While the Beatles proclaimed that money couldn’t buy me love, this hasn’t stopped anyone trying. Love, or at least a moment of endorphin rush when you make a purchase. So? I really needed that plush rainbow-coloured cat wielding a light sabre.

Money is a complicated subject because not only is it a practical one, in that we don’t need to carry a cow to market to swap for beans, it is an emotional one – much of the world works all their lives to survive, dreaming of a holiday or unfortunately sometimes even a full belly or secure housing. Spending habits are often dictated by your childhood – if you grow up poor do you clutch every cent, or buy status items that prove you will never be poor again? Or a rich childhood – do you value money you never sweated for? Or know the price of eating cake?

It is equally complicated in fiction. Some books can get away with not mentioning coin specifically, but none can avoid the concept of status, so it is worth thinking about how money flows in the book.

Historical fiction needs research to get the coinage terms right, including any slang terms. Then it gets complicated. What does a peasant earn or a serving girl? Is £10,000/year really enough to maintain Pemberley and all the servants? How did inheritance laws affect young women – or indeed young men? What happens when the rich lose it all – Apicius the Roman cookbook writer famously suicided when down to his last one million denari because he could not maintain his status. Little House on the Prairie had Ma spending 10c on candy and excusing her extravagance on their first train journey. 

Fantasy perhaps has an easier time. Authors can use the term coin, and maybe differentiate gold/silver or copper and be done with it. Yet the pursuit of coin can move the plot along nicely. Conan as an impoverished youth turns to theft, and the coin he steals ends up spent in taverns for further adventures. Or does the lone venturer take employment as a mercenary? Or is the kingdom bewitched by the hoarding of gold – dwarves are traditionally slightly obsessed with it. How much easier is it to survive in a fantasy world with money?

Romance is an interesting one. There are so many billionaire romances that the concept of power is certainly involved. Money, a powerful position, and expensive clothes make for a pheromone charged allure for some. Of course, there is the ease factor – its harder to romance someone when you can only take them to a cheap restaurant instead of a trip to the Bahamas on your jet. However, its still a vastly unequal exchange, and while it sounds pleasant enough, the inequality will linger in the long term. What will the billionaire want for the gift of jewels? Is the heroine willing to pay the price?

Science fiction is an area that while you are inventing the financial system if you want too, it is quite often secondary to the action or characters. Fair enough. A system of universal credits, or a Star Trek where people work for the good of society is certainly possible. What would be the universal standard exchange? A bar of latinum equals what? Whatever the Ferengi will trade for it? Or merchant ships visiting new planets- Andre Norton did very well on this with a well thought out and described barter system and the worth of items discussed in many of her trader novels. But the lust for wealth that drives people now – will it survive into the future?

So a practical item that you can carry in a pocket or card can represent human emotions and drive whatever the setting. It must have been really difficult to explain the concept of money at first – how does the same few coins equal items as diverse as a cow, a sword, or a night of negotiable affection? But it certainly took off and became the driving force of most societies.  

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World Building: Money