Creating an Organization: The Basics

Into every worldbuilder’s life, at some point an organization is going to fall. Sure, they technically don’t have to—with enough contrivance, someone could probably create a world in which everybody is doing their own thing. But who would? Many together can do what one alone can’t, and a group without some sort of agreement on how they’re going to get done what they’re going to get done is more like a gaggle and not very useful. So in pops the organization, whether it’s a thieves’ guild or a police force, a military or a bureaucracy, a spy network or a crowd of revolutionaries. But if you’re going to treat the organization as something that can be manipulated, or have anything that requires the characters to interact with it, it’s necessary to know what it is.

In my riff on organizational manipulation, I talked about people treating the organization like a great big unwieldy individual. The early stages of an attempt to create the organization also do well from this kind of approach, allowing the creator to manage the general anatomy of the organization before going into particulars.

The first step, of course, is the purpose—the heart of the organization, if you will. For what purpose was it originally created? Did it keep that purpose, or evolve into something different as the leadership and members changed over time? Do its leaders claim its purpose to be one thing, while actually planning something else entirely?

The next thing to determine is its capabilities. In organizations of people with similar skills, one of the main capabilities is likely to be the thing that all the members have in common—a police force can (at least theoretically) fight crime, an architects’ guild can design nifty buildings, a spy network can find things out. But along with the necessary skills the individuals can bring to bear, there are the things that an organization can do because it’s an organization. Some of these are a fact about the critical mass of people and resources in one place, like a guild or a corporation being able to amass enough political power to influence the government or to scare competitors off of its turf. Others result from people with different but complementary skills coming together—have you ever seen one of those heist movies where everyone utilizes a different specialty? Then there are the ones that come from how spread out the group is—this usually involves the collection of information and the movement of resources.

How big is the organization? It’s an important facet, not only affecting its capabilities but its reputation and its response time. A larger organization is likely to be able to do more, as there’s a lot more aggregate skill for it to draw from, or cover more territory, but on the other hand it’s often slow or prone to internal conflict. A smaller one usually has more unity of purpose (no guarantees, though) but less oomph.

Last, which of its parts stand for the whole? When people think about the organization, who comes to mind? Most public organizations tend to be represented by either their leaders or their spokespeople, the ones likeliest to be able to speak for the organization with any degree of accuracy and authority. On the other hand, an organization that isn’t supposed to exist or keeps its leader secret might be represented by its standard grunts, as nobody can attach a more specific face to it. Some organizations can hide behind mascots, others will put forward one of their exemplars as a shining display of what they at least request their members to be. It doesn’t have to be an accurate image, but having an image is important.

This much should be able to get you a general idea what sort of organization you’re dealing with. In some cases, particularly when it’s part of the backdrop, you might be able to get away with leaving it at that, but otherwise, the next phase is adding in details.

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