Q&A

How Do I Make an Evil Organization Seem Good at First?

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What are ways of making an evil organization seem good at first? The protagonist of my story starts on the evil side, because she’s been manipulated into it, but I don’t want my readers to know that right away. She doesn’t commit any atrocities in their name – she’s just kind of doing low-level maintenance work – but how do I give the impression that the power she’s working for is benevolent while also foreshadowing that it’s actually evil?

-Robin

Hey Robin, thanks for writing in!

This is a question that plagues many authors. Starting your protagonist off working for the bad guys has a lot of potential for drama, but it’s also a challenge. If the evil is too well hidden, then the reveal may feel like it comes out of nowhere. If the evil is too obvious, readers will wonder how the protagonist didn’t figure it out before.

The first thing to figure out is to what extent the evil organization hides its evil through blatant lies and how much it covers things up in plain sight, as this will determine how you need to characterize the protagonist.

When an organization uses blatant lies, the protagonist has an easy excuse for why they didn’t realize the organization was evil: they were lied to! Awesome Organs Inc. seemed like a great medical company because no one knew the CEO was making evil cyborgs in his private lab! The downside is when an organization uses blatant lies, it can raise questions of how well they could actually get away with it. Big organizations garner a lot of scrutiny, and it’s difficult for them to do anything serious without someone noticing.

If you go with the blatant lies approach, you can foreshadow the reveal by having your protagonist suspect the organization of some lesser crime and then use the lie as a big reveal. Maybe your hero suspects that the CEO is embezzling from the pension fund, so she sets out to investigate, then discovers that most of the company’s revenue actually goes to building cyborg armies that will one day conquer the world.

Alternatively, you can have your evil organization hide its evil in plain sight. They don’t directly lie, at least not a lot, but they downplay what they’re doing and make it seem not that bad. Awesome Organs Inc. isn’t harvesting organs from a helpless rural community; it provides high-quality medical care and recycles unused biomatter! Never mind that the biomatter is unused because Awesome Organs let a patient die from a treatable disease. You might recognize this strategy as it’s one corporations and governments love to use in real life.

Hiding evil in plain sight depends on most people either being apathetic or even wanting to believe the organization’s story. This can be tricky with a protagonist, since if it’s clear to readers what’s happening, they’ll get frustrated that the hero hasn’t figured it out yet. In this case, the best option is usually to present the organization in the best possible light at first, so readers will see it as the protagonist sees it.

In this case, the protagonist might think how excited they are to be working for Awesome Organs’ headquarters – they really believe that the work they do here is helping small rural communities! This kind of extremely bright description of an organization will often give readers a clue that something is amiss without making them frustrated with the hero. Then, you can bring the hero face to face with what’s actually happening and show how seeing the organs harvested makes them realize what they’re doing is evil.

Of course, other people have had this same experience and not turned on Awesome Organs, so you’ll need to show what it is that makes the protagonist different. Maybe she comes from a medical background while most other employees are internally trained. Maybe she’s well connected enough that she thinks she can fight back, whereas other employees are just afraid of losing their livelihood.

You can also use a combination of these two approaches. It’s possible for an organization to hide some of its actions in plain sight while blatantly lying about others. Just keep in mind how much the protagonist actually knows and how they justify it to themselves.

Hope that answers your question!

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Comments

  1. SunlessNick

    What if you show the first dark side act of Awesome Organs without showing it’s because of them? Have a scene where someone dies of a disease, but without mentioning Awesome Organs – then the protagonist later finds mention of the incident along with evidence that Awesome Organs let it happen.

  2. TethyanBooks

    I thought it was done pretty well in a recent Marvel film. The first clue for me was that they kept telling the employee that she was “too emotional”, when she never seemed particularly emotional to me. It seemed weirdly controlling and manipulative for an organization that was supposedly good.

    I think that would be another way–an overreach in trying to control their employees’ perception of the world. For instance, for Awesome Organs, it might be an unusually aggressive employee propaganda campaign in the face of protestors outside the building.

  3. Erich

    If your evil organization is a business or has a front company, corporate structure is your friend. Lots of corporations own multiple businesses that initially seem or are totally unrelated. Bio-Rush, a company that transports organs for transplant recipients has a sterling reputation. They do seem to get a lot of referral business from Commoner Clinics, Inc.; which has a suspiciously high patient mortality rate. Smith Sporting Goods has a bunch of stores that sell a lot of guns in high crime areas. All of these could be part of the same parent corporation.

    • Cay Reet

      And High Health Inc. is great at finding an organ match for people who have just the right amount of money in their pockets, so it does have a good name.

