Into the Depths: Characters and Their Dreams

“Sleeping Cat”
2happy → in Cats and dogs

Each night before I fall asleep I will myself to dream. If I’m lucky the next morning, I’ll remember them and record the details in a journal. Then, I’ll dissect what I wrote and analyze each symbol separately. Dreammoods.com is my savior. It’s more complex than that of course; dream interpretation remains a mystery, even today.  Nonetheless, I love dreaming. I love talking about my dreams. And I’m probably alone in this, but I love hearing about other people’s dreams.

That being said, in literature, when characters dream, it’s a sublime reading experience.

Not surprisingly my main character dreams throughout my novel-in-progress.  I don’t overdo it; he only has maybe two or three noteworthy dreams in the story. These nightly visions aren’t longwinded three page descriptions of unconscious rigmarole. A good dream sequence should probably last five to seven sentences at the most. And, let me say, the weirder the better.

After examining both my own writing and that of others, I can relate three simple rules-of-thumb when it comes to a character’s REM cycle:

1. Like I mentioned before, keep it short. The general public tends to get bored while listening to a friend, relative, or co-worker’s nighttime adventures (I’m the exception), so assume that they’ll get “sleepy” while reading about a protagonist’s overactive subconscious.

2. It should reflect what real dreams are like: ethereal, nonsensical, and at times, jarring. Taking this a step further, it works best when the underlying meaning of the dream is more obvious to the reader than the character him or herself.

3. It can’t be random. It must, in some ways, reflect the bigger picture of the story.

Expanding on number three, I’ve broken the concept down into the three categories:

1. Distorted Foreshadowing:A character dreams of walking through an unfamiliar rose garden. All flowers are flourishing, except for one brownish, wilting bush at the perimeter’s edge. Two weeks later a phone call comes: the character’s estranged mother has passed. At the wake, the funeral home is decked out in roses—the once vibrant mother’s favorite flower.

2. Jumbled Reflection of a Character’s True Feelings: A female protagonist has a recurring dream where she is stuck inside an old haunted hotel. There are ghosts in each room, and she fears they will come out and get her. There seems to be no exit to the terrifying building, each door she tries is jammed, the phones don’t work, and even if they did, it wouldn’t matter because when she tries to speak, no words come out.

In this character’s real life situation, she is invested in an abusive marriage, and despite the warnings she receives from her friends and family members, she feels too weak to break free. There are many, many truths she has not acknowledged about her life and situation. However, at least in the early parts of the story, she is utterly confused as to the meaning of the ominous dream.

3. Mish-mashed Symbolism:A wronged male character dreams he is on the beach when a giant wave crashed over him. Later, when he finds shelter in an abandoned house, he can barely step inside because the entire place is flooded. In dreams, water is reflective of emotions, particularly emotions which have gotten out of control; hence, the man’s anger over his past is actually “leaking out” and “overwhelming” him. The water symbolizes his torrid emotional state.

Each story will lend itself to a different kind of dreamer.  As the sole creators of our stories, we understand our characters better than they understand themselves. Their dreams are simply attempting to clue them in.

Some tips? Check out dreammoods.com here. It has a comprehensive dream dictionary, as well as simplified theories from renowned theorists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Understanding the basic nature of dreams will aid you in your writing.

How about you? Do your characters dream? Excited to hear your comments!

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96 Comments

Filed under Characters, Inspiration, Prompts & Writing Ideas, The Writing Life, Writing Tips

96 responses to “Into the Depths: Characters and Their Dreams

  1. Dreams are always featured prominently in everything I write, so much so that I often worry (heck, I worry about everything but that’s another topic …;) ) that I’ve written far too many dream sequences!
    Strangely enough, my own dreams rarely reflect anything I’m writing about even though once fairly recently, I did dream a scene that I felt utterly incapable of writing. Suddenly, now that I had ‘been there’ in my dream, the words just poured out! I would love to learn to make that happen more often. :)

    • I’m a worrier too…to the bones! It doesn’t happen often, but I too, occasionally write ‘dream-inspired’ pieces. It would be great if that could happen more often, but sadly, it just doesn’t always work that way.

