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 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 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.


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.

World Building With Clothes

Clothes make the man. They also define a society and an environment. Just watch any montage of people through the ages to see this effect. The 1982 movie, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, begins with about ten minutes of the Chicken Ranch’s history from the late 1800s to the late 1970s. The audience sees not only the change in intimate apparel but also skirt lengths, cloth patterns and colors, furniture, hairstyles and military uniforms. It’s a fun segment that offers information about each period.

Clothes are important in world building whether you are doing a dated musical, a thriller, science fiction, or fantasy. How the outfits work with the environment is easy. Heavy furs belong to winter fantasy, not desert Conan stories unless they are too primitive to weave fabric. However, how does the apparel demonstrate the society? The times? What is the change of dressage if the novel goes over ten years?


The Metropolis Robot


Mary Robinette Kowal (author of Ghost Talkers) gave a wonderful presentation at Adler After Dark Geek Chic V (Chicago) about how science fiction affects modern fashion choices and vice versa. She worked with old movies such as Metropolis and its effects on future looks such as the invention of go-go boots. If you have doubts about this idea, consider the thought that bow ties are making a comeback mostly because of Dr. Who’s Matt Smith. Luckily, the fez hat did not.

She made a side point that really caught my attention. She stated, the more it cost to make something, the more people will use it in high-end clothing as a status symbol. Think about the effort it takes to hand sew pearls into a costume. In addition, lace was hand-tied or tatted into complex, beautiful designs in the early 1900s. Society dresses used a lot of it for accenting. Nowadays, lace is manufactured and less of a financial indicator. It is not seen as often on high society designer pieces.

This thought rode with me all through the night and into the next day. In writing my novel (under construction), Riding the Comet, I thought about clothes in terms of durability, functionality, and practicality. They did nothing to indicate status. Everyone pretty much looked the same. The social-economic differences were a huge factor in the plot since the classes were sharply divide between the corporate townies and the impoverished asteroid dwellers. I tried to show that divide with different technology levels but ignored the obvious and visual tool of fashion. Her comment pointed out a huge gap in my worldview and I’ve since moved to correct it.

So when you are building your world, consider this. The differences between king and commoner are easy. However, the readers should also find subtle differences between lord and middle class, merchant and adventurer, or even worker and beggar. Don’t make it a case of one wearing rags and the other doesn’t. Make your world rich with the differences in details without overloading or slowing down your plot.


These people could be walking down NYC rather than in a space ship going to a colony world (Passengers 2016)

Also remember that clothes change over time One glaring error in the movie Passengers is that the people look just like today. Yet the plot was set in the far future. Surely the designs changed in several hundred years. Although I agree the clothes don’t need to look weird. That would be distracting. But they should not look like today’s fashion because that lacks imagination and also is confusing for the audience trying to figure out the time.

Fashion can also represent a sense of rebellion or change. In Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series, which are a part of the Discworld universe, Tiffany evolves into being her land’s witch but rejects the standard uniform of the black dress and pointed hat. This action serves as a defining characteristic, making her stand out as a free thinker among the other initiates.

300 boy

In this scene from the 300, Leonidas’s wolf skin is symbolic of his ascension to manhood and the crown.

So think about what your characters wear. What affect are you trying to bring out? Sexy, relaxed, functional or something else? Does it represent the character’s favorite color? How does their choice of apparel fit into society and their job? Leather and furs are dumb in a hot environment if linen is available. Synthetics don’t breathe well but add shine and bright colors. High heels are not functional footgear if traipsing across a muddy jungle (as seen in Jurassic World) no matter how determined the character is.

Have your clothes make sense but don’t overload the reader with details at every wardrobe change. Give the audience just enough description to let their imagination fill in the rest. Yet when needed, let it also create a statement or act as a symbol. This adds layers of complexity to your work that readers will appreciate. Therefore, use the clothes to make the man and the world together.