    • Dinwar

      There’s also corporate procedures. “In there? Nah, you need to go through Training Modules X, Y, and Z to go in there, and then a three-month probationary period and a two-week background check and fingerprinting and it’s a whole thing.” Anyone who’s worked with anything associated with DoD will find it 100% believable. Maybe have a few non-disclosure agreements and do-not-compete clauses tossed into their contract–enough that it causes the character to ask questions, but not enough that anyone with experience on secure projects questions it.

      • Leahann

        Good advice based on fact.

  4. Adam Reynolds

    While much of this discussion is about corporations, which I suspect is also in the question, I think this is easier with a corrupt government because governments naturally have an assumption of legitimacy. Legend by Marie Liu did something largely similar to this with one of her characters.

  5. Harold Finch

    Another way to hide your organization’s misdeeds is to use a press manipulation technique. CS Lewis uses this to great effect in a book of his called That Hideous Strength. The evil organization in question, the NICE, bought out newspapers from both sides of the political spectrum in order to have backlash against the organization written up as right racket in the left papers and left racket in the right papers. This influenced politicians to rubber stamp and approve potentially questionable acts as fully legitimate in order to avoid potential political backlash, as well as making all of the people complaining about the NICE’s misdeeds seem like crackpots. Our current information and news system actually makes this easier since social media and clickbait news allows misinformation to travel fast–as well as cementing said misinformation as fact. Reputation management is important in this case, so forshadowing by displaying dispicable acts, then downplaying it in the media as political mudflinging or the ranting of people with no reliability, as well as a more-than-present PR department, and it is not too obvious your organization is evil (after all, a terrorist would say bad things about a good company. . .) but there is reason to suspect that something is up.

  6. TheVarulfen

    To be evil, the organization doesn’t have to have the goal to “control the world” or “destroy the order”. They can actually try to better the world and help humanity to progress, only the way the top dogs envision progress is a bit off.
    By claiming to help people (and actually doing that), they establish a reputation and from there on, their actions become more extreme and focused on their own goals rather than what people would want (think: Kuvira in Legend of Korra or the Technocracy in Mage: The Ascension).

    The protagonist works for the organization because they think they’re doing the right thing. Only when actually carrying out orders something’s feeling off. People don’t always want help. Sometimes, you have to harm innocents for the greater good. By imposing their (maybe flawed) ideology on others with violence, lies and deceit the organization shows their true colors.

  7. Jenn H

    The organisation might be full of genuinely good people and doing good work. It is only the executives and those involved in the secret projects who know about the evil going on. The character might be promoted into a position where they notice something is wrong for the first time. Or working in maintenance means she stumbles into the evil plan during the course of her work. If the company does a lot of genuine good (or is maybe the only big employer in town), it will make it harder for her to convince everyone else of the evil and get them to act on it.

  8. Dinwar

    You can also play with the definitions of “good” and “evil”. We tend to think of these in pretty binary terms in fantasy, but the reality can be very nuanced. The cartoon (old) version of “The Lorax” actually has a pretty good scene about this: The Lorax is arguing with the Onceler, pointing out the ecological damage he’s causing. the Onceler comes back and points out that without the employment, many people working for him would go hungry. Sure, everyone sides with the Lorax–but it’s not a simple issue, and those who side with the Lorax are not permitted to pretend there’s no consequences.

    You don’t have to make the organization “lights puppies on fire for fun” levels of evil to create deep conflict; you just have to have the organization violate the main character’s moral code. Say, the company is a biotech firm. The main character realizes, eventually, that they get their material from fertility clinics–fertilized eggs that the prospective parents don’t want. Give the main character a background that includes parental abandonment, and you have some DEEP conflict, without either side being evil.

    That’s just an example. In a futuristic setting the options are less limited–say, a company that appears to exploit an alien species, but the aliens actually LIKE working for the company (give them a different biology/physiology and you can have all sorts of fun with this). Or: The company is exploiting a planet, but the star’s about to go nova anyway so in a hundred years it’s not going to matter.

  9. Erynus

    Another approach is the “Blood Knight” where an actual good organization can cross the line being too serious about enforcing the good.
    Like anti terrorist task force that let their operatives to torture prisoners “for the greater good”. I think it is a good approach because…

    NOBODY EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION!!

    • Cay Reet

      I definitely didn’t see this coming.

    • Leon

      Have the Mythcreants people defined where interrogation ends and torture begins?

      Obviously this is somewhat dependent on person being questioned, but it would help to have at least a vague idea of where the threshold is.

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