  2. Natylie Baldwin

    I love that you decided to discuss the role of dreams in stories. They can be tricky to do.

    I’m using a recurring dream (described two, maybe three times with slight variations) in my novel-in-progress. It has to do with one of the main characters who is grieving the loss of her husband the year before and what her husband is really trying to tell her in the dream. Of course, she doesn’t want to hear what he is really trying to tell her and she misinterprets the dream for a while.

    I find Jung’s theories in general, and on dreams in particular, much more interesting than Freud’s.

    Can anyone think of literary works where the author managed to use dreams well? Ursula LaGuin’s Lathe of Heaven immediately comes to mind, but that is more science fiction and dreams are the main focus of the story.

    • Thanks Natylie…thanks for stopping by! Your novel sounds very interesting. I love anything dream-related–as you can tell! I agree, generally speaking, Jung’s ideas are more interesting (and conceivable) than Freud’s. However, I still believe Freud was onto to something…I like the concept of free association.

      If you’ve ever read Wally Lamb’s “I Know This Much is True,” you’ll be in for a real character-dreamin’ treat :)

  3. Great post! If I were still on Twitter, I’d tweet it. I do the very same thing — will myself to dream (as much as one can), write them down, discuss them w/ husband, interpet them … but I’ve never seen that website. Must check it out! I like you literary dream tips. 1, 2, and 3 are spot on. Employing allegory, symbolism, subtext, and making detail matter — rather than present for its own sake — make for powerful writing/reading (even when not in dream sequence). Nice!

    • Thanks Terri…I too love analyzing my own dreams. I often stumped by them, however. It’s seems like I should be the one to ‘get it’ since they are coming from MY subconscious, but still, I don’t always. That’s why it’s so odd that I often know exactly what my characters’ dreams are all about. It’s even more interesting that they never seem to understand themselves! Definitely check out that website. Very comprehensive.

  4. This is great info. I was about to say I had never incorporated a dream into a story but I have! In my first book, my main character has a dream about her boss (yes, he’s the guy). I never applied the science of writing to the scene, I just wrote it. I confess, I’m afraid to ‘know’ too much about the voodoo of writing. Rather, I go look when I need something.

    • Hi Brenda–yeah I’m afraid to “know” too much as well. Often my posts are just things I learned along the way–my way, you know? I think knowing too much takes the mystery out of it.

  5. Very interesting. I think you are so right about the 3 categories too. I also appreciate the links. Thanks for sharing this.

  6. I have a dream book sitting on my desk at work. I have not incorporated dreams into my writing though….something to think about.

  7. it’s not that hard to make ur dreams came throw you jast need to believe in your self

  8. Wonderful analysis. I am currently working on a YA book and haven’t gotten to any dream sequences yet. I probably will incorporate at least one though and this is very helpful!!

  9. I tried interpreting my own dreams with this Dream Moods site. Although they do follow Jungian archetypes, I got to say, the definitions didn’t help with the dreams I recently remembered. Then again, scientists have yet to figure out what exactly dreams are to begin with, so go figure.
    That being said, when my characters dream (and one does) it’s either because they have problems that they can’t figure out, or someone’s trying to pull a Freddy Kreuger in the main character’s city and kill people with dreams. Either way, I try and make my characters’ dreams very much like my own dreams, which are nonsensical and ever-shifting in nature 99.7% of the time.

    • Hi Rami, thanks for stopping by! The dream moods site helps me sometimes, other times, not so much. I do think its a great tool for character dreaming though. When I familiarize myself with common dream types or symbols, etc., it’s easier to incorporate that knowledge into a character’s dream. But I agree…dreams themselves are so mysterious.

  10. I can’t say my characters dream but I like reading about yours!

  11. Dreams have always inspired me since I was a young girl. I remember “waking up”in my dream and realizing that I was awake. It was the coolest thing (I must have been around 9). I have not been able to access my dreams on a regular basis and was wondering if there is a mantra I can use before I fall asleep so I can remember the dream when I wake up?

    • Wow…nice! I have some old childhood dreams I remember as well. The first dream I ever remembering having I was about five years. I dreamed it was my birthday party and I kept trying to reach my mother, but whenever I saw her she’d vanish…literally…into the thin air. I woke up truly believing it was my birthday.

