Being a Better Writer: Currency

Welcome to Monday, readers! And to another installment of Being a Better Writer! Where today, we’re going to talk about something worldbuilding related: Money!

Now, those of you who’ve been following things since I announced that Shadow of an Empire would release on June 1st (and you can pre-order it now!) may have caught on that BaBW posts since then have been kind of tied into something to do with Shadow. Which makes things easier on me at the moment, to be sure. But those of you who have may be wondering how currency as a topic ties into Shadow. Well, outside of “Hey ho, I can’t wait until Shadow of an Empire launches and I start making a return on it!” Which, to be perfectly fair, is a 100% reasonable reaction from a content creator. We like to be able to afford rent.

But that aside (Order Shadow of an Empire!), how does currency tie into Shadow? Well, to be perfectly frank, it doesn’t … in any more or less capacity than it would tie into any other book taking place in its own little world.

Let’s step back for a minute. Say you’re writing a … oh, let’s go with the Fantasy genre. So you’re writing a fantasy story, and you’ve got your group of characters out on the road for an adventure or whatever. They come across an inn and stop for the night, expecting to buy dinner and a few rooms. Now, quick pause here: how are they going to pay, and with what?

Well, if your character were having a fantasy adventure in the United States, it’d be with US currency. If they were journeying in the Indrim Empire, they’d need to shell out some Imperial Marks, hard metal coins minted by the empire, or sign a bank writ of sale. If they were in Sheerwater, they’d use reeds—basically metal straws of varying values and make. And if they were at the Leaky Cauldron of Harry Potter fame, they’d need to produce knuts, sickles, and galleons.

The reason I bring this up is because currency is one of those facets of basic life that most take for granted, so much so that it often seems to slip beneath the cracks in a lot of basic worldbuilding (nod your head here if you’ve ever read a book or played a game that’s defaulted to simplified gold, silver, and copper “pieces” without even a name or mention of mint). A lot of novels and worlds simply … skip, I think would be the best term … this aspect of worldbuilding. They go with the aforementioned copper, silver, and gold pieces, because … well, to be perfectly frank, that’s usually the system they know, the one that they’re most familiar with next to whatever they use each day.

Thing is, such a system really isn’t common at all. Oh sure, coinage is, but copper, silver, and gold? It had a heyday, yes … but there have been, throughout history, hundreds of other forms of currency and exchange that have been experimented with, tried, or even used steadily for hundreds of years. Systems using everything from digital, representative money (like much of today’s) to systems using giant stone wheels which never actually moved or went into someone’s purse, but were exchanged in an island-wide system of mental ownership and land debt.

Different? Definitely. And yet, when so many authors and writers sit down to create worlds, they often fall back to something very simple: copper, silver, and gold. Workable, yes, and understandable … but also boring and generic.

Look, currency is one of those things that, like it or not, shapes a lot of our society. How we interact with it, what form it takes, even whether it’s representative or fiat … Money, as some say, makes the world go round. And while that won’t be entirely, 100% true in your story (nor is it in the real world), it does, and should, shape things in your story. Not greatly, but more than many forms of currency do in most modern fiction. Crud, considering how important money is in our day to day lives (working for it, spending it, etc), it’s almost shocking to consider how many books never even address how money works or is exchanged as they go about their adventures. It’s just “someone paid” or “this individual was rich” with never an explanation of how.

Again, I believe if we go that route, we’re doing ourselves, our story, and our readers a disservice. I’m not saying we have to write an economic textbook on how our fictional nation’s economy operates. But when we’re building our world, we should have some idea, even if it’s only lightly hinted at in the story itself. What currency do they use? Why? What are the denominations? How is it exchanged? What’s it based on?

Questions like these? Even answering them in the slightest can give a fictional world a real sense of grounding. Currency is something concrete (perhaps literally) that everyone deals with everyday. If our world is a “character,” then currency helps make them a relatable one because it’s something everyone deals with. Look back to Harry Potter, which in all fairness is an utterly nonsensical system with denominations that make no sense—it really is just one step above “copper, silver, and gold pieces.” And yet, despite that, how many people remember it from the books and can recite from memory what values equal what? And for all its nonsensical values, the story kept them consistent. Which was one part of a world that readers loved. It expanded on it and drew readers in. Plus, for all its strange values, it did fit with the wizarding world’s love of random numbers that seem to serve no purpose … so, consistency?

Currency can also be a worldbuilding tool. Like the reeds currency that I came up with and used for a story involving a nation of griffons (yes, the fantasy creature). They were thin metal straws that could easily be carried while flying, in a variety of rare and common metals. They could be bundled together for easy transport, were lightweight, etc. Basically, they served both as a natural example of a currency a flying race would want (easy to carry and pick up with talons, easy to fly with, and produced a pleasant noise if held correctly while flying) and as an element of distinctiveness for the readers.

They also gave clues as to the current tech base of the world. Which again, gets into the flaws of the whole “gold, silver, copper pieces” system again. For example, with reeds, there were copper, silver, and golden-imprinted reeds … but also other metals, the most valuable being aluminum. Why? Because while aluminum is cheap today, several hundred years ago it was incredibly valuable by virtue of the process needed to create it being incredibly expensive. So this history showed in the values of their currency—aluminum reeds represented a greater value than golden reeds.

