This is the first of a series of posts that will discuss the role of money in a fantasy and science fiction setting. It’s not about everything that concerns money but how it is, and might be, used in the context of a story.
In a story we want as much verisimilitude as possible within the context of the setting. One aspect that crops up over and over again is the role of money. You probably know the scene: The character goes into an inn or a bar and buys a drink or a meal. Note the concept of buying here since there is an exchange of something (money?) for something else (a drink and a meal in this instance).
Of course, when writing such a scene we’re interested in providing context and getting the reader to buy into the world that the character inhabits. The usual solution is for the character to whip out their purse and hand over some dosh, money, cash, coins, credit card, electronic wallet or whatnot.
In the real world, money is useful and as any good economics textbook will tell you it fulfils a number of useful economic functions. Mirroring these in a story helps to add small but convincing details that aid the reader to relate to what’s happening on the page. Or in some instances is central to the way the plot works.
So money matters!
So what does it do?
First, money is a store of value.
Our budding character needs to be able to achieve things (hopefully great things). One thing they could do is to work for that luscious lunch at the inn by chopping wood or washing the dishes. Getting them to do this won’t really progress the story if the purpose of having the character stop at the inn is for them to take the next step in the plot (for instance, think of the scene in LOTR set in the Prancing Pony in Bree). So loading up the character with some “value” they can exchange for goods and services speeds up the story a lot. In this context, it provides a latent resource that can be deployed in any way necessary for the plot.
In this context, it’s useful to consider how this money is being carried around, which will be the subject of a later post.
Next, money is a medium of exchange.
With some value hanging from a purse or embedded in a piece of plastic, the character can satisfy their wants up to the amount they have available.
There’s a good reason money is useful as a medium of exchange. Without it, matching one want (in our example, the meal) with the want of the provider (the publican who may be seeking the ingredients, or the rent, or whatever) is very difficult. Only in the highly unlikely coincidence of a match of wants will the transaction take place. (Would the innkeeper really need their dishes washed or wood chopped? Or do they have other more pressing wants?)
Given the multitude of wants by both parties finding a concordance will stretch the credulity of the reader. Given the reader’s priors they are unlikely to see such a happy coincidence as realistic. Consequently introducing money, which can be used for any want, provides the passport to satisfying both sides while also keeping the reader on board.
Note we’ll look at the basis of money, denominations, coinage, and electronic money in future posts.
Finally, money is a unit of account.
We all know that – to use the U.S. dollar as an example–a quarter is less than a dollar. We instinctively know that if something costs a quarter then it has less value than something costing a dollar.
In this regard, money provides a common measure of the value of goods and services being exchanged. Knowing how much something costs in terms of money enables the purchaser (our meal wanting character) and the supplier (our innkeeper) to make decisions about how much of the good to purchase and how much to supply.
While not directly relevant to our example we instinctively know that something that is common should be cheap (i.e. the meal) whereas something uncommon or rare will be expensive (maybe a magic spell or lightsabre). It is therefore within the remit of the writer to use money in this fashion to signal the cost of achieving something. For instance, I’m reminded of the first Star Wars movie, the Phantom Menace, where finding the money to buy out the indenture of Anakin Skywalker (and his mother) requires him to win the pod race. And that even doing so, the gains don’t provide enough to also liberate his mother. Money (resource) or the lack of it plays a central role in the story.
So in this context, money also indicates the amount of disposable resource our intrepid character has available. Give them more, and they can easily satisfy their immediate wants; give them less or none, and you make satisfying their needs a problem.
We will examine the purchasing power of money in different settings in future posts.
So there you have it. We can make money a big part—maybe the biggest part–of a story or just a detail to add credibility to the setting. It’ll all depend on how money figures in the plot. Here’s an extract which features money from something I’m currently working on:
Enquiries indicated that an inn, really a slightly larger farmhouse with a large front room, would put them up for the night. The place smelled of stale ale and tobacco smoke. A woman dressed in plain clothes but sporting a pinafore watched them enter.
“We’d like food, lodging for the night and a place to stable our horses.” Merlwin deposited his bag on the ground.
She frowned at him. “Show me you have money.”
Merlwin was about to pull out his purse with the considerable sum he had brought along for the journey when Albrecht caught his hand.
The apprentice pulled out his own much more modest pouch and tinkled it. “How much?”
The woman’s eyes flickered from the one to the other. Merlwin had the strong sense she was trying to figure out how much they might be worth. His clothes indicated he was better off than others. Albrecht’s were much the same as the townspeople but somewhat better than the villagers. The impression they gave must speak to having money.
“A ducat each for dinner and the same for the night. For your horses, it’ll be half-ducat each.”
“That’s robbery. We’ll go elsewhere.” Albrecht gestured to him and started to turn away.
“That was for the week. A ducat for everything for the one night.”
Albrecht made pretence to consult with him over whether to accept or not. As far as Merlwin could tell, there wasn’t another place to stay within miles—unless they wanted to bunk down in one of the hovels in the village.
“Agreed.” Albrecht seemed to relax. “We could do with some ale now.”
“Of course.” The woman disappeared through a door that led to the back.