      I don’t have a specific mantra, but some nights before I sleep I just tell myself, ‘yes you will dream,’ ‘yes you will dream!’ Sometimes that works. It helps on nights I know I can truly relax (like weekends). Have you tried a dream journal? As soon as you wake record as many details as you remember. Even little things like colors, emotions, etc. could have potential meaning.

  12. I find most of my dreams are a stark contradiction, such as my wife and kids living with me in my parent’s house as it was thirty years ago. Or me floating just above the ground with the ability to move effortlessly across great distances as i wish.

    I never really considered adding this to any of my writing, but I am sure it provides you with some rich material.

    • Hi Joe, thanks for stopping by. I’ve had dreams like the ones you’ve described as well. They’re like…displacement dreams almost. I’ve had some where I’ve gone back to work at a job I left years ago, etc.

      You might want to try incorporating the concept into your writing. It can be really fun.

  13. This was a really nice, concise post; especially helpful for writers. I completely agree that dream sequences should, for the most part, be kept short. While there are certainly some extended fever dreams in literature that are worthwhile, especially in Crime and Punishment, for the most part, shorter is better. With a short dream sequence, the reader can pay closer attention, and dissect the dream for meaning, which at least for me, is what I want them to do. Nice blog.

    • Thank you James! Glad you stopped by. I never finished Crime and Punishment (oops!) But I agree…likely it’s one of the few exceptions to the long-winded dream sequence. I just think dreaming is a great experience and it’s even better when I have control over it (hence my characters’ dreams!)

  14. I recall some rare instances where I happened upon a dream and immediately woke up with the urge to write about it… but without fully experiencing the dream. My problem is going somewhere once the skeleton is written down.

    I have fallen in love with metaphors though- I especially like the ‘out of control’ emotions represented by water connection you made.

    Thank you for the tips!

    • Thank you ethicalethica…and thanks for stopping by! Metaphors are the greatest…I agree. I think in essence that’s all dreams really are anyway. It’s amazing that we are all capable of creating our own metaphors.

  15. What an interesting question! I have never even thought to ask that, but now I think maybe I should.

  16. I like the idea of remembering the characters in your dream and writing them down!

  17. ForeverMoreReviews

    No one will ever know how much this has helped me as a creative writer, I’m in the process of developing a novel & after reading this I’d like to have a go at using dreams to my advantage. Thank you for sharing! Keep it up, & congrats for getting freshly pressed.

    • Thank you ForeverMoreReviews…I so glad I could help. That’s the idea after all! What’s your novel about?

      • ForeverMoreReviews

        I’m not sure what exactly sure at this point but it’s set in a Kingdom of another world. It’s essentially looking like a love story, Evangeline, a Princess who has lived most of her life as a poor orphan girl, is stuck between two guys, Elijah, who offers her pure happiness and Tristan, a playboy Prince who offers heat, passion and a rollercoaster relationship. Guess who she picks? She gets with Elijah first, then Tristan kind of creeps up on her. The back drop of this love story is a world a dangerous world of blood, magic & politics. I’m still working on developing it, having fun creating a different world!

  18. Great tips for writing. I have never incorporated dreams into my writing, but I´m a good student. I think I will try it.

    • Hi Lilly, thanks for dropping by. Yeah, definitely, if you’re looking for new experiences in writing, go for it. You’ll find it cliques and you can play with symbolism in a whole new way!

  19. jolly2012

    Magical Realism deserves a little credit here…

  20. I love this post so much! And I love reading about a characters dreams but that is probably because I like thinking to hard about things…

  21. jolly2012

    I recently saw a movie about a man meeting a woman. The woman meets the man in order to facilitate a robbery but, he doesn’t know that. There is an accident and she falls into a coma. All the action in the first half of the movie turns out to be her dreaming during the coma! Once you’ve digested that, another shocker! Turns out that what she was dreaming about was her own life! When she comes out of the coma, she’s not sure if what she experienced was a dream or not. So, she doesn’t know if the robbery was successful or if the other characters think she is guilty. Fascinating stuff for the viewer although, I don’t think it would work well in a book without visual clues.

