World Building: The Coin of the Realm

The devil’s in the details in world-building. This mythical figure also dips into power bases and currency so your story’s world should reflect that. By power bases, I mean those corporations, governments, or individuals that control enough aspects of a world that they could crush the little guy. Imagine Amazon.com as the Evil One killing the little mom-and-pop places. In our modern society, the power bases tend to focus on those giants who controls the power grid, the information access, and the flow of resources. If you doubt this, think about who controls the oil, which computer giant is practically on every computer, and what happens when clean water is in short supply.

Contemporary settings are easy in that regard. Everyone knows that modern society uses coins and bills. The writer simply matches the right currency to the correct time and place. Fantasy and science fiction differ though. The writers of these genres can stretch the imagination. The money could be significantly different and the power base behind it may not be as obvious.

Fantasy

Fantasy settings can feature a barter system, coin economy, or use of weighed metal nuggets. However, the writer must still think about what item or core idea is of supreme value in this system. Most folks grow their own food so that’s probably not the power base. Is it safety since the town depends on the Lord/King’s troops against the marauders? Is it land ownership?

Coins are easy but are they the standard value of gold-silver-copper? In a metal poor society, the coins might be wooden or clay. How many silver bits go into a gold piece? Even if your character doesn’t need to know the exchange rate, you do. This way, when the character goes shopping for something, they would know whether three gold pieces for a new bow is price gouging or reasonable.

Whose face or emblem is on the coin? Are the same coins accepted across all kingdoms/towns? The important answers show the reader where the power base is, which is probably with the one who controls the government, and therefore the citizens’ safety. If the merchants accept the same coins across kingdoms, then that implies treaties and mutual understandings are in place. For instance, the Lord of the Rings movies did not pay attention to currency for paying for anything, like drinks in a tavern. However, this implied that all the various kingdoms of men got along. In the film, the 300, the metal currency showing Xerxes’ face indicated the owner, Theron, was a traitor to Sparta.

Science Fiction

In science fiction, power bases and economics change. Characters usually don’t grow their own food. People living on space ships or colonies have technology but not necessarily lifesaving essentials of food, water, clothes or air without someone on the outside providing it.  They can’t eat or drink metal coins so the power base changes from intangibles like knowledge and security to basic supplies. In addition, energy keeps a space station going and some of the most necessary items must be imported from civilized planets.

Sometimes the important items can be things we take for granted. In Larry Niven’s and Jerry Pournelle’s book, Fallen Angels, the satellites are independent from the Luddite Earth and some of these astronauts crash on the planet. The satellite citizens forge a bond with science fiction fans to bring them back to their home and resupply some of the most critically needed items. the authors uses hypodermic needles as his example. The station controllers can resterilize and reuse them but they can’t sharpen them. Thus, new needles become important.

Star Trek (the original and Next Generation series) ignored currency, implying everyone simply got what they needed. A nice idea but bogus when facing the facts that some people in the series were still obviously richer and more powerful than others. Yet, if you examine the Enterprise society as military ship, this concept of people getting what they need holds true. The military even today does supply any essentials to its soldiers when they are abroad. Star Wars indicated a universal economic system where the same coinage had equal value everywhere. This simplified the story’s “world” so that the writers didn’t get too bogged down in details. Barter was still used, but only at the poorer levels.

Bartering was featured in the Hunger Games as well. Katniss’s District 12 folks had few coins. The mines seemed more like the old Pullman towns where people worked for the company, rented company houses, and shopped at the company stores. The debt for the family grew, turning the system into a type of slavery. The only economic exchange was outside the system, and therefore illegal, as the residents bartered what they made, owned, or hunted.

Yet space travel and economics poses other problems. Would a rebel fighter remember to include a few coins in their space suit, just in case they wanted to visit the cantina on Tatooine? Do EVA suits even come with pockets for wallets? Wouldn’t everything be based on simple fund transfers? In our age of bitcoins and electronic banking, building a coin-free society does not seem so farfetched if the society is advanced.

You can also get really creative with economics. In the movie, In Time, (starring Justin Timberlake), life minutes are the currency, and life clocks are embedded in the characters’ arms. Run out of money and you die. As you can guess, those that control the minutes are the rich and immortal.

My book, Independence Day Plague, was set just far enough in the future to be borderline science-fiction. The economic system had evolved into largely online transactions, which left a traceable paper trail. Banks still placed value on old currency but governments weren’t printing more. Therefore, the black-market horded these old greenbacks in order to provide untraceable transactions. That factor proved significant in how my protagonists moved around while staying off the information grid.

