Politics and Money: how you can build them into your fantasy realms for an extra dose of realism

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Politics and money.

Wait! Before you head for the hills, because those two words tend to incite some rather violent reactions… today we’re only talking about the FANTASY versions of those topics. You get to make them up!

Political Structure

When you are considering your world, you will want to figure out how and where these things fit into the fabric of the realm you are creating. Who is in power? What kind of government exists in your land(s)? Are there multiple countries in play? Do they all have the same type of government? Do the leaders of these multiple governments get along?

There are a lot of fun questions to think about and answer when you are writing a new story world. In fantasy, we often see monarchies, but that is not the exclusive type of government in fantasy. I’ve seen quite a few other types represented in the stories I’ve read, everything from nomadic desert tribes to kings to  the full-on creation of a sort of a cross between a parliament and a republic to evil dictators.

In the Minstrel’s Song, I went pretty basic with this one. I had a bunch of island countries, and every one of them was its own kingdom. The islands were far enough apart that they did not interact a ton (there is some trade between some of the islands, but others don’t even know the rest exist). Later on in the series, the politics got a little more complex as the nations were forced to work together, but for the most part, the politics were pretty simple.

In the Turrim Archive, on the other hand, the politics are far more central to the story, since you have six separate nations sharing a single continent. On one half of the world, you have Telmondir: three nations that have banded together and formed a Council, comprised of elected officials from each nation, who work together and represent their people as the heads of state. They share a single military force and trade without restriction across borders. On the other side of the continent is the Igyeum, three nations that spent centuries under the rule of warring chieftains, but a single ruler has risen to power and subdued that half of the world through military might. There is an uneasy truce between Telmondir and the Igyeum, but the Council knows the peace could end at any moment and are working to prepare for it. This leads to a lot of tension and some interesting political interactions as we start the story.

It has also been quite a growing experience for me, writing more political intrigue and interactions into this series. I’ve had to think very differently whenever the story called for events dealing with the various political entities. There has been a lot of research into different types of government systems, as well. Writing political motivations and intrigue just does not come easily for me, and has definitely stretched me as a writer!

In Revelod, since it’s such a big world, there are a lot of interesting ways we can play with the political structure of the various continents.

Here's the map of Revelod again for reference

Here’s the map of Revelod again for reference

The Eldoran Commonwealth

The Council of Eldoran is made up of 5 individuals: the King of Eldoran, the High Mage of the Arcanium, the Lord General of Revelod, the Archon, and the Citizen.

The Citizen is the Prime Minister of the People’s Hall, a Parliament made up of representatives of the different states/provinces of Eldoran.
The Archon is the Highest Judge in Eldoran. The Lord General of Revelod is the Supreme Commander of the Revelod Army appointed by the King.  The High Mage of the Arcanium is a representative of the Arcanium Order, the educational and magical organization of Eldoran. And finally, the King is the hereditary monarch of Eldoran. He represents the Lord’s Council and the Aristocracy of Revelod.

The Tundarin Empire

The Tundaran Empire functions as a Hereditary Empire, that has been ruled by a several dynasties for the past 1000 years. Cultural Layers are firmly adhered to and structured as such:

Aristocracy – Hereditary Peoples, of many races, though not all
Merchant Lords – Financially established merchants who can rise and fall within this class, including fall from it.  These are unable to ascend to the Aristocracy without familial ties (usually marriage).
Citizenry – This is the common class of people throughout the Empire.
Slaves – Persons owned by any of the classes above them Most often Aristocracy and Merchants, though a few citizens have slaves in their keep.  Slavery can span anything from dregs of society to entire family lines bought in servitude to a Aristocratic house or Merchant Lord guild or company. Some slaves have more power and influence than aristocrats or merchant lords.

Seyberron

Nine tribal/nomadic communities make their home on Seyberron. The wild lands are roamed by these tribes and are governed by the peaceful if tenuous relationships between the chieftains and their families.