    • Sounds interesting! Psychological thrillers can be fun. That kind of thing probably wouldn’t work well in a book–you’re right. That’s why I like the occasional–and quick–character dream in literature.

  22. Congrats on the Freshly Pressed! Well deserved!

  23. Ciera Valdivia

    dreams are cool

  24. I am finally attempting to write a story based on my dreams itself. I’ve had dreams since I was about four years old of apocalyptic situations, usually dealing with floods. So what I’ve begun doing is collecting these dreams and taking bits and pieces of them to put into the book.
    I’m not sure about having my characters dream in the book I’m working on.
    I used to read/write fanfiction for Harry Potter and the story that I never finished was based on the character dreaming, but not quite what you are talking about above.

    • Wow, sounds great! The point is, dreams inspire art–end of story. Even if the characters don’t dream, you’re own experiences with dreaming are aiding in your work. Thanks for stopping by.

  25. I love this – especially the different types of dream. Also, http://xkcd.com/203/

  26. Reblogged this on winnerofhearts and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  27. Such a fascinating subject! I usually find that books and movies alike fail to capture the seemingly random and nonsensical character of dreams. Was there a movie/literature dream sequences that you found believable?

    • Hi Katia–thanks for coming by. In Jane Eyre (I don’t know if you read the story) but right before the mysterious room in the attic sets Jane’s room on fire, she dreams of something that might, possibly suggest the fire event. Also, if you’ve ever read Wally Lamb’s “I know This Much is True” he has a great dream sequence that totally captures the story’s entire realm of symbolism

  28. I worked a few dreams into my most recent novel. I had an agent when I started drafting it, and she balked at the dream sequences, urging me to cut the first one (the opening scene) as too gimmicky and a later one just because it was a dream. I took her advice on the first one and reduced the dream to a single reference the character makes as he wakes up in the first paragraph. The later one I left in because I felt (and still feel) that it worked. The one I cut served as exposition, and I think my agent was right to suggest that there are better ways to get a character’s past into the plot without having him dream about it. The second was a blend of your #2 and #3 with a mishmash of symbols that reflected the character’s true feelings. I don’t think it will be the last time I use the technique.

    • Thanks for this comment, Richard. I have my character dream three times in my story, and now that I think about it (though I had my doubts from the beginning) one of them seems “gimmicky” Perfect word. It’s like I’m trying to hard to make it work–it’s contrived. I think your post just inspired me to get rid of it!

      The other two, like you said, work. I’d like to keep them because they take care of themselves. I don’t have to push it.

      Looks like I need to follow my own advice :)

  29. Wow, I might have to check out that website! I love dreaming and I remember them often, but sometimes I forget and that always stinks. Great post, thanks for sharing and congrats on FP!

  30. lucewriter

    I loved this piece! Because I write creative nonfiction and poetry, I am always shying away from dreams as they seem like an easy fix for how to show interiority, etc. I’ll have to reconsider! Your blog is beautiful.

  31. interesting post, think that talking about a characters dream is a great way of delving into their subconsciousness, providing more depth to them

    .I am fascinated with my own dreams and will be checking out dreammoods, but other peoples bore me to hell :) I dreamed the other day that I was teaching water aerobics to 20ft tall rubber dolphins. I have a dolphin shaped vibrator. Maybe that has something to do with it :D

    I think that Stephen King is at his best when he is writing in that dreamy, trippy way of his.

  32. The serial novel that I’m working on for The Gallery of Worlds e-zine called “The Holder Wars” involves a race of people, the Fae, whose magic allows them to dreamwalk. This means they can simply wander around and jump into people’s dreams, allowing for lots of sneaky manipulation, basic communication, and a little bit of making dreams reality. My character has the option of becoming a Fae if she wants, but so far, she finds them far too creepy and underhanded. She has, however, had some very exciting adventures dreamwalking. Unfortunately, anything that happens to her in the dream happens to her body in the real world, so she has very nearly died more than once.