Another system I built for the same story (but a different nation) used rings as their primary form of currency, rings with notches in them so that they could be cut for partial payments. Ring pieces could be taken to a bank and exchanged for whole rings, while the partials left behind would be smelted into new rings.

Okay, enough about my systems or other’s systems. The point is that money is unique and memorable, and if you’re going to create a world from scratch for your story, neglecting currency can be as vital an omission as neglecting where a nation gets its food from, or its lumber. It’s a part of the world that your characters will have direct interaction with. Exploring it, therefore, gives your characters roots in that world, and cements them firmly in a more “real” place.

Exploring it also can open up other facets of your story, and sometimes even plot. After all, if you’ve ever seen Die Hard, you’ll know the famous twist that in the end, the entire plot, hostages and all, was simply a cover for a robbery which relied specifically on a type of monetary currency being kept in the building. When building up the how and why of a currency, complete with how it came to be, who backs it, and how it’s spent, we may not only find ample developments for our story’s culture and background (as pointed out above, the currency can reinforce aspects of it, such as with reeds and flying), but also influences for our story as a whole, either from money or not. But even questions such as “How do my characters have money?” or “Where did they earn money” can be valuable.

Crud, for that matter, what’s the value of money for a day-to-day food item? Is the nation/country we’re building one where currency is vastly overinflated? Does it take a full day’s labor to produce two meager meals? Or are luxuries easily affordable?

Crud, what about utility currencies, such as trade? The Metro series, for example, sees pre-war bullets used as the primary currency alongside trade, because pre-war bullets are the best, and everyone wants them, so they’re primary trade (it also came with a unique risk system where to survive the toughest fights, one was usually shooting away “money”). But what other items could your characters value? Water? Food? Fuel? Each of these things can be a valid “currency” depending on the world you’ve established. The Gears of War books established that after the events of E-Day that the former government currency was completely worthless (since the government was basically gone, along with most of the world), but people had begun trading another form of representative currency instead: Food ration slips. Each one entitled the bearer to be able to walk into a military post and lay claim to a set number of food rations specified on the slip in exchange for said slip, and almost immediately people began using them as representative currency (do a difficult job that pays several day’s food rations, then trade one day’s rations for a radio …). Characters in-universe needed to consider that food slips were the only real form of money (next to trade).

I think I’ve about hammered that point home, so let’s step away from showing how it can be influential to your world, and instead talk about how you get there. Because it’s probably best if you don’t just make up some cool names and throw random numbers on them (Harry Potter may be famous, but its economy is utterly insane and ridiculous).

Well … you can probably guess: Research! Do some research about various currencies around the world and how they form! There are hundreds upon thousands of Youtube channels, books, and online articles talking about currency through the ages. Work to gain a basic economic understanding of what backs a currency, how it comes about, and what drives its use! As you study how different nations used money and how it came to be, you’ll start to get ideas for how money could develop and be utilized in your own works.

Now, this doesn’t mean you need to write a treatise on finance … not unless you want to, and it’ll make a good story. And you also don’t need to become a financial expert who could work wall-street either. But you need to know the basics. Once you know the basics, from the formation of currency to investments, interest, and the like, you’ll be able to make better decisions about how such things can come together (or occur) in your own story.

Now, look, I know some of you are probably thinking “Well, or I could just use copper pieces and save myself a lot of trouble.” And sure, you could. Just be aware that by doing so, you may be setting a lower standard for the reader, as well as giving up a fantastic tool for building a more real and developed world for your readers and characters.

Because in the end currency is a tool of worldbuilding and design, something that you pull out of your writer’s toolbox to bring the world to life. One that you should pull out of that toolbox and put to work, because it brings great benefits. Again, look at how many Harry Potter fans can list off the various values of the Potter-verse’s currency because it’s something in the world that readers can grab onto. It’s relateable.

And, quite frankly, more authors should be using it as such. It doesn’t have to be grand, no, or even a large part of your story. But if it’s consistent and it’s there, it’ll serve as just one more piece of groundwork for you readers to stand on. So go ahead and give it to them.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Currency

  1. One of the interesting things to consider when touching on the subject of currency and money and debt is *availability*. Culturally or militarily dominant regions might have ‘cheap’ money, easily found, easily exchanged. Imperial holdings, colonies, and regions under military occupation by not-particularly-friendly (or even nominally beneficent) forces might have severe shortages of coinage, of cash.

    The American colonies prior to the Revolution were systemically and catastrophically drained of specie, for instance. A big part of why the Stamp Act was so enraging was that its (relatively marginal and light) taxes were required to be paid cash-on-the-barrel in proper specie, in coin. *Which the colonials couldn’t get for love, tobacco, or rum*.

    Likewise, the vicissitudes of international or even imperial trade might mean that a region’s only option for currency is the coinage of an enemy power. What little specie the Americas had on hand, were largely Spanish reales, and pieces of eight, and so forth. Pounds sterling? Shillings? You must be joking, Johnny Bull!

    Finally, there are numerous economies where everyone is (in theory) richer than Croesus, but in practice, they’re all in debt to far-away bankers or merchants. This is especially common in resource-extraction economies like the antebellum American South, and Argentina pretty much since there *was* an Argentina. Any interruption to commerce or failure in the economic extraction process could bankrupt a region’s entire ruling class in an eyeblink. And again, the rich bastards in their beautiful slave-tended mansions wouldn’t have a reale in their empty, empty wall-safes. Just piles and piles of paper wealth.

    Liked by 2 people

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