The Sovereign Territories

This is an archipelago, and each island has its own nation/kingdom as follows:

The Orc Nation of Votar – Loose association of Goblinoid City States

A continent sized region populated by Goblinoid Tribes. There are several regions that are controlled by Warlords and the borders are constantly moving based on warlord control. Areas are effectively defined by regional names only. Formal political boundaries are not recognized.

Tathamor Dominion – Human Mix Kingdom

Mixed Kingdom heavily reliant on trade. Ruling council operates the most of the functions within the kingdom. There are cities and provinces that operate within the kingdom. Constantly at war with Votar.

Rekar – Elvish / Gnomish Equatorial Jungle Island

Wilderness continent heavily covered in Tropical forrests. Many settlements can be found around the coast, but there are hidden realms within the interior.

Haedrus Spire – Arid Mountain Island home of the Titans

This is the cultural homeland of all Titans. Their holy site stands at the middle of the island on the highest peak. It is capped with a monument to the Titon Lords who blessed the ancestral Titans to defeat the giants who invaded their land. The Titan culture is one of no aristocracy caste system. The only power resides at the individual communities, however there is an order that guides the culture as clerics to the Titons.

Itascan – Elven Stronghold of a Temperate Forest

This island is shrouded in mystery. Surrounded by a large evergreen forrest there are two primary mountain peaks on the island nation. One peak is a light tan golden color, while the other is a dark gray blue rock. There are two factions of Elves represented in this stronghold, the Light Elves and Dark Elves.  They each reside within their respective territories and both lead to a vast maze under the island that stretches far beyond the coasts of the Itascan island.

 

Currency & Commerce

Once you’ve answered some or all of the questions about how your world is governed, this could be a good time to turn your attention to how things will get paid for.

Hehe, sorry, Aladdin GIFS are just working for me today.

We talked a little bit about currency when I posted about Middle Earth earlier this month and pointed out that Tolkien didn’t create a specific currency for his world. But I’d like to talk about it a little bit more, for anyone who didn’t join us in the comments. (Also, I did some more digging, and Tolkien DID come up with some currency names: in one of the Appendices we learn that Gondor used silver coins called Castars, and a smaller coin called a tharni, and the Shire had a system of copper and silver pennies (which I believe we do see come up at the Prancing Pony when/after they purchase Bill the pony), but again, he does not go into detail on this at all in the books, rather making general references to “coins of little worth” or the descriptions of the vast amounts of gold and wealth within Erebor.

As George Bailey famously says of money in It’s a Wonderful Life (can we count this as fantasy since an angel comes down and we see an alternate reality? No? Okay then), “It comes in pretty handy down here, bub.”

We don't use money in heaven

And yet, not many fantasy books include it. As Sarah and I were discussing, some of that probably stems from the fact that, while money is extremely important for us in our everyday lives, most of our favorite fantasy characters are either royalty (and therefore have plenty of money to pay for whatever they need so it’s not important to tell us exactly what that money is called), or they’re dirt poor and spending all their time questing through the wilderness-y areas of the world where they aren’t exactly going to market to purchase things (and therefore money just doesn’t come up).

I did find a list of fictional currencies, and I thought it was interesting how few of them there were. (I have no idea how exhaustive this list is, but it was the only one I could find with titles I recognized on it).

Mistborn (which we also talked about earlier this month) uses a system of imperials and clips.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series has the Ankh-Morpork dollar, as well as several other regional currencies.

Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle uses crowns.

The Chronicles of Narnia uses crescents.

Harry Potter (the wizarding world side) uses bronze Knuts, silver Sickles, and gold Galleons (and I love the names, but I just now realized that basically this is just the standard D&D system of currency with fancy titles)

The Wheel of Time uses the penny, mark, and crown.

And of course, Star Wars has credits. (shush, Star Wars is fantasy).

Those were the names I recognized. I’m sure there are others… I’m sure. None of them are coming to mind, though. But it struck me that this is a thing that seems to often get left out of most world creations. So, it’s up to you. Does money play an important role in your story? Will your characters need it? Does your world have actual currency, or does it work on a trade/barter system?

