Levels of Autonomy and Control

(Note: While I mention ‘the controller’ here as well as the subject, it is the subject’s mind, and its levels of autonomy vs. control, that are the topic. Also, note that the controller does not have to be a person. The controller is who or whatever has produced this effect on the subject’s mind. It could be a drug, or wild magic, or nanites, or another part (not the consciousness part) of the subject’s own mind, etc).

Given a subject, a type of control, etc, the amount of control vs. autonomy in question has two axes. First, levels of control and autonomy, and second, extent and range of control.


-First axis-

(I’m numbering levels of control and autonomy from 0-4 by increasing control.

4: Total control, no autonomy:

  • The controller has taken over the subject completely. They manipulate their body as though it were their own. The subject could be aware, or unconscious, or anything else, but they might as well not be there at all. The controller can change anything in the subject’s mind at will. (Note: in fiction, the two parts of this tend to be separate powers and often don’t appear at the same time. However, if you’re controlling someone’s body and it’s not telekinesis, then you’re inside their brain, and if you’re inside someone’s brain, then the part that controls the muscles is there too, so while a particular character’s power might be limited in scope, this is still the same kind of thing).

3: Simon-says:

  • Obedience to specific orders. The order is processed by the subject’s existing ‘systems’ (knowledge, abilities, etc) and fulfilled accordingly, with no room for consideration or choice. If the order cannot be processed or fulfilled, it returns failure it one way or another (not doing anything, reporting the inability, etc). So, if the command is ‘turn into a bear’, and this is something the subject can do, they will. If it isn’t, they won’t. If the command is ‘принеси мне лопату’ and the subject understands Russian, they will bring a shovel. If they don’t understand, they won’t. The option to ask ‘will dressing up in a bear costume work’ or to decide they should go look for a Russian-English dictionary does not exist.

2: Goals:

  • Obedience to fulfilling provided goals. Here, the subject does have the autonomy to consciously consider the goal, decide how to best achieve it, seek out resources in fulfilling it, try multiple methods if the first one doesn’t work, etc. The subject could be told “I need my apartment cleaned by the time I get home” or “make sure everyone in this room is dead”, and could asses the situation and decide whether it would work best to clean the apartment themselves or call a service, or whether the current situation calls for releasing poison gas into the room, for an assault rifle, or for shutting off the lights and dropping through a vent with night vision goggles and a knife.

1: Drive:

  • The subject has a guiding objective, but this objective can be open to interpretation, and the subject has enough autonomy to do this interpretation in their own way. For instance, if the subject’s guiding drive is ‘do what is best for person X’, and this person is planning a murder, the subject might decide that it would be best to help them, since this is what they want, or that it would be best to prevent them so that they don’t risk getting caught and imprisoned. ‘Make the world a better place’ could similarly be interpreted as all sorts of things, from ‘try to live with kindness and love’ to ‘destroy humanity because they are bad for the environment’.

0: No control:

  • The subject has total autonomy, and their purposes, goals, actions, feelings, etc, are all completely their own.

Tracking it the other way, a person at 0 has autonomy over their ultimate purpose, their specific goals, their individual actions, and their physical selves. For a person at 1, their ultimate purpose comes from the controller, but they have autonomy over their specific goals, individual actions, and physical selves. For a person at 2, their specific goals come from the controller, but they have autonomy over their individual actions and physical selves. For a person at 3, their individual actions come from the controller, but they have autonomy over their physical selves. A person at 4 has no autonomy, and their physical self is also under the control of the controller.


-Second axis-

This has to do with how much of the subject’s time is spend under the given level of control, and what if anything happens the rest of the time.

Sometimes, the subject is under the given level of control all the time. For 1, this means that they are constantly focused on their purpose. For 2, 3, and 4 this means that if no control/orders/goals are being provided, they are doing nothing.

Other times, the subject might instead sometimes move to one of the lower levels of control. This could be level zero – for instance, the subject might go about their normal lives at all times except when the controller gives them an order, at which point they carry it out. It could also be one of the other levels.

A fairly common thing in stories tends to be moving incrementally from 3 to 1 when each higher level of control is not active. So, for instance, the Sovereign of Mindlandia might have a servant. This servant obeys any order when they are given one (‘bring me my sword’). When there is no current order, they instead work on any tasks they have been given (‘find these people who have been plotting against me and have them arrested’). When they are not working on tasks, they have a general purpose (‘help the Sovereign achieve their aims and desires’).


So, there’s my organization for this. I’ve used it to analyze several stories and get a better idea of how some of my characters work.

Anyone have thoughts?

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