Money in Fantasy

How do your characters pay for their bread and salt, cart and pony, and all the other goods and services that populate your world?

If you’re writing a contemporary urban fantasy, you may be able to stick to familiar currencies, as your characters will generally use the same dollars, pounds, yen, or whatever the prevailing system is where your novel takes place.

If you’re writing a general fantasy and you aren’t heavily focused on mercantile endeavors, you can handwave a little of this. A good touchstone may be the gold, silver, and copper system standardized by Wizards of the Coast for Dungeons and Dragons. Unless your characters are very skilled or very wealthy, they will probably only carry copper and silver. Highly educated and specialized characters get gold because they are skilled. People have been reading fantasy and playing D&D long enough to understand that a few coppers will get you drunk, and a silver will get you a meal to go along with that booze.

Then again, you may be the sort of person who thinks “that’s all well and good, but how do I personalize it?”

I have never understood better the value of money in a fantasy world than when I listened to the Kingkiller Chronicles. A good portion of the first book deals with the main character living in or close to abject poverty. As readers, we have to know that there are ten copper jots to a silver talent and there are various pennies scattered throughout made of iron, copper, and silver. Kvothe narrates how much he spends for his meals, his clothes, his tuition at the university, and how deeply he is indebted to his loan shark.

Harry Potter has a currency with clearly defined exchange rates (1 gold galleon = 17 silver sickles, 1 silver sickle = 29 bronze knuts) but their value isn’t always clear. Hermione tips a paper delivery owl with a single knut, a bottle of butterbeer is two sickles, and Harry pays seven galleons for his phoenix feather wand. The prize for the Triwizard tournament is 1000 galleons, which is apparently ample funds to open a joke shop in Diagon Alley and continue research and development of the products that line the shelves. Because it isn’t a major part of the story, we see the money in these terms of relative, rather than absolute value.

In Inkwoven, the currency is loosely based on the copper, silver, and gold piece values in Dungeons and Dragons, but each coin’s denomination is denoted by what kind of gemstone is at the center. Magic is a key part of making the coins, and they are thought to be indestructible for that reason. My protagonist is one of the few people who can break coins apart and salvage the flawless gems in the middle. Because my coins and my magic are intertwined, I show them being used in several different scenarios.

Greed is a powerful motivator, and even small nods to your economy can add a source of conflict for your characters. The best part is that unlike a magic system, you don’t need to put a lot of thought into it for your characters to squabble over the contents of their purses.

That’s All She Wrote! See you next time.