Why Money Matters in Fantasy

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One evening, I fell asleep. The next morning, I didn’t wake up.

Well, that’s not quite true. Obviously, I woke up eventually. Just–not by natural means. I woke up with a syringe in my arm and four strangers looking down at me.

The syringe was full of glucagon, and the strangers were EMTs. They saved my life. They were at my house because my boyfriend called 911 when I wouldn’t wake up to his usual morning poking and prodding. I’m a Type I diabetic, and I was having what the fancy folks up on the hill call a hypoglycemic episode: my blood sugar was in the teens (normal range 80-120), and my body had, in an effort to keep me alive, shut down most of its higher functions.

This is, obviously, a serious thing. Four EMTs sort of serious. If a hypoglycemic episode continues long enough unchecked, it can result in brain damage or death. And the worst part was, I had no idea why it happened. I hadn’t been drinking or eating anything unusual the night before. I had taken the right amount of insulin at the proper time. So, when the nice people who just saved my life asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital, I said yes.

Now here’s the part I’m not proud of. Saying yes only happened after I thought about it for a few minutes.

You see, I was pretty broke at the time. And my first thought wasn’t about saving my own life, or making sure that this never happened again. My first thought wasn’t Definitely Not Dave’s peace of mind. It wasn’t even that we were short at work, and my boss would need me (I think I was off that day, actually).

No. My first thought, ignoble though it may be, was:

I can’t afford this.

That’s right. I could have died, and my first thought was about money.

It was horrifying to realize. Just as horrifying: should the zombiepocalypse happen, the first thing I’d probably do is go rob a pharmacy of all its insulin. I’m not an evil person, and I certainly don’t think crime is the proper solution to anything. But when you suddenly need a decade’s supply of an expensive medication or you die, crime starts looking much more viable. You don’t have the money to live, otherwise, and your insurance certainly doesn’t cover extra vials in the event of flesh-eating manbeasts.

Why am I mentioning all this?

Because I want to talk about money in your story. Especially your fantasy story. You see, all those years your parents told you money didn’t matter were cruel, cruel lies.

Money does matter. Money matters more than anything.

It’s one of those unpleasant truths we realize early on in adulthood. Somewhere in your mid-twenties, at the latest, you stop being able to get away with the shit you got away with earlier. You’re no longer young and inexperienced. You’re no longer going to school. You’re no longer living with your parents, paying nominal rent whenever you can afford it and sneaking Mom’s Triscuits out of the pantry when you want a snack. When you get your first three hundred dollar heating bill, you realize why Dad always guarded the thermostat like a national treasure. When you get your first two hundred dollar water bill, you realize why Mom always shed a solitary tear every time you washed your soccer uniform and just your soccer uniform.

Now, my dear, starts a long, grey adulthood. Enjoy plugging all your appliances into the same surge protector so you can unplug them easily when you leave the apartment. Enjoy taking baths and not showers because of the four dollar difference on your water bill. Enjoy not washing your jeans until they stand up without you. Enjoy never visiting your friends in the country because it costs ten bucks in gas just to get there and get back.

Unless you’ve led a very privileged life, some of these things sound familiar to you. Deprivation and conservation are the story of being a grown-up, for most people. You’ll make more money and get out of it, eventually–hopefully. But when you don’t have a lot of cash, your own poverty rules everything you do.

Which is part of why it surprises me–even shocks me–that people in fantasy world never seem to be poor. Even when the author says they’re poor, money just kind of materializes. Stuff just kind of materializes. And the possessions these supposed ‘poor’ people have: well. They don’t always match up to the poverty described.

Consider, for instance, a family of subsistence farmers in a medievalesqe village within a make-believe Arctic Circle. These people obviously have a hard life, and most of it is probably lived in several feet of snow. So, two things they probably won’t be doing, that your silly ass might try to make them do:

1) Living in wooden houses, and
2) Owning horses. 

