The characters that populate our dreams may just be the most complex and confusing elements of all elements in our dreams. But not for the reason psychoanalysts suggest they are. Characters rarely, if ever, represent your deep seeded or repressed issues with your mother or father. In fact, they may not even represent a relationship of any kind.
Jung suggested that there was a strong relationship between characters in our dreams and our mythologies. He defined these characters as archetypes -which depict reality as mystical patterns, and life as directed by something greater than ourselves. He suggested that characters who appear in our dreams as wise, benevolent guides are archetypes of our greater “Self.” However, he had no suggestions for those individuals in our nightly theatre that have no names, have no relationship to us, or are not even human or real.
Freud, of course, believed every character represented either our mother or father, and referred to some repressed aspect of the relationship with the parent. He believed all dreams had some aspect of the Oedipus complex wherein the child resented the same-sex parent for the relationship they shared with the other parent.
Some theorists suggest that every character -and every object for that matter- is some aspect of the dreamer’s psyche. In this case, the overweight, obnoxious, and nosey neighbour is an aspect of ourselves; as is the pencil you use to write a note to the intolerable neighbour. This theory implies that you are disowning that obnoxious part of yourself, and asks, “If you were the pencil, how would you feel?” I don’t know about you, but I can’t ever remember a situation where I compared it or myself to being like a pencil.
Over the past four decades of studying, researching, recording and working with dreams, what I’ve discovered is that, though our minds are mysterious, extremely complex senders and receivers of information, they aren’t as chaotic, psychotic or cryptic as some dream workers would like you to believe.
The characters in our dreams may be known or unknown to us. They may be young, old, or even deceased. They may be male, female, undefined or even a combination. They may be in the form of an animal, a creature, or even a mythological being. However, what every character in every dream, of every dreamer, has in common is that they all have a purpose for being in that particular dream.
Determine the role and you’ll discover that purpose.
By first determining the role the character plays in the dream, we can deduce why the specific character appears in the dream; which then leads to an understanding of the point or purpose for the character -the message they are trying to convey. We can start our investigation by carrying out a brief character analysis. Ask questions such as:
- Is the character a protagonist -a main character?
- Are they an antagonist?
- Are they helpful or harmful?
- Do they do or say something specific, unusual or important?
- Do they just make an appearance (a supporting role)?
- Do they interact with you or other characters?
- Are they frightening, aggressive, or intimidating?
- Are they comical, friendly or strange?
- Do their actions have an influence on the events of the dream?
- If so, how big of an influence?
- What is this character’s relationship to the main character (which is usually you, the dreamer)?
- What influence do their actions have on the main character?
- Is the role generally positive, negative or neutral?
By examining what the character is doing, we can uncover their role. And when we realize what the role is, we can then examine the connections between that character, their actions, current or past waking life events (memories and/or concepts) and the dream.
Although I haven’t thought about my ex-husband in years, he occasionally makes an appearance in my dreams. When he does, he plays a role -not always the same one- which in some way my subconscious associates with him. For example, in the most recent dream in which my ex showed up, he was there to try to convince me to get back together with him -to try again- while at the same time refusing to put aside what he wanted in order to help our injured son.
In order to find out what his role is, and what the message is, I can ask, and answer the above questions:
Is the character (my ex-husband) a protagonist -a main character? Yes. The majority of the dream (or remembered part of the dream) is focused around him and his attempts to convince me that we need to get back together and rebuild our family.
Is he an antagonist (somebody or something opposing or in conflict with another)? Yes. His desires are in conflict with mine.
Is he helpful or harmful? Absolutely not helpful. He is the opposite of helpful (won’t help our son).
Does he do or say something specific, unusual or important? Yes, “that family should be together.” This statement is contrary to his “real” concerns in that family was never very important to him.
Does he just make an appearance (a supporting role)? NA (not applicable)
Does he interact with me or other characters? Yes. He engages in a dialog with me (dreamer) in order to convince me to do something he wants. And ignores his son’s need for care and attention.
Is he frightening, aggressive, or intimidating? Assertive and insistent.
Is he comical, friendly or strange? NA
Do his actions have an influence on the events of the dream? Not on the events.
If so, how big of an influence? NA
What is his relationship to me (within the dream)? A past relationship, an unfaithful, selfish ex-husband.
What influence do his actions have on me (the dreamer and main character)? His inaction (refusal to take care of his son) makes me realize that nothing has changed; he hasn’t changed. And I realize I am repulsed by him and don’t want him in my life in any way.
Is the role generally positive, negative or neutral? In this dream, I would have to say that his role was positive in that it allowed me to put the past behind me.
After answering the questions, try to sum up everything you discovered in one or two sentences. This helps to clarify the message. So in this dream, I can sum up the analysis by saying that a past event/relationship is incessantly affecting my decisions and perceptions when it comes to family and day to day life. I need to re-examine and adjust how I see and react to current situations.
In the above character analysis, I would sum the role of my ex-husband up as: playing a central role in trying to bring about a reconciliation of conflicting issues. In this context, an ex-husband, whom, needless to say, I (my subconscious) associate with my past, and who had been a large part of my identity and life for thirty years, is used to get the message across: Some things change and some things don’t. I need to recognize which are which and make the appropriate adjustments.
It may take a little practice, and a few frustrating tries to find the connections between characters and the dream content and how they apply to your life. However, the more you work with your dreams in general, and characters in particular, the easier it becomes to determine the role they play.
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