It’s easy to navigate business in stories set in our world. But with fantasy, we have to create whole new worlds from scratch. This means we’re responsible for making fantasy currency and economies that suspend disbelief by being functional.
Below are tips for doing just that.
1. Set a Believable Fantasy Currency
Most works of fantasy need to have a fixed currency. Coming up with a name for your currency is the simpler part. Call it tea leaves, if you wish.
The important part is to set this currency at a believable rate.
If a beer in your story costs 1,000 tea leaves, the reader would call out your bluff. Give the basic unit of currency some purchasing power for everyday goods. No one wants to carry around hundreds of coins or other such items.
Also, real world currencies generally deal in powers of 10. So a fantasy beer costing 10 tea leaves would make much more sense in the reader’s mind.
2. Add Taxes
Oh, yes, the most dreaded economical subject of all time must be added to your story.
Because no government or leadership can exist without some kind of tax or tariff. Even a lawless land of pirates would have tributes.
Taxes add a lot of pressure in real life and they can spike the believable stakes of your fantasy’s solid economic structure.
If you jack the taxes up to an ungodly price, this can drive home the position of a tyrant in your kingdom. If the taxes are uncommonly low, this can show how benevolent your queen truly is. Give your story an edge that everyone can relate to. Taxes are the economical way to do this.
3. Kingdom Debt
Trying to sell a realistic dystopia? A country in severe debt is a country in severe crisis. Show all the ugly little undertones to make a maximum impact on your readers. The power play and general stress are delicious extra components of your story.
On the other hand, if you want to portray a hale and hearty kingdom, make it relatively debt free. And if you want to mark a kingdom as truly affluent, have it lend money to other kingdoms.
In real world economics, some products are simply hard to come by. In a land of treachery, magic, and overt intrigue this scarcity will only be exaggerated.
Is fantasy currency itself hard to come by, or is it specific products like salt, meat, metal, wood, or even magic itself?
Make the scarce resource have some impact on the story and watch the stakes skyrocket for your readers.
(But do be cautious with the obvious trope of desperately needing the one scarce element to save the day.)
5. Social Status
Let’s face it: in a fantasy regime (or pretty much anywhere), there will always be the haves and the have-nots. Queens and dukes will be rolling in dough. Paupers and hustlers will have to toil at archaic- or magical-world jobs to get by.
Money is power, even with fantasy currency.
6. A Job is a Job is a Medieval Job
In a low-tech fantasy world, your characters are going to run up against some historical vocations at some point. Get a good sense of these.
In the European Medieval culture, for example, jobs were highly focused in nature. Town farmers, bee keepers, tavern keepers, and gardeners filled the countryside. Blacksmiths were the engineers of the day. Sheriffs were appointed to oversee the life of large plantations.
You can borrow from diverse subjects to add color to your world. Don’t restrict yourself to Medieval Europe. For example, the parallel of the European Renaissance in Japan was called Sengoku Jidai — War of Feuding States — in which samurai village owners fought constantly over the economic plantations.
7. Study Other Works
Always feel free to study other fictional works for ideas. For example, in Star Wars, the fantasy currency of choice is called Imperial credits, and costs for basic machine parts and food reach astronomical height. This adds a lot of tension for struggling protagonists like Han Solo and Rey.
Some would argue that The Lord of the Rings was a sociopolitical/economic crisis in which the magic rings were the currency of the realm, and the economy was divided into racial castes. These resources, or the lack thereof, caused a massive amount of duress to the characters in the plot. Scarcity, such as the One Ring, was one of the main driving forces behind the plot.
It seems as if everyone references these famous works. There are still many other works within your genre awaiting research. Consider lesser known works like Eragon and the integral purpose of dragons and their eggs within it.
Even borrowing from fiction set in our own world could be beneficial. For example, consider a privateer company whose purpose is to hunt and capture water dragons, and its struggle to defeat the sea-dragon king. That’s Moby Dick retold, ladies and gents.
8. Don’t Make It Too Easy
Some fantasy works make resources too easy to come by. Remember what your parents told you: magical gems don’t grow on trees. By making resources too easy to acquire, you miss out on the chance to add conflict to the plot.
Make your characters sweat for resources. In real life, setbacks are standard procedure. Highs stakes don’t just come from villains. Sometimes they’re just circumstantial. Real starvation happens here, as does a real lack of funds. Ours is a brutal world full of opportunity and danger. Capture this in all its glory in your fantasy setting.
9. Don’t Make It Too Hard
Don’t start swallowing camels and choking on gnats, either. Unless the plot of your story is economy-centric, there is no need to make the economic stakes too extreme. Your fantasy economy only needs to add enough tug and pull to make its presence believable.
10. Make It Fun
Economics is like politics and pulling teeth. Few people truly enjoy the subject, probably because of the stress involved. You can still have fun talking about this aspect of world-building. Make fun of the real world and all its negative problems. Live vicariously through your ridiculously wealthy characters. Beat poverty and circumstances without getting out of your chair.