At first, a wooden shack and a Shetland pony seem pretty in keeping with what we know of a classic Anglo fantasy-type world. But if it’s really cold, you need to think about such things twice before you do them. If they live in wooden houses, where the hell are these trees coming from? Not a lot of timber, within the Arctic Circle. (You might want to, likewise, consider what they’re making fires and tools from. Hint: it’s probably not wood.)

And the horse? What are they feeding this thing? A big animal like that is expensive to keep up and would be difficult to keep warm in a frosty climate. You could trade the horse in for oxen or reindeer, but you’ve still got the upkeep problem. These subsistence farmers more than likely run that plow by themselves, and, for that matter, probably can’t do too much crop-growing anyway. Breaking up the almost permanently frozen ground would be a toughie. Their diet is probably heavily meat based, and they probably have all the health problems you’d expect from that (or would they? Many Inuit cultures didn’t.).

I think the place where we get confused is the idea of value versus actual paper/metal money. Just because a society doesn’t have a lot of gold pieces floating around doesn’t mean things have no value: a cow, for instance, might be worth three gold coins, but in a tiny village on the outskirts of the world, the likelihood of someone having those coins is low. They might, however, have two goats, or thirty yards of fabric, or a winter’s supply of firewood. Therefore, the value of a cow is a little mutable, but oh buddy, it is still value.

So please, when you’re writing a fantasy world, do consider your monetary system. Consider what things are worth and why. Consider that our cow, plenty valuable in green pastureland, might actually be less valuable in a desert or the Arctic, where no one has the necessary resources to use said cow for its true value. And consider that a young person starting out in the world is going to actually need money, and will probably make some decisions based on funding (or lack thereof).

Fantasy has this tradition of treating the mercenary as a figure of questionable moral fiber. But sometimes, my friends, to go on the quest, you need to raise money to buy the horse. And then, once you’ve bought the horse, you need some money put aside for feed, and a good saddle, and a horse blanket, and stable fees. Your peasant-turned-princess doesn’t just need a gown to go to the ball, if she wants to blend in: she needs a footman, and a carriage, and etiquette lessons, and dancing lessons, and a hairstylist, just to name a few.

Money is the blood in the veins of your fantasy world, just as it is in this world. There’s no escaping it, and you shouldn’t try. If your character is of a lower class, you can’t simply forgo the realities of living in that class. People do things solely for money all the time. (Be honest with yourself, boo boo. Why do you go to work every morning?)

Adventures are expensive. If nothing else, you wind up using a ton of vacation days.

(A note: for a great example of how to use money in a fantasy story, check out The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, if you haven’t already. There is, to be honest, a lot I don’t like about Rothfuss’s writing, but this is one thing he gets spot on. And, in spite of having to think about money constantly, Kvothe has plenty of fun adventures. The way he learns to get around his own poverty is, in fact, one of the chief character-building themes in the novel.)

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3 thoughts on “Why Money Matters in Fantasy

  1. This is excellent and very true, and also something that makes it hard to write around – a challenge YAY! The next thing – resources for arctic subsistence lifestyle. Seriously, google me with Alaska, and that’ll lead you to a couple of good repositories containing both contemporary use patterns and historical knowledge as well as a lot of good ethnographic info (for example, how DO you catch a polar bear without a gun?). Now, the most interesting thing about how that relates is that folks like Inuit live in a mixed subsistence-cash economy, go backward in time cash becomes barter of non-food resources to food resources. Cash flow is actually a HUGE problem up there, not a lot of it, and it requires cash to hunt and fish. You’ve got to pool resources and share. Regardless of what you might hear, there’s a bit of pride involved in taking gifts of fish. (I’m going to side-step the issue of substance abuse for a moment, that throws a wrench in the whole thing) Elders are due fish or meat out of respect, it’s a religious thing, actually. Others who are not particularly productive in in either part of the economy will frequently say ‘no’ to a gift. There is a sense of reciprocation that’s necessary, even if it’s incredibly lop-sided. I could go on all day about this, but regardless of the book, it really isn’t JUST money, it’s actually resources. Doesn’t matter how it’s set, you’re going to have poverty.

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