Creating Better Fantasy Economies: Who Does All the Work?

Today I'm delighted to welcome author Kameron Hurley to the blog, with a great post on creating the economics of a fantasy world.

Thanks for visiting, Kameron, and take it away!

I’m a big fantasy reader, especially the epics. Sprawling canvas.Tons of characters.New worlds.New rules.Crazy, complex societies. Unfortunately, a lot of the epics I read often start to blur together. I find myself running into the same societies, with the same rules, time and time again. I find this tendency astonishing in a genre that has free reign to completely reimagine societies from the ground up.

But, hey, I’m just one reader. And a writer to boot. So instead of just saying “Here are the top fantasy economy/society issues that’ll throw me out of a story” I asked folks on Twitter, writers and readers alike, to tell me what they found most annoying or problematic in the fantasy economies and societies they read about.

Here are the top fantasy economy/society failures, crowdsourced on Twitter, with hat tips given to those kind enough to share:

1)      Women are accepted as frontline fighters, but nothing else in the world is different. No mention of birth control, or social mores that change the general patriarchal bent of the rest of the world (which of course always ends up still being there; like women get equality in war but nothing else? Eh?). No mention of how children are minded, or what happens when women become pregnant, or if there are social stigmas between fraternization, or if it’s encouraged, or any other of a myriad of ways that the acceptance of women in combat would also be a reflection of other societal changes in the world. Who does all the work off the battlefield? Is it also accepted that men work in at-home cottage industries?(this was my top annoyance)

2)      Everybody speaks “Common”/every country has a monolithic language. There’s no universal language on this world, and it’s not likely there’s going to be one on a fantasy world, either, unless it’s run by some mega fascist empire. And even then, it’s highly likely there will be regional dialects and variations. Sure, many folks spoke Latin when Rome came a’conquering, but they also spoke their native languages and dialects. It may seem easier, as a writer, to hand wave and say there’s a trader’s language, but doing that actually cuts a lot of potential tension and flavor. I remember being in a restaurant near the Alhambra in in Granada, Spain, and encountering a host who spoke four languages fluently and could have simple conversations with patrons in three more.  I found this far more interesting than, “The host spoke Common.” And it’ll add more texture to the world, too. Lots of plot details can depend on people understanding, or misunderstanding one another. (hat tip @foxvertabrae, @annelyle and @teresafrohock)

3)      Assumed literacy. The sad fact is that outside the implementation of a massive public education system, many people will not know how to read. The UK’s literary rate is 95% (Finland’s is 100%, FYI) but in Afghanistan, it’s 21%. The reasons for that are many and varied, but I invite folks to consider what the literacy rate of a country would be in an area where larger powers were constantly fighting over the resources within it. Unless a fantasy country has free public education for all (and how are they paying for that?), people who read will be rich, or perhaps priests or magic users – a class of folks with the free time and means to pursue this pastime. In addition, lack of literacy also means an increase in the status of people whose business it is to write and transcribe information.  Administrative assistants FTW. (hat tip @doughulick)

4)      Everyone of X race/species is confined to a single country.Populations migrate. They interact. They trade. One of the biggest problems with basing fantasy worlds on an assumed medieval world is that the medieval world many of us are served up in school was not actually a monolithic white Christian one. Our past has been systematically cropped, erased, and rewritten so it looks more like the one the folks in power aspire to, not how it actually was.  Trade routes and hubs and big cities draw people from all across the world. Faces, social mores, awareness of the greater world, will be greater in large metro areas, but even smaller ones will get travelers from elsewhere. The world has never, ever been a monoculture. Fantasy worlds aren’t likely to be either, unless you’re trying to be super ironic. (hat tip @RJSWriter, @metteharrison)

5)      Treasure/resource finds that don’t significantly change theeconomy. What happens when a dragon’s horde of gold suddenly enters the economy? The diamond trade in ours is heavily controlled by just a few companies to keep diamonds from flooding the market and decreasing the value of what’s already in circulation. And we don’t simply print money willy-nilly, or we’ll end up paying for coffee with a wheelbarrow of notes. So if there’s a major horde of gold or wealth that’s uncovered over the course of the book one, in book two it’s probably best that’s it’s addressed how that horde of cash has changed the balance of the economy.In fact, it could lead to some very interesting plot complications. (hat tip @jonmhanse)

6)      Static languages, cultures, and technology.This is a big issue of mine. Change happens. Technology changes. No society is static. One of the things I liked to explore in my last series, which takes place over the course of twenty years, is how technology in the world – and the state of the ongoing war in the background – changes during that time period. It adds an incredible amount of richness, and believability, to an alternate or secondary world.Remember that a piece of technology like, say, a smart phone, isn’t going to change one aspect of society – it’s not just that people can make calls anywhere. It’s access to GPS systems, information on how to fix a car, a camera, a video recorder, and oh-so-much more. Think about how smart phones have transformed the world and how we interact in just a few years. Now what would happen if there was a new spell that could plant farmers’ crops for them? (hat tip @nethspace, @alecaustin and @scottlynch78)

7)      Money systems that make perfect modern-day sense.  I’m not a money nerd, so had no idea this was such an issue for some folks, but it was mentioned by @annelyle, @originalnot, @doughulick and @scottlynch78 as a pet peeve. The history of money is varied and complicated; base metals as currency isn’t as standard as you think. And if you’re using base metals and they aren’t being weighed to see how much has been skimmed off the sides of each coin, well… People do all sorts of things to both verify and counterfeit money. A few minutes figuring out how that happens could provide some useful flavor and interesting plot complications.