    As soon as a dreamwalker enters a dream, because he/she is still a conscious mind, the dream begins to make more sense to both the dreamer and the dreamwalker. On the other hand, the dreamworld picks up on thoughts and fears, so since my character has a very legitimate fear of pitchforks, she at one point encounters a sentient, one-eyed pitchfork in someone’s dream that is set on killing her.

    Dreams have been used a lot in storytelling, and there is the danger of cliche, but it’s fun to try to beat the cliches and come up with something new.

    • Wow, that sounds like quite an interesting concept. I like dreams, but having that ability might make me crazy! It’s true that it’s easy to fall into cliches. That’s why it probably good to avoid common dreams–like falling, being chased, loosing teeth, etc. Unless, of course, the writer adds an interesting twist to it!

  33. Reblogged this on healingthymeproducts and commented:
    I, myself, a lover of dreams…what a gift.

  34. Another lover of dreams…what a gift!

  35. icittadiniprimaditutto

    Reblogged this on i cittadini prima di tutto and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  36. bendanarama

    My characters dream constantly – it’s one of those easy plot devices to use!
    Talking about writing a dream diary reminds me of my creative writing course at University; our tutor avidly encouraged us to keep a dream diary, and occasionally I still do. It’s one of the best ways to gain inspiration!

    Excellent blog!

  37. My response will not be welcome or popular, maybe seen as downright wrong-headed to some. But I tend to avoid having my characters dream. Fiction is a dream anyway, so a dream within a dream is, well, redundant. And dreams seem to be a way to avoid head-on conflicts which are so very necessary in the trajectory of a character’s transformation. I confess, however, I read and write literary fiction and don’t read a lot of genre fiction where dreams may be a useful element.

    • Hi inkandpages….thanks for commenting. I too, write literary fiction. Dreams don’t work in every story, no, I agree. I just think certain situations, characters, elements, etc. lend themselves to a good dream sequence. It shouldn’t be done gratuitously, but sometimes it just…works.

      I like what you say about books being dreams themselves. Wow! Very true. Great point!

  38. lucalotto

    well, i guess it was two days ago when i suddenly woke up with a beating heart… I remember some of a dream about Jesus hanging at the cross in a chapel…i looked up to him and was angry with the world, with me, with everything…and then he looked down to me …and blood and tears ran down his cheeks and he whispered :my dear, soon I no longer have blood and my eyes will be dried out…I am tired. Then it will be the blood and tears of all those for which I suffered the last two thousand years.Be not afraid, let me sleep now.
    Then I woke up and was extremely upset and nervous…I think I’ve read that somewhere…Rilke? …but to me it was perfectly real. So what does it mean?

  39. Interesting post on dreams and fitting them into a story.
    I used to read books about dream explanation, but I actually never got the idea to apply this knowledge (most of which I forgot again) to storytelling.
    Inspriring!

    • Thank you Edwin! Glad you came by. That’s pretty much how it happened with me. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to interpret dreams. I practiced so much that it just appeared in my writing. Now if only I couldn’t understand my own dreams…

  40. I love writing dreams. It’s relatively free as compared to the structure of the corporeal world. It also helps that, like you, I enjoy researching the possible symbolism of my dreams. I find they often illuminate or reinforce something in me which feels mysterious. Thanks for the interesting tips! :-)

  41. Refreshing take on dreams I like your work.

  42. Funny I found this as I was avoiding writing a dream sequence.

  43. I keep having this one dream that i cant wake up from. my mom calls it life, but I don’t know why she’s trying to name my dreams.

  44. A very nice observation. In fact, I too observed the significance of dreams in real life and even in fiction. I clearly remembered my under-graduation reading of “The Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte where Bronte marvelously used the interpretation of dreams through her protagonist in order to pave the way towards the end.
    Not going too long but it happens in reality, when we see something happening in front of us and suddenly thinking of the same, and whispering these words in mind, “yeah! I saw that in my dream”.

    • Yes! Absolutely! I loved Jane Eyre–and I know just the passages you are referring to.

      I’ve also experienced what you mentioned before–kind of like precognitive dreams. It can be something simple. For example, I’ll dream of a lion, and the next day I’ll see a special on jungle animals on television. That happens to me all the time!

  45. Pingback: Recurring dreams | Welcome to allaboutwordswa!

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