Most speculative fiction worlds seem to skim over currency and miss an opportunity. Usually, in fantasy, the currency is based on one or more types of metal: silver, gold, or platinum. And your classic science fiction fare will have some form of paperless credits or universal currency.
And somehow, most characters seem to have the money they need, or they never run out of supplies. Unless it’s a convenient plot point for a hobbit to be blamed by Gollum of eating all the food; then, of course, there is none left.
In other words, a great opportunity is missed. A creative author can use money as a way to introduce the intricacies of the world they have created. Currency can also shine light on the motives of a character. So long as we stick to the mantra of “show, don’t tell,” economies can serve as much more than background.
1. Political unrest
Imagine a world where a usurper just commandeered control of the kingdom or world where your story takes place. As an indication of his newly established dominion, he mints new currency with his face on the coins and issues an edict that all commerce must be conducted with his coins only.
Those who support the usurper will gladly comply, while those merchants with less than loving feelings toward him will be inclined to continue to accept the “old money.”
Placing your protagonist in the midst of this political intrigue gives you as the author a number of different avenues to travel down as your build your world.
2. Bartering with a twist
This idea is one I would particularly enjoy seeing teased out. Picture a universe where a horse with a lame leg has more value to a merchant than a healthy horse. There are a myriad of reasons this could be the case, each giving you the chance to expand your world. Perhaps the sacred texts of this world include this proverb: “The favor of the gods will shine upon the man who cares for a lame animal, for his heart is pure and worthy of reward.”
This uncommon bartering system would create some particularly memorable scenes in a time travel plotline like Outlander, where your protagonist is not familiar with the world. Your readers would then be able to experience confusion with your main character, which creates further connection with your story.
3. Black market
It would be easy to “play the religion card” again in this scenario. To use an example that could potentially occur in our actual world, consider what the market for hamburgers might look like in India.
But religion is not the only reason a black market might exist–there are so many creative concepts that could be applied here. As just one example, the monarch of a kingdom could be deathly allergic to nuts, so they are banished. But there are certain indigenous tribesmen who still rely upon the sale of brazil nuts. Welcome to the brazil nut black market.
Your protagonist can enter this black market for a variety of reasons, ranging from an insatiable desire for brazil nuts to a need for extra income.
4. In a universe where multiple currencies exist, money exchangers can provide insight into the prejudices that exist amongst the races.
[Warning: I am going to show off my inner Trekkie for just a moment]
Consider for a moment what it would be like for a Romulan in the 24th century to work at a currency exchange for a Klingon world? Try as he might, his strong prejudice against Klingon would come out. This can be brought into the narrative using a short dialogue scene:
“We don’t want to exchange our money now. Let’s wait until Sbardi is working. Like all Romulans, he hates Klingons, and gives a better exchange rate.”
In two sentences, the readers are clued into racial tension, and see how it impacts the protagonist. The possibilities are endless when you introduce money exchange as a component of your universe.
Even though I am a CPA, I know that most would not want to read a treatise on the economic conditions of Diagon Alley. I’m not suggesting the focus on your stories be on the intricacies of how goods are bought and sold.
Instead, I’m pointing out the opportunities that exist in the context of money exchanging hands. Instead of quickly moving over these exchanges, and treating money as a non-entity in the stories you craft, you can add depth and vibrancy to your world.
What other ways could you see currency being used to open up your world to your readers?
Chris Morris is the founder of the creatively named CPA firm Chris Morris CPA, which focuses on helping creatives and other entrepreneurs manage their tax and accounting needs. Because he is a writer himself, and over 1/3 of his clients are writers, he is very familiar with navigating tax laws for this industry. He is a fan of stories with dragons, warp drive, or epic sword fights, though he does not write speculative fiction himself. He also feels very awkward writing about himself in the third person.