Writing Advice

Help for Authors and Writers

The Craft of Writing: Showing a Character Being Controlled

How do you show a character who is possessed, mind-controlled, or otherwise being influenced by outside forces?

Controlled by a puppetmaster, enslaved by sinister forces, mind-controlled, under the influence of an alien parasite...how do you show a character who is not in control of their actions? The easiest thing you as a writer can do is write from inside the character’s head, showing the character’s experience. Let the reader sit behind the character’s eyes.

There are countless ways to do this, but they all center on allowing the reader to experience the character’s confusion and helplessness as the character does.

Here’s how Eunice and I handled this exact situation in our urban fantasy:

“The car’s waiting. This way.” He led her on toward the corner, where a long black car with a distinctly American shape had just pulled up to the curb.

“Listen, I don’t think—” May said.

A dark form bolted across the street, under the black car, directly toward May and her nameless suitor. “Oh, hey, that’s weird!” May said. “I keep seeing that cat everywhere I go.”

Her companion froze. May felt him tense, every muscle in his body going stiff. The cat ran straight at them, ears flattened, tail bushy. Her suitor yanked his arm free. May stared at him in shock. His face reddened, suffused with rage. A vein pulsed in the side of his neck. His hands balled into fists. “What—” May said.

“Get in the car.”

“You’re scaring me!”

He glared at her, a dark and sinister look in his eye. “Get.” The word hit her like a slap. “In.” He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a compact metal rod. “The.” As he flicked his wrist, the rod telescoped into a baton of spring steel with a heavy triangular weight on the end. “Car!”

May took a step forward. The cat yowled. She looked around wildly. Across the street, a camera high on a phone pole swivelled away with a whirr. She took another step forward. The cat launched itself like a rocket at her would-be lover’s face. The baton flashed through the air. Another step. May watched herself reach for the door handle. She locked eyes with the driver, and realised the steering wheel was on the wrong side.

She pressed the button on the handle, curiously unable to control her body. The door opened, hinging outward from the rear. “This isn’t an Uber,” she heard herself say, the words coming from some great distance away.

Time slowed. May fought to stop herself, but her body didn’t belong to her. She watched herself swing the door wide, watched herself climb into the vast back seat, arms and legs moving like clockwork automata, beyond her control. She drifted in a dream, feeling soft cushions against her skin. The driver turned with glacial slowness to look at her, a grin of triumph spreading across his face. He shifted the massive car into gear, still moving with that uncanny stop-motion slowness. Abruptly, May found herself once more in control of her body. She kept moving, sliding across acres of white leather-covered seat, fingers already searching for the door latch on the other side.

The latch yielded with a solid mechanical clunk. The heavy door swung wide. May kept sliding in one smooth movement. Her foot caught the transmission hump as she flung herself out of the car and tumbled onto the road. She threw out her arm, turning the fall into a roll.

The moment her skin made contact with hard asphalt, the spell shattered. The world sped up around her. She rolled to her feet and was already running before the driver could react.

Shouts rose in her wake as she fled. From somewhere behind her, she heard the driver’s door open and slam shut. “Hey! Hey, you! Get back here!”

May staggered across the street into the oncoming traffic. A car breezed by, so close she could feel the air in its wake. The driver leaned on his horn. She kicked off her heels. They crunched beneath the wheels of another car travelling in the opposite direction.

“Hey! Stop! Get back here!”

Adrenaline jolted her. May fled, pavement cold and hard beneath her stockinged feet, heedless of rocks or broken glass in her path. She cut diagonally across the corner, grateful that few people braved the club scene on a Monday night. Pounding feet closed on her. She threw herself forward with desperate speed, flashing past a startled couple walking hand in hand. A silver Hyundai screeched to a stop in front of her, so abruptly she had to stop herself from smashing into it, arms flailing. The door opened. “Get in!” Janet said.

May stopped short, risking a brief glance around her, aware of every millisecond burning by. “Why should I trust you?”

“We’re not trying to grab you off the street.”

May squinted. Dia sat in the driver’s seat, hands tight on the wheel, expression grim. “What about Spencer? The man who tried to grab me—“

“Spencer’s fine,” Janet said. “We’re out of time.”

“Hey! Hey!” The driver May had half-glimpsed bore down on her like a train, his face red with rage.

May tensed. Janet held up her hand. Electricity crackled in a tingling sheet across May’s skin. The driver pounded by, close enough for May to smell stale sweat from his skin. “What—“ May said.

“There’s no time,” Janet said. “That won’t fool him long. He’ll be back in a second.”

May pulled out her phone and thumbed the camera button. She took a quick shot of Janet’s startled face, then another of the car’s licence plate, before she opened the back door and climbed in. Dia turned to look over her shoulder. “What are you doing?”

May snapped another photo. Her fingers danced across the phone’s screen. “Sending your info to my friends.” Heart pounding, she hit the Send button. The phone chirped. “If I don’t call them back in an hour, they’ll send your faces and licence plate on to the police.”

“Nice!” Dia pulled into traffic. “Smart thinking. I’m impressed.”
When you put the reader behind the character’s eyes, you can make the reader feel the character’s helplessness and surprise. You can not just describe the character’s actions, but bring the reader along, show the reader what the character is feeling.