When they happen, nightmares can be anything from a terrible experience to a nuisance that can be settled with a warm cup of tea or chocolate. And while they harp on our peace of mind and our precious time asleep, the general consensus among psychologists is that, if it isn't stemming from having gorged yourself in food or some other physical issue, a nightmare can be a good thing for you.
And when it comes to stories, characters' nightmares can be not just a good thing for you, but an invaluable tool to key your audience in to information about a character's state of mind and emotional situation that otherwise would be hard or even impossible to display (especially if a character is very stoic and likely to not manifest what he/she is thinking or feeling in behavior or dialogue).
A nightmare is generally a dream where a person's anxieties, fears and preoccupations are illustrated in various manners. They can be very abstract and simply convey emotion, or they can be extremely concrete and specific, with a direct display of what is troubling the person or a symbolic one- or a mix of both. Nightmares tend to also give motivation, either consciously or subconsciously via the emotional stimulation they provide, and which the person is likely to seek to avoid in some manner.
Knowing this, you can use a nightmare as your canvas to paint for your audience a bright illustration of exactly what your character's headspace is, and what it is they're grappling with. And because nightmares are dreams, and dreams can swing in any direction and follow no rules, you can go rampant artistically and break any and every law you're following in terms of your webcomic's style or color palette or layouts. The result is often very powerful, and tends to stay with your audience with regards to the character and his interactions with the rest of your cast.
What are the possible benefits of using a nightmare to convey any of the above elements?
1. It can increase the emotional engagement of your audience
A nightmare can make a character appear more sympathetic, as it is a form of torture, and we tend to want to help torture stop for any character that we feel may not deserve it. It also enriches the audience's intimacy with the character (since they now are privy to his/her dreams) and again, intimacy tends to make a character more sympathetic.
On the occurence that the character having the nightmare is an antagonist and/or villain, the nightmare may not make them more sympathetic, but it might either offer deeper understanding of why the character is as he is OR it might give catharsis- the knowledge that the Erinnyes have snagged their rightful victim through the dreams. Whatever the case might be, it's still emotional engagement, and your story benefits.
2. Your character can be forced to react to whatever the nightmare is about
Often when we're intimidated in any way by an issue, a person or a situation, we tend to avoid it. Characters are no different. And if they are subtle enough or nuanced enough, they might do it very smoothly in their interactions with the rest of the cast. The audience often picks up on this, but it's not necessary that they understand why or to what extent the character is intimidated by whatever he/she's avoiding.
A nightmare might be a handy tool to explain this to the audience without disturbing the character's waking temperament and countenance or forcing him/her to have reactions or interactions with the cast before it's time of them to do so (or at all).
3. It can give your character a jumpstart in emotional development
A character that experiences a nightmare, might react to it in waking as well as while dreaming: a nightmare can offer a character a means to evolve emotionally or even cognitively, help them make choices or rethink their approach to matters at hand. This isn't necessarily a development for the better- it could be for the worse, if the nightmare simply overwhelms them and pushes them in the wrong direction (in a story arc where they need to overcome said fear).
Whatever the case, it can push your character to do things. And that's what we need to keep both the plot and the characters dynamic.
One word of caution- the nightmare tool must be used very sparingly, so as to maintain its impact on the audience. Often, a nightmare sequence only happens once in the entire story, with the exception when a nightmare is recurring, whereupon the slight changes in the nightmare signify the point in the emotional journey where the character is (usually, successful completion of the journey manifests with the recurring nightmare disappearing).
Have you ever used a nightmare in your stories? Why or why not?
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Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, March 30, 2019
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