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 emotions, feelings, and perceptions, though they can represent people you know and even subjects, concepts, or ideas. Stop for a moment and absorb the implication that some of your dream characters look human or at least alive but they’re walking, talking symbols.

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. Most dream characters follow a script written in your unconscious mind, but some of them 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 with 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.

DREAMS 1-2-3Your observations about a person can be spot on and take form in your 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. Everything in your dreams is presented subjectively, not objectively.

Sometimes the representations are direct and objective, but other times it’s easy to be fooled by appearances. The dreaming mind translates all input into symbolism. It’s like a computer that renders binary code (strings of 0s and 1s) as imagery. What you see in a dream is a rendering of information, a translation, and at the core of it are essential truths and facts.

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.

For example, usually when you dream about a deceased loved one or friend, it’s entirely subjective. The dream character is not the person who died and continues to exist in another reality. However, after many years of researching this subject I am convinced that consciousness is a form of energy that follows Newton’s Law that energy can’t be created or destroyed, only change form. In other words, sometimes you really can communicate telepathically with the consciousness of people and other life forms in dreams, living in our physical reality or in another reality.

Explore further: Deceased Loved Ones in Dreams


J.M. DeBord

I’m RadOwl. I teach dream interpretation. Learn more about me at

Direct Representations of People

Dreams can give direct representations of people you know, presented objectively as dream characters. 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 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 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. In my many experiences of dream phenomenon such as precognition and telepathy, the imagery is usually rendered symbolically. But I’ve researched cases of dreams that are so lifelike and mirror reality so closely you can’t tell the difference.

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. 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, reverse engineer the dream and understand it through its mechanics.


Split Personality

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. To placate the creature, he acts nicely toward it and the gorilla returns the sentiment. The gorilla character is a projection of the dreamer’s perceptions of his roommate, and his interaction with it shows his strategy for handling his roommate. The roommate’s habit of entering the dreamer’s bedroom uninvited annoys him, but the person is young, strong, and wild, so the dreamer handles him delicately, same as with the gorilla in the dream.

Simplify the idea as gorilla = roommate. With that information, the rest of the dream is easier to decode. Why else would the dreamer ask his roommate in the dream to lock up the gorilla? Because he knows subconsciously what the gorilla represents. Lock up means, symbolically, hey roommate, stop coming into my room uninvited and causing a ruckus — restrain your gorilla-like behavior!



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.

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 or 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 shows up as his motorcycle parked in the garage of the family home. We connected the brother with his motorcycle and used the information to decode the rest of the dream. It boiled down to, basically, he misses his brother and awaits his return, symbolically represented as the motorcycle parked in the garage of the family home.

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 in that 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.

carl jung quoteYour 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, recognition, the basic necessities of life. 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!


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 dream’s detail.

For example, a woman dreams about a former 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 upon the memory of an old friend to give her the perspective she needs..

Explore further:

Penis Dreams: Interpret the Meaning of Penis in Dreams

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?

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. You see the person you are, have been, want to be and don’t want to be. 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 Lesson 2.

Symbolism and Interpretation of Dream Characters Part II