Creating & Writing Fictional Organizations

Far too often, writers take the workings and trappings of an organization for granted. They fail to take into account just how much work and effort it would realistically require, resulting in massive plotholes and fridge logic galore. Or they fail to realize how the type of organization they're trying to write would actually be structured or function, resulting in strange and unbelievable scenarios. Or they end up doing things that give audiences the wrong impression of what the organization is supposed to be like. Whether you're trying to create a story that focuses on the members of an organization or whether you're trying to write about people who deal with or work in one, here are some things to know and keep in mind - no matter whether that organization is heroic, villainous, or mixed/neutral.

Always remember that nothing happens by itself or comes out of nowhere.

The first thing to remember about any organization is that they comprise of far more people than the those in charge and the field agents you see out solving mysteries and catching bad guys. Everything you see the main characters doing on-screen would be the result of the efforts of hundreds, if not thousands of people.

Let’s say that we have an elite team armed with the latest and greatest weapons and/or gadgets working for a secretive organization - maybe it’s a government organization geared toward dealing with supervillain types, maybe it’s a crime lab for paranormal/supernatural cases, or maybe it’s a plain ol’ military project. Take your pick.

First, someone somewhere had to design or commission their tools and goodies. Someone else (very likely a committee) had to decide how much money/resources could be spent on the team. If our group wears uniforms or any kind of special working gear issued by its employers, someone had to figure out who to commission them from. If the gear was specially designed for each member, someone had to spend extra time developing it. Someone’s also going to have to service and repair our team’s goodies when they need it.

Let’s say our team operates out of a high-security HQ. Somewhere, someone had to design and plan out security to keep unauthorized people from getting where they aren’t supposed to be. Someone had to train the security personnel, someone had to figure out what to arm them with, and someone had to decide what types of security devices and software to use. Someone had to design the building or buildings and figure out what kinds of designs and materials to use to help keep sensitive areas relatively secure.

And speaking of buildings and electronics, someone’s got to keep the place cleaned and maintained. This means custodians, IT staff, and people to repair any damages incurred to the premises.

If people are likely to be injured, then an infirmary might be in order, staffed with doctors and nurses as necessary. If people are likely to face traumatic scenarios that they won’t be able to talk to regular psychologists about due to the subject matter being classified information, the organization will likely have its own therapists.

Whatever material resources the organizations use (eg, medical or scientific supplies, food, toilet paper, lightbulbs, paper and other office supplies), someone is going to have to be in charge of keeping track of them and making sure the organization stays in stock of whatever it needs.

Somewhere, there are people responsible for the hiring process, which would include background checks, interviewing potential employees, job training, and employee orientation.

And then there’s the paperwork and record-keeping. Records of the organization's employees, activities, and projects will have to be kept and updated as necessary. Anything that involves the movement of money (eg, paying contractors, suppliers, and employees) has to have records attached to it. And speaking of money, there would be people (committees, in fact!) to determine the organization’s budget and decide how much gets spent where and who gets paid how much.

Your own organization may have rather different needs than the ones outlined above - a charity or humanitarian organization probably won’t need heavily-armed and trained security guards, for example. So, let’s move on to the next step...

Figure out the details and structure of your organization.

You need to outline what it is your organization is supposed to do, and how it operates. Based on this, ask yourself what kind of supplies and workers it might need. Another thing to ask is where it gets its money - a government group is going to be funded by tax dollars, but a humanitarian group might rely on donations. Also, how much money does the group have to spend? (If not a precise amount, then something general like “enough to spare,” “adequate,” “could use more,” and “woefully low” can do.) Which parts of the organization get the most funding, and are the people responsible for balancing the budgets spreading the money around efficiently or not?

Does the organization use volunteers? Volunteers need not be paid, but if they aren’t paid for their work they’ll have less time to contribute to the organization’s cause due to having to make their income elsewhere. If the organization uses paid employees, the employees (probably) won’t have to work on the side, but the money to pay them with will have to come from somewhere.

Another thing that just about any organization would need would be lawyers for giving legal advice to the group to help them figure out what they can and can’t legally do, and for defending the organization should it ever have to go to court.

How large and widespread is the organization? If it’s fairly large, it’ll probably have several branches/offices in various locations and most of its members will answer to a local head, rather than the leader/director of the entire organization.

If an organization is managed bureaucratically, its leaders wouldn't be micromanaging the group and interacting with the vast majority of its members personally, but instead delegating responsibility to executive officers, principals, associates, project managers, resources managers, managers, division leaders, assistant managers, and all sorts of other people along the line. The organization could have hundreds of divisions or groups that end up being entirely separate from each other the further down it goes. That means that often by the time you hit the actual field people, they can operate with a large amount of autonomy. While they’re usually obligated by contract to follow the directions that the guys up top hand down, by and far they're left to set and follow their own agendas.

