by Victor Salinas
We all depend on the economy. In fact, we—and everything we choose to do and not do—is part of the economy. Fantasy economies are no different.
Fantasy settings surely have methods of economic organization. The serfs working the land for their lord are part of an economy. The nomadic tribes wandering the wastes are part of an economy. And of course, city dwellers trading goods for coin are part of an economy.
I think this is a question often overlooked when writers set out to invent a new setting. Fantasy economies should be given deep consideration. The economic productivity, custom, and conditions all lend great weight to the outcomes of a setting’s inhabitants. And quite naturally, it’s events.
Fantasy economies are integral to creating a convincing fantasy setting.
What Is an Economy?
Put simply, an economy is the sum of all economic activity. It’s the total of all the production and destruction. All the buying and selling. All the choices each inhabitant in a given area of analysis chooses to do or not to do.
An economy is a living thing, albeit an abstract one. It’s just the sum of a group of people’s activities in a certain place over time.
This being said, all real life times, places, and people have economies of one sort or another. Primitive people had a communal economy. Living in small bands, prehistoric people hunted, gathered, and shared among a very small and cohesive group. They established rules and procedures on what was expected of each member. There was little or no “trade” as we know it today. And this sort of arrangement could work as long as everyone knew and trusted everyone else.
As time went on people discovered agriculture and made permanent settlements. A system of barter emerged, first relying on crops as a form of currency. Soon enough there was an abundance of crops, enough that not everyone had to farm. Some people were able to take up other trades: clothes-making, tool-making, pottery, and the like. This way a farmer could concentrate on farming and trade his crops for tools, clothing, and items for the home. Even other kinds of animals and crops he himself did not raise. Likewise those people who were not farmers could trade for the wares they themselves did not produce.
Barter was born. Then came unified media of exchange. “Money,” as we call it today. Monies varied (and vary today) from time to time and place to place. Sea shells, paper notes, cocoa beans, gold and silver coins have all been used as money. The idea of money as a single, unified medium of exchange for any conceivable good, service, or property made modern economies possible.
The world has never looked back. After the advent of money came modern finance (banking, investment, stock exchanges, etc.). This unleashed what became known as the Industrial Revolution. And now, the Information Age.
While the size and scope of economic history is certainly beyond this single article, let us leave it by saying there is much to be understood when it comes to economics. But the basics are simple.
Fantasy economies should be based on these same principles. With a solid understanding of basic economy theory, a writer can build fantasy economies that are real, convincing, and dynamic.
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How Can Fantastical Economic Conditions be Understood?
The very fist step in setting up the outline for fantasy economies is knowing which one fits the desired setting. If the story revolves around a lord and his fiefdoms, naturally, feudalism will be the prevailing economic system. If the story is set in a merchant republic, something akin to mercantilism or modern (and by “modern,” I mean 16th Century) capitalism would fit the bill.
Once this has been selected a bit of reading into the real world economic conditions and prevalent technologies and customs would be needed. A writer should spend some time understanding how people in our own past lived and worked under these various economic systems. You should try to understand social and trade customs, technological constraints, and the types of employment people had.
You’re not going to find a cobbler making shoes for everyday people on a lord’s fief. Likewise, there won’t be enough demand in a Renaissance-style city for even one fitness instructor. Much less two or three.
A writer must understand that the closer a setting’s economic system is to protecting property rights through the law, the more accessible it is to the common person, the more stable the legal and judiciary system are, the availability of a common currency, and the longer such a system has been in place the wealthier the inhabitants will be. The wealthier the inhabitants are, the more they can afford to consume.
Serfs couldn’t afford meat. They subsided on bread and turnips. People living in a technological equivalent of ancient Rome—while rich for their own time—couldn’t buy even a single ounce of aluminum. Because it hadn’t been discovered yet—the technology needed to extract aluminum from boxite ore was many, many centuries and levels of economic development away from happening.
This isn’t to say that fantasy economies can be, well, fantastical. They can and should!
But a writer should first understand how economies really work before he or she can begin to change them to suit the unique and fantastical needs of the setting.
If the story calls for steam-powered technology in a world that is otherwise Medieval in its tech level—explain how that came to be. Is the technology new? If not, why hasn’t it lifted the overall tech level and made people richer yet? Is it somehow restricted? How are the secrets kept? By whom? At what expense?
If a story involves people who subside on foraging and hunting in the wilds they probably shouldn’t have steel weapons and armor. They don’t have enough time to practice metallurgy, much less time to dig up the ores and process them if almost every hour of the day they are scouring the land for food. If they do have access to steel, explain how that is. Did they trade for it? What could they possibly offer of value to someone advanced enough to work steel? Did they take it? How did they overpower their enemies? Can they do it on a consistent basis?
Pondering and successfully answering these types of questions will make fantasy economies more believable and compelling. And that’s what writing is all about.
The Fantasy Economy in Grauwelt
In writing the Grauwelt books, I did a lot of studying. I’ve always been a fan of economics (you may not have yet noticed), but I still wanted to make sure I crossed all my T’s and dotted all my I’s.
I read extensively on Dark Age economics. The economics of manorialism, which saw large enclosures of land overseen by a small group of elites. These manors worked by serfs (slaves, essentially) bound to the land and a handful of highly skilled craftsmen and artisans on retainer to the rulers. A manor could produce everything needed to sustain it from within: food, water, tools, clothing, and even weapons. Trade happened little and was mostly an affair between different manors as a means to keep peace if not necessity.
I used these concepts to craft the economy of the Hundish Realm, the principal setting thus far explored in The Sword and Its Servant (the first installment of the Grauwelt series). The Hundish Realm consists of many lords, barons, and other titled nobles who each rules over his own fiefdom. Needless to say, the relationship between them is anything but friendly. And this serves as a critical driver of the plot.
Fantasy economies deserve their due. Whether you’re writing a short story, a full on novel, a comic, video game, whatever—you need to at least give it some thought. Unless you are intentionally going for a whimsical, less-serious approach (nothing wrong with that) you must infuse your world with many believable qualities.
Economics being one of them. Spend a little time reading about economics. (I promise it won’t hurt too much!) An excellent book for a quick intro into the subject (and a personal favorite of mine) is Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell. It’s just that: basic.
Armed with this new knowledge you’ll be able to create fantasy economies that really spring to life in the minds of your audience!
Victor Salinas is a long-time fan of many fantasy and sci-fi series including the Lord of the Rings, Dune, and Star Wars (his all-time favorite; he dares you to test his knowledge!). He currently lives in the Washington, D.C. area. with his wife, cat Dorado, and giant collection of nerd memorabilia.
Thanks for the post and recommendation on a source for info. Much appreciated. It’s amazing how much research can be involved in writing a story set in a fantasy world.
Great post. Interestingly, the economic situation in my own fantasy world sounds pretty identical to yours, but this has given me a lot to think about going forward as the society changes and develops – a critical part of the plot arc over a number of books.
I think we need vegan surfs to reduce the cost and a crypto currency backed by gold for added security.
Interesting perspectives on past and present economy. It makes me think the blueprints were already printed centuries before regime changes.