8)      Lack of bureaucracy. When I research empires throughout history, from Rome to the Aztecs, what I find interesting is the high level of bureaucracy required to manage such sprawling empires – something which is often lacking in much fantasy fiction. What kind of official stamps or paperwork or additional hoops do folks need to go through to travel, or benefit from government services (are there government services. And if not, what happens to the poor?) How are taxes collected and measured? Folks who sail across borders without question, or sprawling empires that lack solid communication systems, may be a red flag for a lot of readers, and knock them right out. (hat tip @jdiddyesquire and @johnhorner)
9)      “World-shattering magic, strange elder gods, twenty different sapient species, but patriarchy is a given.” (quote via @wallrike) I often suspect that we as fantasy writers and readers have particular blindspots when it comes to worldbuilding, and not paying enough attention to changing social mores/roles is a big one. We’ll spend agonizing amounts of time figuring out religions and different species, but most of humanity still ends up white, and organizes itself into a general patriarchal, hetero-hierarchy. This is a massive blindness, because to be honest, this is not actually how we’ve spent most of our existence organizing ourselves. Humans have been around for over 100,000 years; the hazy history we quote from is only about 10,000 years, and as we uncover and sift through the past, we tend to make it look a lot more like the present than it actually was. Even just a quick look at the Minoans, the Hopi and Iroquois, and the Musuo, will go a long way toward expanding one’s conception of what’s possible. Especially when you’re writing… fantasy. Fantasy! Live a little.

10)  Monarchy as unquestioned (and celebrated) default.  Monarchy is actually pretty boring. And let’s be real, once again: this is fantasy fiction, and we can do anything we want. So it’s astonishing that when we have this huge fantastic canvas to work with, we default to monarchy. In truth, people throughout history have organized themselves into all sorts of ways, from oligarchies to full and representative democracies, collectives, and anarchies. Think outside the norm. Readers will sit up and take notice. (hat tip @mygoditsraining)

11)  Ignoring the consequences of war. War has massive consequences. It disrupts lives. Relationships. Often, it can eliminate or transform entire social systems. At the very least, war leads to famine and disease. Raising a mighty army composed mostly of people who worked the land the year before means that the year after the war, food production is going to suffer. Whole towns and villages will be displaced. Trade routes obliterated. War has consequences – it’s not just a vehicle to get the protagonist to the throne. Also consider birth and infant mortality rates on successive generations, as families are split up and access to proper medical care is greatly reduced. We should see the repercussions of violence, not only throughout an area or country, but throughout the world as disruptions in that space ripple across those it touches through trade and diplomacy. (hat tip @tammacneil)

There’s a whole host of stumbling blocks on the way to crafting fantastic worlds. The amazing thing about fantasy is that we have an opportunity to push the boundaries of our imagination. If a fantasy world is less compelling or complex than the real world, take a step back and rethink it. I want my fantasy as least as interesting as my history.

We have the opportunity to imagine something really different. Why not go for it?

ABOUT Kameron Hurley
Kameron Hurley is an award-winning writer and freelance copywriter who grew up in Washington State. She is the author of the book God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture, and her short fiction has appeared in magazines such Lightspeed, EscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF. 


Anonymous said...

You're right, in many ways. These things can add realism to fiction. The best stories take a few of these into account. The caution being that you can easily lose your story in the realism. All of these things need to be filtered through the story. If I'm not trying to write a story with race relations as a major plot than I should probably avoid building a world with too much racial tension. Same goes with patriachy and other big current political hot button.(Sexuality, Sex, Abortion, Privacy, Religion, Race, War, Slavery, etc.)

Blodeuedd said...

Love the post, and I do agree with them.

I used to write, now I just read, but when I did write I wondered about the whole, oh yup most of these peeps here are white. But then I though, well I am sure people would complain too if I ventured too far. They would say I do not know anything about it. So my world was European and when you went further you found more.

I should just make everyone blue ;=)

Anonymous said...

And combine #2 and #3. A character who is literate in their own language may feel at sea when dealing with something written in a foreign language. This is kinda doable if the foreign language uses the same writing system and has cognates or simple words the person can learn (e.g. many English speakers can order from a French or Italian menu).

But I have a vivid memory of the first night of a visit to Japan, and my friend taking me to a local pub, and realizing I couldn't read the menu AT ALL. I wanted her to read the whole thing to me--but she didn't, instead just recommending things she thought I would like. So vexing, to feel so dependent on someone else.

Matthew Johnson said...

Here's a story that focuses specifically on point #5:

Anne Lyle said...

This makes a great checklist for worldbuilding!

One item I would add to the consequences of war: unemployed soldiers in peacetime. Men who have fought for several years straight may find it hard to go back to civilian life (as modern-day veterans can attest) and in medieval societies had no support system to fall back on - so they frequently turned to banditry. The end of a war was no guarantee of peace.

Mary said...

Monarchy's chief charm is that you can more easily push it out of the way and so get on with the stuff the story's about.

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