Conclusion

Whatever system you use, don’t have your character buying anything they need from a limitless purse without an explanation. This concept is as annoying and amateurish as the never-needs-loading gun. Poverty and desire make great motivators. Use them effectively. Just be sure you understand what the true factors of wealth are in your world. Currency may seem like a small detail but it adds to the plot or indicates specific aspects of your world. In addition, if you know what factor makes the wealthy rise above others, then you know who the true power broker is in your story. It’s up to you to make that person the friend, the enemy or the background for your protagonist.

Imagining Story Characters as RPG Players

As an old Dungeons and Dragons™ player, I sometimes think about my characters in terms of how I would role-play them. This allows me to crawl into their mind and understand their motivation in any given situation. The moral and motivational terms used are general but completely applicable to most fiction characters.

For those of you unfamiliar with role-playing games, the game’s characters are made up, with their characteristics shown through a series of numbers for each attribute. A role of one or two is terrible while an eighteen to twenty is freaking awesome. The characteristics may vary in name across the different RPG games but tend to include some indication of strength, dexterity, wisdom, intelligence, and charisma, along with a host of more minor attributes.

Alignment: Law and Morals

When I think of RPG characters, however, I don’t think of numbers and abilities. I think in terms of Dungeon and Dragon’s alignment features. Every creature (elf, troll, halfling, human, or even dragon) has an alignment that defines two distinct traits: personal morality and the attitude towards the local legal system. These two factors help provide motivation for every decision the character makes. For instance, will the orc prefer money for a job or perform the task out of loyalty to his ruler?

The alignment forms from the conjunction of two terms and three choices per each term. The legal concepts are lawful, neutral, or chaotic and the moral choices involve being good, neutral, or evil.

Characterizations: Hero, Lawman or Villain?

If you think of your story’s character in terms of some mix of these ideas, the motivation towards any action becomes obvious. Here is a list of what attributes lead to a particular kind of character.

Lawful good: The perfect hero. He follows the law and is generally caring about strangers.

Lawmen. Ideally they are lawful good.

This person never speeds, never lies (unless it avoids hurting someone), nor will he ever break his vow. A good example is the classic comic book Superman or the law man in most western movies.

 

Lawful neutral: Many of us fall in this category. This group probably includes the most honest politicians and lawyers because they are bound to the law although their actions may, at times, be not nice. Shepard from Firefly is close to the attribute. He is a normally moral, law-abiding man who takes up a gun when faced with real evil.

Lawful evil: In a nutshell, Hitler, Ming the Merciless, or Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall fame. This villain twists the law to their own selfish gains. In some cases, the person must create the legal situation to cause the evil. Since this person is still bound by what he sees the morals of society, the motivation involves a lot of subtlety.

Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, played artfully by Max von Sydow

Neutral good: This character is a damaged hero. He is a good man at heart who has no problem ignoring society’s rules for the protection of the innocent. Examples include Batman and John Watson of Sherlock Holmes fame.

Neutral neutral: If you play a character with this, you have a lot of freedom to make any decision you want but the character is often a bit dull. Many NPC (nonplayer characters) or background characters might have this alignment. One case might be the Wizard of Oz from the movie. He worked the system but didn’t really care about good or evil. He simply did what helped his situation the most.

Neutral evil: This organized villain is very methodical and deceptive. Often very disciplined, this character doesn’t care about the law either way but has clear malevolent intentions. Examples include Jubal Early from Firefly, Bobba Fett from Star Wars, or Dexter from the show of the same name.

Chaotic good: This person is the borderline anti-hero. For him, the ends justify the means as long as some good comes out of his actions. Models include the movie version of Wolverine and Captain Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly.

Chaotic neutral: This avatar is the true anti-hero. You can’t predict which way he will go

Beautiful and deadly River Tam played by Summer Glau.

in a battle. For example, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes loved the puzzles of crime fighting but didn’t care about the victims. Others might include James Bond, River Tam, or even Deadpool.

 

Chaotic evil: This is the embodiment of one bat-crap crazy villain. This person is the true cold-hearted psychopath. Although he might disguise his nature, he can’t love or care about anyone. The Joker, Moriarty in the modern Sherlock Holmes BBC production, and Hannibal Lecter are all excellent examples.

Attributes in the Book World

However, the writer must remember that these are broad labels simplifying characters for easier gaming. RPG folks often use these games to safely explore the darker sides of their thoughts and desire without ever really showing this face to society. Then again, isn’t that what writers do as well when they create their people and worlds?

But a book’s character must be more complex. For a great story, they should go through an evolution somehow, possibly into a different moral code. After all, an anti-hero can evolve into a true hero for the right reasons, such as a great love or revenge. Deadpool is an excellent example of this.

These attributes are simplistic, of course. Yet considering how difficult it is for an author to get inside a character’s head, I’m all for any concept that makes the process easier. After all, the best characters dance on the edges of shame, brilliance, greatness, or insanity. Understanding and even playing on that edge alongside them is where the best stories begin.

Happy writing!