My own Minstrel’s Song series has a fairly elaborate currency system in the country of Aom-igh, though it barely comes into the books at all:

Stater – just a copper coin, small and round with a circular hole in the middle used to buy trivial things such as single drinks

Silver Stater – a silver coin, round and smooth-edged, with a square hole in the center, worth approximately 10 staters

Silver Ryal – a silver circular coin banded with gold worth approximately 5 silver staters 

Gold Stater – a golden coin, circular in shape worth approx. 5 silver ryals 

Gold Ryal – a golden coin roughly circular in shape with a wavy edge like the petals of a flower and a hole stamped in the center worth approx 10 gold staters 

Rose Ryal – a coin made of rose-gold, roughly circular in shape with a wavy edge like the petals of a flower edged with silver worth approx 5 gold ryals

Pretty sure that all made it into approximately two lines of the book. Hehe. So… a lot depends on what you want to pour your time into. And remember one of the guidelines we learned about earlier in the month. Spend your time where it will most affect the plot and characters of the story. If you don’t need a currency system, don’t create one! But if you do, know that you’ll be one of the few, and perhaps that will be a detail that will help allow your readers to really immerse themselves in your world and make it come alive around them as they read.

Perhaps more important than currency, then, is the idea of commerce in your world. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to have the GDP of each of your countries hammered out, but it does mean that you should have some idea of how trade happens from one place to another. If you are writing in a small-scale world, how does your character acquire the things they need? Do they barter? Do they trade? Is there a currency?

If your scope is a bit larger, how does trade happen between villages? Do the villagers of one town trust those of the neighboring town and accept coins from them, or do they regard their neighbors with suspicion and only accept things in trade?

Going to the national or global scale, how is trade handled between nations? Is the currency of Rohan good in Gondor? Is there a global currency, or do your nations weigh money differently?

If you’re looking for a resource that will give you a quick run-down on the evolution of currency throughout history and a better grasp on how countries interact, I highly recommend the book Whatever Happened to Penny Candy? It is one of those books I read with my kids for school this past year to help teach them a sort of intro to economics, and then it kind of revolutionized the way I look at my own fantasy worlds now when it comes to creating commerce between countries and how I think about currency when I consider creating it for my fantasy realms. I love it when I learn stuff about writing and world building when I’m least expecting it!

Mountain Segue

Can you think of any other fantasy books you’ve read that described a specific and unique currency system? What about politics? What types of interesting governments have you encountered in the fantasy realms you’ve traversed? Are you enjoying Fantasy Month? What are you reading this month for fun? Are these posts making you think differently about what you’re reading? If you’re an author, are they helping you as you think about world building?

Make sure to come back tomorrow as we will be discussing technology in fantasy, and that is sure to be a fascinating conversation!

~ jenelle

11 Comments

Chris Morcom

Skipping out of D&D for a moment…there’s an interesting example of currency in Pat Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle. A big part of why it’s interesting is that different nations have their own currencies and we even get glimmers of the varying worth and reliability of different currencies.

You have Cealdish currency, which mints all trapezoidal coins made of iron (drab), copper (jot), silver (talent), and gold (mark). Ceald was the first nation to develop a currency (which they made by literally slicing up metal ingots, since full ingots were too much work to transport), and is the most stable currency in the world–as well as the most widely accepted. It is noted that Cealdish currency is worth more than the metal it is printed on.

The Commonwealth has an odd thing going with its currency, as they all agreed on the value of different coins, but each major city/province has the right to mint their own coins…and they don’t all make them the same way. So a Silver Penny minted in Tarbean may not actually have the same amount of silver in it as a Silver Penny from Imre. This tendency means that while they use their own currency internally–the further you get from the Commonwealth, the less likely anyone will take your money. And…a lot of people just use Cealdish coin instead. (Their coins are the Iron Penny, Ha’penny, Coppery Penny, Silver Penny, and Common)

Vintas goes the opposite direction in having a very strongly regulated currency that is actually worth more than Cealdish currency. Theirs is all kinds of complicated in how the coins work (you can literally split coins apart to make partial-value sub-coins) and I’m not going to try to explain that here….

