Economics in Fiction

Your adventurers have just slain the dragon and claimed one hundred thousand gold coins. Your dashing rouge just won a ten million credit blind bet on a splicer bike race. Imagine what they can do with that much cash.

So, what can they do?

The problem with throwing out large sums of money to dazzle the audience, like in the previous examples, is the audience has no clue as to value of these numbers. In a vacuum, all they can be are numbers.

When drafting an economy for a fictional world there are many aspects and intricacies that can flesh out a world or kill the suspension of disbelief.

Take the previous examples. If a single gold coin is enough money to buy the equipment and starter crops for a farm then the heroes can end the wave of starvation in their country. If the dashing rouge’s sci-fi world charges 100,000 credits for a candy bar his winnings don’t draw too much amazement.

If these numbers are to have impact they should come with context.

One of my most used tools to add context is to have a character buy something and show how much it costs. It’s very simplistic but if we know a loaf of bread is $2.00 or a copper coin or 5 bottle caps, we can compare that cost to how much a loaf of bread costs in our world with our most accustomed currency. So long as the scale is preserved the audience can be subliminally taught to make these conversions.

Though trite, it’d be practical to run down the milk, eggs, bread grocery list and say how much each of these cost. A near universal example to use is the six pack.

This is also effective when illustrating the inflation of the time period if your story happens to take place in the past or future of the familiar world. Listen to your grandparents when they complain bringing up how much gas used to cost back in their day. Consider it research so you’ve an excuse not to pry your fillings out with a teaspoon.

Spending ten dollars-worth of quarters in an arcade is much more applicable to the early 80’s and seems like a lot more money than spending ten dollars in an arcade in the early 2000’s. Especially when most of the cabinets moved up from a quarter a game to two quarters.

To create a dynamic economy it helps to know the context for why the price of a loaf of bread is what it is. There could be shortages due to drought or a military campaign that bought up all the available grain. The cost of a bear pelt would fluctuate greatly depending on the number of bears in a given area. Too many bears and the price plummets. Have to ship your pelts over from across an ocean and two sovereign borders, the price skyrockets.

A hands on understanding of buying and selling commodities can greatly aid your knowledge of an economy. Comedian Patton Oswald said something to the effect of, “You can’t write about the real world until you’ve paid rent.” If your protagonist is a struggling farmer it might help to peruse a John Deer catalog and research the costs of grain seeds and livestock fodder.

Then there are the fun considerations of taxes and regulations. I kid but these things can have major impacts on how an economy functions. If a king desires tribute from his provincial governors then they’ll tax the peasantry for their money, food, fabrics, draft animals, what have you. If the government passes a prohibition on alcohol then you’ve got a pretty interesting place to center your story around.

This of course leads to the wonderful, sticky world of black markets and grey economies. (If you don’t know the difference, looking them up would be a good place to start.)

I know I’m going off into the weeds here while simultaneously short-changing the field of economics but I couldn’t hope to cover every aspect of economics in few hundred words as I’m doing now much less with the millions of words it properly deserves. (Setting scale, wink wink.)

As any high school teacher will tell you, economics is the study of choices and there are few better ways to study an economy than with a lunchroom and a few kids trading away the components of their lunches.

A kid can propose the trade of his bag of Doritos for a Bosco stick. The flavor of Doritos would be an important factor in the negotiations as well as if the two Bosco sticks per package come with enough marinara sauce for the both of them.

The value of home brought foods vs. lunchroom foods, the trading power of deserts over any other meal item, the one kid selling belts of rotgut out of a water bottle.

If you want to explore the interconnected nature of an economy, think back to your school days. Or, if you’re still a kid, keep that in mind for your next lunch hour.

P.S. I advise you avoid the kid with the rotgut in his water bottle. Teachers can track that stuff from a mile away.

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