This is the writer’s journey, the deeper we dig into our characters, the more we are able to unmask monsters of our own.
A cardboard cradle inhabits my character’s dream.
Cardboard rockers, cardboard corners fitted by torn slots.
A cradle that’s dwelt in its dream house for years,
rockers stilled on bare hardwood, gathering dust. Staled
by air it reeks like only old cardboard can, a scritch-scratch-scritch
from inside as if tiny claws or limbs scrabble to climb out.
A top has been fitted loosely on the cardboard cradle,
and the whole thing might be cleverly, or crudely made
to keep that crawling thing in or allow its escape.
Who knows? We’re always left to ponder,
paused in the trap of our nightly hallucinations,
questions such as these.
Not the best poetry, but dreams are useful things for writers. You might have noticed this is my character’s dream. And I’m using it to uncover something about her.
We’ve all heard the stories, inspiration for Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web came to E. B. White through his dreams. A gift that has also come to singers, scientists and artists of all kinds. But this exercise is a bit different, this is about deepening your characters by letting them dream.
A friend of mine who studies Jungian psychology tells me the best way to understand a dream is to ask yourself what each element represents of you. In other words, you are not just the dreamer, but the cradle, the bed, the walls, the floor, and yes, the creepy creature trying to get out. What about your character? What does she dream? What images belong to her at night? How do they manifest and illuminate her deepest fears and desires? If each element represents her, what does this dream say about her?
Like the poem suggests, our dreams are nightly hallucinations, necessary to our psyche’s balance during the day. Which means your character’s dreams are full of telling details. Especially when her dreams turn, as ours do, from pleasure to torture, and express daytime tension and conflict as nightmares.
A word about disturbing dreams. My dream expert says that when you’re being chased in a dream, or otherwise overwhelmed by some dream villain, Jungian theory holds you should stop running, turn and confront the monster. This is how we discover what’s behind the monster curtain, because standing up to it reveals it for what it really is. And when it’s revealed, it loses power.
How like the hero’s journey this is. When your character uses her new tools to return to the fray, suck it up and confront the villain, she’s really confronting her own deepest fears. In other words, the real monster is not the physical thing, the villain, but the fear in the hero that she must overcome to face the villain. And how a character grapples with this fear throughout the story creates her emotional arc. You can use your character’s dreams to help you uncover and strengthen this arc.
I like doing this in free form poetry, present tense, but to relax your critical mind you might also try writing or drawing a character’s dream with your non-dominate hand.
Your character’s dreams may not always show up in your final manuscript, but they can help your character show up. A casual observer might not see it, but for me, the dream analysis below revealed what I’d been missing about my character’s inability to connect with others, that she’s a foster child.
Digging Down the Dream
If I am the cradle I have held up as such
through years of dust and disinterest.
If I am the room I have good, solid floors,
but my walls are plain and stark.
If I am the bed I feel empty and bare,
barely slept in. If I am the dreamer
I am puzzled and wry, lucidly dreaming
myself. If I am the creature
inside the cradle I am trapped
of my own accord.