Where this comes up in the story? Kvothe having to juggle coin values from all the different places he’s been to try to figure out how much money he actually has.

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jenelle

Oooh, I forgot Name of the Wind! Thanks for reminding me. That’s a great example of one of the few where the currency really gets explained, and in a seamless way that doesn’t sound like it detracts from the plot, as well! (Love that book, I’m re-reading it currently by listening to the audio book, which means it will take me seven years to get through, most likely, but I want to read the second book and I’ve forgotten a lot of what happens in the first one).

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sjeckert

Wow, those are some fantastic details! Sometimes I dream about making real currency systems, and then I’m like NOPE. My last one I literally just had them trading crystals.

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sjeckert

Oh, and there’s also Stormlight Archive currency…infused spheres, that seem like just spheres of glass or something that encase chips of gems that absorb stormlight. Ones with stormlight are valuable, depending on the chip inside, and when the stormlight fades, they all become practically worthless.

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Florid Sword

This is such a cool post! My current WIP leans very heavily on the currency aspect of the story and lets that help drive the plot–people pay with gold if they can, but gold is rare, and so most people use either their own hair or blood (your own or someone else’s…mwahaha) to pay for things. I’m setting it up as a mystery, too–WHY do people use that? So I’ve had a lot of fun playing with currency in this story.

I love all the points you made! :D So helpful!

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Kyle Robert Shultz

I love how detailed the currency system of Minstrel’s Song is! That’s so cool. And all the points you made are excellent. I enjoy playing around with politics in fantasy worlds; it’s really interesting to think about what kinds of unique issues might arise in that area with magic and magical creatures in the mix. My most recent book, The Geppetto Codex, dives a little deeper into that topic than anything I’ve written before, and I had a lot of fun writing it for that reason.

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Lily

Thanks so much for this post, Jenelle. I’m new to world-building, so this post has been very helpful and given me much to think about. One series that I have been reading that has really good world-building/politics is the Ascendance Trilogy by Jennifer Nielsen. And I remember reading ‘Whatever Happened to Penny Candy?’ in school! I think it’s time for a reread. Thanks again, I look forward to the next post!

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Energyflux2012

Impressive post. There’s a lot of world-building that goes into economics and government. I still don’t have it all down in my manuscript, but the characters use a currency called melka, which are star-shaped coins minted from silver, gold, crystal, or a metal called darksteel.

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Katrina Dehart

I never really put much thought into the currency in the books I’m reading. I think I’ll notice more about it now. Really interesting post. TY

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Christine

This is such good stuff! It’s so funny, because politics in real life bore me to tears, but I looooove me some political intrigue in fantasy novels, to read and write! Most of my novels involve some sort of political intrigue (usually because so many of my characters tend to be royalty themselves *sheepish grin*), and I just find it super fun. I usually keep it pretty simple though. I definitely need to get a little more creative with my politics. But there’s just so much FUN that can be had when kingdoms are strained or at war or form alliances and all that good stuff!

I looooved all your thoughts on currency too! That’s something I’ve not incorporated in my books much. Usually there’s no need for it because, just like you said, they’re usually either super rich or off questing, YES. Such a good point! XD But I think making up some currency could be a lot of fun. I love all the detail you put into making the Minstrel’s Song currency! That’s so awesome!

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Marlene Simonette

A lot of times, I look up historical denominations, then adjust them to fit whatever fantasy culture I have. I tend not to get into too much detail; my head starts spinning when comparing all of the different values, inflation, depreciation, etc. Despite that, I’ve noticed that in my writing I tend to gravitate towards using fantasy-altered Greek and British currencies. :P

When it comes to reading, I find I don’t care all that much, unless it’s pertinent to the plot or character. If it happens to be mentioned, I’ll think, “Oh cool they put a lot of thought into this. Huzzah for worldbuilding!” and move on.

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