If an organization is fairly large, destroying its headquarters and/or its leader would not destroy the organization, especially if it’s doing some kind of vital work - eg, protecting the nation or world. While the organization might be inconvenienced, it would most probably be set up for fault tolerance, with individual branches able to operate autonomously for the duration it takes to appoint a new leader (most probably the most senior member) and set up a new HQ - which they would be doing immediately. (Go here for a list of ways fault tolerance can work - the article's about villains, but most of the items can go either way.)

Also, in any large organization, there will be just as much, if not more effort put into making sure the organization works properly than effort put into what it’s actually supposed to be working on - so they'll need people to make sure resources are being used properly and that protocols are being followed. (Otherwise, hello corruption!)

And a few other things!

A well-structured organization will have a system to hold leaders accountable for their actions. Absolute authority corrupts absolutely, so a well-structured organization will have provisions and protocols that take this into account. Maybe organization has a code of ethics and conduct that all members, leaders included, are expected to live up to - and should leaders fail to live up to them, they can be reported to a branch empowered to reprimand and/or remove them if necessary. Maybe there are provisions that allow subordinates to relieve their superiors of duty if they are clearly in breach of conduct or are incapable of carrying their duties out. In any case, a well-made organization will have something to make sure that the leadership can't get away with just anything with impunity.

Competent secret and/or illegal organizations should not be dangling clues out for people to find. For example, an underground organization tattooing or branding its agents with its symbol is just setting itself up for trouble - if people find the symbol on someone, they might recognize it and know exactly who this person works for. And that can lead to interrogations and/or investigations.

Fewer fictional organizations should be trying to conscript the unwilling. This is just a good way to shoot themselves in the foot. For a start, it takes time and money (and often a lot of money) to train up anyone new, and that's just when the newbies are trying to cooperate and do the best they can. Those who try to force the unwilling into joining their organization risk wasting all that time and money should they ultimately decide to leave or desert - or worse, sustain even further loss should they decide to wreak revenge. As a general rule, organizations only force the unwilling when they believe that circumstances are truly dire.

Fewer fictional organizations should have perfect unity and perfect compliance. This one pops up far too often, and it's completely unrealistic. If it's a good organization, they'll often be perfectly harmonious (with the possibile exception of a few minor or trivial disagreements) until some evil individual or group comes along to undermine them and members of the good group at odds with each other. If it's an evil organization, the vast majority of its members will be in lockstep with each other, aside from the occasional rebel who either escapes quickly or is swiftly executed.

Now, take a moment to stop and think just how quickly disagreement, divisiveness, and even politics can arise in school or in the workplace. Think about how quickly this kind of thing can happen in other groups, communities, and informal organizations. Now consider that many fictional organizations are muich larger, which means even more people to potentially come into disagreement with each other and to wind up in complicated politics. Also consider that the Catholic Church was unable to stop Martin Luther from founding Protestantism, or Henry VII from founding the Church of England. And the Nazis had the Schwarze Kapelle (Black Orchestra), a group of conspirators (many with high positions) who planned to overthrow Hitler and reclaim Germany. Although they failed, the fact remains that they did exist, and they did try. So in other words, disagreements are inevitable, and mutinies and schisms aren't always preventable.

Audiences' perceptions of any organization are going to be strongly shaped by the first people they see from it. If the first member they see is an uncompromising hardass, many are going to perceive the whole organization as hard and uncompromising until they have a compelling reason to believe otherwise. If the members they see are laughably incompetent or weak, then that's how your audience is going to perceive the whole organization - even if other characters in the story talk about how dangerous and sneaky the organization is. So when you're giving the audience its first encounter with your organization, think about the kind of impression you want to make, and make sure whoever they see behaves accordingly.

These articles might be relevant to your interests:

On Writing & Roleplaying Characters Who Are Good Leader Material
Plotting, Conniving, & Manipulating - What It Isn't, And What It Is
Changing Alignments, Allegiances, & Loyalties More Believably
Creating & Writing Fantasy Armies - Things To Keep In Mind & Consider
Spies: A Few Things Writers & Roleplayers Should Know About Them
Things Writers Need To Know About Security & Concealment

Things To Know When Creating & Developing Fictional Governments
Basic Tips To Create More Believable Sci-Fi & Fantasy Religions & Belief Systems
Things Writers Should Know About Big Businesses
Creating Plausibly Functional & Useful Tools, Gadgets, & Weapons For Fiction
Tips To Write Better & More Believable Cover-Ups

On Designing & Writing Oppressive Governments In Your Fiction
How Good People & Well-Intentioned Groups Can Go Bad
Basic Tips To Write Better & More Despicable Villains
Villain Tips: Of Conquest, Minions, Progress, & Planning

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