spot with this particular person. His dream gives him the prompting he needs to think the situation through and connect the dots.
Dreaming about Deceased Loved Ones
The next dream illustrates how characters tell the story. The dreamer is a mother who recently faced health issues that are bad enough to bring up fears she might die. I will put in bold the parts of the dream description that clue me in to the interpretation. When first analyzing the dream I did not know anything about her background.
I’ve been dreaming about my deceased stepfather. I wasn’t close to him. He and my mother split up shortly after they married and then did this toxic on/off thing until it finally ended with three kids. I wasn’t very fond of him because of that, but he was a good enough dad to my younger siblings, and that’s all that really mattered to me.
Flash forward 10 years and he’s diagnosed with stage-4 cancer. I’m grown and living across the world. My only real concerns are for my siblings losing a parent so young.
The first night I dreamed of him, he died in my dreams. I knew it was coming. When I woke up, I had a text from my mom telling me he passed away in real life.
In the other dreams there is a knowledge that he has died, or he just hangs around. In one dream, he was a spirit, and if you did a special dance or tune then you could go to the other side (the afterlife). He really wanted to teach my siblings but they couldn’t learn because they were not dead yet. In another, he had come back from being dead and was being really loving to my mother because he said he had realized how much he lost when he died and didn’t want to take it for granted again.
The dreams are starting to get more and more frequent. I can’t help but feel a bit weird dreaming about a dead man who I wasn’t very close to.
What are the dreams saying about the dreamer by using her stepfather to tell these stories? It’s tempting to assume that the dreams have something to do with dealing with grief or death, because that’s a common reason to dream about the deceased. But the dreamer doesn’t have a lot of feelings for her stepfather. She’s not likely to dream about him to process grief and loss that she doesn’t feel. Plus, he passed away years ago.
Dreams can use people who are deceased to tell stories about life and mortality. The part about the stepfather doing a special dance and wanting to teach it to his children made me think there might be a lesson here for the dreamer about how to live her life. That idea is getting closer to the meaning, but not hitting the bulls-eye.
The dreamer’s concern about her siblings losing a parent is similar to the dreamer’s situation as a parent facing potentially serious health issues. The dream connects her situation with his. Now consider the second part I highlighted in bold. “He realized how much he lost when he died, and didn’t want to take it for granted.”
That part has to be a projection of the dreamer’s thoughts, because she has no way of knowing if her stepfather realizes how much he lost when he died. When a dream makes assumptions like that, it’s a sign that something about the dreamer is being projected onto the character.
What the dreamer is projecting onto her stepfather’s character is her fear that, like him, she will die before having an opportunity to see her children become adults. She doesn’t want them to lose a parent when they are so young. He is used as a character in her dreams because she is in a situation that reminds her of a situation he faced too. He died while his children were young, and the dreamer is facing the same prospect. She does not have a mortal health issue, but the issue is serious enough to spark her fears.
The next dream also uses a deceased relative to tell a story about the dreamer.
My dream starts in an air field. My whole family is there. My dad is going to board an airplane and go far from home, but we’re not sad that he’s leaving, we’re very happy. This flight means great things for him. We say our farewells, he promises he’ll see us soon, and boards the plane.
We watch the takeoff. The plane flies into the sky. Something doesn’t seem right. Suddenly, the plane starts to fall from the sky and shatters in half. Both pieces fall to the ground. The front half explodes killing all that were inside. The back half lands safely and people crawl from the wreckage unharmed. While my family screams, I try to reassure them that my dad was in the back half and that he’s all right.
We watch a film of the plane from the inside when it split in two. The video is of my dad sitting in the middle of the plane. As it cracks in two, people fall to their death from the plane. My father tries gripping onto the seats and anything he can hold onto, but the wind is too strong and he gets torn from the plane and falls miles down to a lake below.
I remember watching the film and becoming very sick. As my family began mourning, I told them that dad fell into the lake and that he’s fine. I try to convince even the rescuers that my dad is lost in the lake and he’ll be home in a few days.
He never came home.
The dreamer’s father did not really die in a plane crash. He died from an illness. That discrepancy reveals that the dream is using the plane crash as symbolism. Specifically, the plane splits in two. That is the part to focus on to understand the story and its message.
When we lose people close to us, a common panacea is to say they went to a better place. I think that idea is expressed in the beginning of the dream when the father character boards the plane and the family is happy for him. When he says that he’ll see them soon, it means he’ll see them in the afterlife. That is what the dreamer and his family believe … or want to believe.
Despite one’s beliefs there can be lingering doubt about what happens after the death of the body. Will the dreamer really see his father again someday? Is he really in a better place? Is he deluding himself to believe these things?
Those doubts are expressed symbolically by the plane splitting in half. You could say that half of the dreamer wants to believe that people really do go to a better place after death and we all meet again, symbolized by the back half of the plane where the passengers survive. Another half of the dreamer fears that death is the final destination, that his beliefs are wrong, symbolized by the front half of the plane where the passengers die. Maybe all that happens after death is our loved ones are gone and we never see them again. Maybe there is no afterlife.
The father character is caught in the middle because the dreamer is caught between these conflicting thoughts. He wants to believe that his father is alive in the afterlife, expressed in the dream when he tells the rescuers that his father fell into a lake and survived the crash. In dream symbolism, something submerged in a lake can mean that it has disappeared but is alive inside you.
What a powerful dream! It brings to life an inner conflict and, by implication, suggests that the dreamer think through the situation and get off the fence. Either believe in the afterlife, or don’t. Believe his father is in a better place, or not. Being caught between opposing beliefs is tearing the dreamer in two.
Anima / Animus