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?
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!