On the Corruption of Fictional Bureaucrats

Corruption. It’s one of those dark things that we like to use to make antagonists out of characters who really don’t seem like the type to go into full-out villainy, pretty much as soon as we step into a setting that screams out “bureaucracy”. They’re evil HR managers, embezzling accountants, stock traders with inside information—they’re hiding in our government settings, our fictional corporations, you name it. They take what the organization claims it’s supposed to do (though honestly, I see far fewer organizations that are actually doing what they’re supposed to do than ones that are almost entirely corrupt officials with a handful of potential heroes to Save the Day).

One of the things I often find myself wondering at is the fact that, while most of us really aren’t willing to accept “because he’s evil, that’s why” as a villain motivation, it doesn’t raise eyebrows that much when someone gives us a bureaucrat whose only real bit of characterization is “he’s corrupt”. I guess corruption is either just that strong, or just that associated with the bureaucratic personality mode, but whichever it is, it annoys the living daylights out of me. Can’t we hold corruption up to the same standards to which we often hold evil? Here are some questions I think it would help to ask.

How is he corrupt? Is this the kind of person who obeys the regulations to the letter, but just happens to be selective about how he interprets any vaguenesses in the letter? Or who dumps all the hard jobs on the subordinates and hand-picks friends and relatives for the high-paying positions (which, coincidentally, don’t tend to get as much of the delegated work)? The kind who’s using the organization for his own ends, or the kind who values the organization over everyone and everything else, particularly those people out there? I could go on—suffice it to say there are a lot of ways to be corrupt.

Why is he corrupt? After all, we’ve got all sorts of people looking for why so-and-so ended up evil. Corruption strikes me as pretty similar. Maybe it’s that they want something—sex, money, power, elephants, you get the idea—though I prefer having some idea what they want that something for, or if they just think it’s some sort of psychological shortcut to contentment. Perhaps they were raised entitled, given chances to be above the rules, and went into adulthood thinking the rules didn’t apply to them (particularly if they never got caught in the first place).

Does it actually work? Though many of the stock fictional corrupt bureaucrats seem to have a gift for lining their pockets with their ill-gotten but often technically permissible if you look at this loophole here gains, not everyone—not even everyone who knows how to hide their tracks—is actually that good at the corruption stuff, whether because their strategy isn’t effective to begin with or because they missed a step somewhere. (I remember one throwaway conversation from Cryoburn in which a character mentions that he took a job because there were supposed to be a lot of bribes in the offing, but he hadn’t gotten any—someone else pointed out that he needed to ask.)

What, if anything, are his limits? While we see many fictional bureaucrats who will do anything as long as they don’t get caught, I find that the opposite works at least as well: a bureaucracy is an excellent place for a troublemaker with a code of conduct. After all, its members are generally the kinds of people who can deal with following a mess of rules and regulations—what often happens with a corrupt bureaucrat is selectively ignoring a small number of said rules, or applying others to situations for which they were not intended. If they follow enough of the rules, they might not even feel that making exceptions for these few is wrong—particularly if they believe that everyone else is doing it. Besides, it’s not going to impede them as much as, say, a thief who is known to not rob a certain demographic might be impeded by that little rule, or an assassin who has people he will not under any circumstances kill. It just means slower returns and a little extra paperwork.

Corruption can be complicated; if you’re going to use it, try at least to give it the same respect you would give other conceptual aspects of a character.


  1. nik says:

    In my economics class*, there was mention sometimes corruption also is a result of a “broken” system. That there is no other cost-effective ways to do business. Example was in India when laws were so protectionist of jobs (you cannot get fired) that it killed businesses.

    Context is pretty important, but also its fun to show players that the world is not Black-and-White. It implores them to dig-deeper because things are not as they seem.

    *Prof Timothy Tailor: America and the New Global Economy 1996-2006.

  2. Ravyn says:

    Excellent point; I’d completely missed that possibility. Thanks, and welcome!

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