IV. Dream Components

Analyzing a dream by breaking it down into four components: images, plot, characters, and setting. Dreams have the following four components: images, plot, characters, and setting. Sometimes useful insights into the nature of dreams can come from analyzing each of these components separately.

IMAGES. Any object that you perceive in a dream is a dream image. Such objects have symbolic meanings. These meanings will be determined by language, cultural traditions, family associations, religious upbringing, and decisive moments of your past.

Most dream images will have meaning for you alone. Hence, the several commonly available dream dictionaries may not be useful. Often, it's best to create your own dream dictionary, simply through close observation of your dreams over time.

Frequently, a dream image can be properly read only in relation to others that surround it. Free association is often a useful way of determining what a dream image or assemblage of such images may mean. By free association I mean asking questions such as: What period of my life does the image remind me of? What was I doing then? What were my aspirations? What problems was I confronting?

Free association can also work as a means of moving from literal interpretations to the more abstract ones that usually underlie a dream's message. For example, you could dream of looking through a telescope. If you were to free associate by asking yourself "What function does a telescope fulfill?" you might say to yourself, "A telescope makes distant objects look larger and closer." The leap from literal to abstract is made at the point of realizing that this is exactly what your dreams will often do with events of the distant past.

PLOT. The flow of events in the dream--its action--constitutes its plot. The plot of a dream can be a metaphor for the stages of a growth process. Plot can also be an organizing device, an indication that everything that occurs within the dream is related to a single topic.

Sometimes, however, the plot of a dream is only a mnemonic device--a way of stringing together several dreams on a variety of topics. It's often easier to remember such dreams as a unit, organized by plot, rather than as discrete entities.

Don't take the plot literally in a dream with many dramatic scene changes. Each scene change represents either a new topic or a new perspective on the dream's overall topic.

Dreams have several ways of organizing themselves by plot. The most common is to replay events of the past day or two. I call these event-driven dreams. The events they replay will rarely be the same as your waking-life memories of them. Incongruities within the dream portrayal of real-life events will often be important clues to the meaning of the dream.

If your dreams seem routine and boring, that too may be a message: your life itself is routine or boring. Or such dreams may reflect a belief that dreams are insignificant, irrelevant, and devoid of interest. Change that belief and you may begin to experience more exciting dreams.

If, however, you've been engaged in some repetitive physical activity, such as typing or driving, to dream of that activity may have no other purpose than to reduce muscle tension and clear the brain. This sort of dream, whose function is that of healing, could be called a body-driven dream.

Another type of dream is one in which there's an exciting plot, a hero in the midst of an adventure. Such an adventure can be anything from a television-like crime drama to a science fiction foray into the environs of another planet. Such dreams, which I call plot-driven, usually deal with concerns larger than everyday ones. They may even reveal aspects of your life purpose, or portions of the soul's master plan for your growth.

The difference between a plot-driven dream and an event-driven dream is that the former usually involves progress on a journey--a definite feeling of having traversed a distance. In such a dream, the amount of physical distance covered will correspond to the amount of emotional distance covered in some growth process.

Event-driven dreams, on the other hand, are more like plays--a succession of scenes that show varying relationships with other people or the aspects of yourself these people represent.

Nightmares are a variation of the plot-driven type of dream. The emotional distance covered is usually represented by a chase--your attempts to avoid confronting something. The purpose of nightmares is to force you to acknowledge and deal with emotions you're ignoring in waking life, such as fear or anger.

There may also be dreams that are not organized around a plot, but rather around images. Such image-driven dreams will have little or no action. Often, they’re best treated as rebuses.

Finally, there are dreams in which you suddenly realize that you’re dreaming--often as a result of noticing an incongruent element or behavior, such as flying through the air. These lucid dreams may grant you the freedom to alter the dream reality at will. One purpose of such dreams is to remind you that you may be more in control of shaping your life than you think.

CHARACTERS. The people in the dream are its characters. Charles identifies eight categories of dream characters, claiming that all the people you see in a dream can be traced to one of them. Each dream character also represents a component of the psyche. The eight dream characters are as follows:

  • Numen: a representation of the soul, often appearing as a wise older person, sometimes as one's parents
  • Soma: a representation of the body consciousness, often appearing as an animal, such as a horse or a dog
  • Witness: the part of you that watches the dream action, sometimes from within the dream itself, often appearing as a neutral observer, sometimes as a teacher or other person who represents memory (my Witness often appears as the curator of archaeology of a museum I worked at in college)
  • Participant: the part of you that acts in the dream--the hero
  • Counterpart: reflections of you in other people, including past, present, and future selves, also your essential selves (those associated with activities that are related to your life purpose or are especially important to you), close friends, people you admire, etc.--this is the largest category of dream character
  • Anima/Animus: a representation of your sexuality, usually taking the form of whatever sort of person you find sexually attractive
  • Shadow: the portion of consciousness that resists the learning required of you by the soul, often represented by a criminal type, an antagonist, a dark or sinister person, a dictator, etc.
  • Delimiter: the portion of consciousness responsible for establishing, maintaining, or dismantling belief systems, or identifying and eliminating problems created by the shadow (what Charles calls shadow logic), often represented by the legal profession, government officials, judges, the police

The thing to remember about the dream characters is that in most cases everyone you see, no matter your relationship in real life, is showing you something about yourself. To figure out what people in a dream represent, it's often useful to attach them to someone you know, or of whom they remind you. Then ask yourself questions about that person's salient characteristics. What about him or her sticks out in your mind? This method can sometimes lead more easily to what people represent than using the dream characters as defined by Charles--especially for the Counterpart figures.

When applying the concept of dream characters, keep asking yourself whether doing so is helping you interpret the dream. My students have sometimes gone through entire dreams identifying each person encountered as one of the dream characters without getting any closer to the dream's meaning.

If this technique doesn't work, try another one. The people in the dream may have functions different from those defined by the dream characters. They may appear only with reference to a pun formed by their names, for example. Or perhaps you need to combine information about what component of the psyche they represent with more personal associations.

SETTING. The environment or landscape of the dream is its setting. Often this will be a reflection of your feelings about the dream's topic, or a mood the dream wishes to point out to you or to comment on. Weather can be an important element of setting the dream's mood. A thunderstorm, for example, could indicate a buildup of anger.

Determining whether a dream is driven by image, plot, characters, or setting--or whether it’s a body-driven or lucid dream--will allow you to take an essential step toward interpreting it properly. Thus, I recommend that after writing down a dream, you make an attempt to categorize it in one of these ways. You may even wish to label the dream according to its type (image-driven, plot-driven, and so on), whether or not you’re able to figure out what it means. Over time, you may discover important clues about the underlying themes or messages of your dreams by comparing those that belong to the same category.