Money truly makes the world go around, so it is a given writers’ built worlds will have it and that the characters that inhabit the world will have to use it at some point: whether to get provisions or procure lodging. Money, or currency, has seen interesting transformations in our world, evolving several times before becoming what we know today.
Why is it important to include currency on your world-building to-do list, you ask? Your reader is reading your novel, fully immersed in the world you have built, and then suddenly your characters go to buy a loaf of bread: They are paying with a dollar. The fantasy is shattered. The currency is American and sticks out like a sore thumb. So what options are available to speculative fiction writers?
Bartering was the main way of exchanging goods for the longest of times, and who knows, maybe some of your worlds use this tried and true system for exchanging goods that is still around today. If they are, you will need to figure out an approximation of equivalent exchange: what can a character get for a cow, for instance? Are cows considered valuable in your world or are they not as valuable, as say, a llama. These are the questions you have to ask yourself when creating a bartering system that your characters will no doubt be using. Another hot button topic with a barter system that writers have to ask is: What is the barter system for services? What do characters have to give in order to stay at an inn?
Is the bartering system not fitting in your world? Perhaps it is time to introduce more concrete forms currency. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking all money has to be metal and paper. Did you know that cowrie shells were once considered a form of currency? In fact, cowrie shells are the most widely and longest used currency in the world. Other unique forms of currency include leather money, wampum (beads made from clam shells), among others. Look at your worlds and see if there is anything unique that might be used as currency.
If your heart is set on coinage and paper money, go for it. Coinage has been around for a long time with the NOVA website stating it has been around since 1000 B.C., originating in China, while paper money first appeared in 806 A.D., also in China. I will admit, coinage and paper money is very fun, at least for me. I have enjoyed determining what goes into the making of the different coins used by one of my countries, including the metals used and each ones’ appearance as far as markings. There is nothing more fun than designing your own coinage or paper money. However, coinage comes with its own set off questions writers need to answer: who mints it and where? Or are there multiple versions of coins that crop up in different regions? Similarly, who is in-charge of creating the paper money?
If you are writing a futuristic tale, currency may have further evolved further to becoming completely electronic, a path that we are currently on the way to, or at least it would seem. However, the sky is the limit when it comes to creating currency types.
Alright, you have a pretty good idea about what type of currency you want, now where are your characters going to store their currency safely? Does your world have banks? If yes, who runs them? Are they government-owned or family-operated? Banks, in the modern sense of the word, appeared in medieval and Renaissance Italy, and were operated by wealthy families, such as the Medici family. Going along with banking, were there certain sects within your world or countries that were more prone to be apart of banking, such as the court Jews, who would loan money to European nobles or serve as financial advisers to them?
Some other consideration for writers to ponder as they world-build currency: How do your countries combat counterfeit currency? Who is backing the money since certain types of currency require a strong government to back them? How do the different currencies translate between countries? Do your countries have a problem with different regions or cities within them minting their own currencies? Do certain currencies have nicknames, such as greenbacks, bucks, pink lady, etc.?
While currency might not seem like a very big thing to worry about when world-building, and writers probably shouldn’t put too much time into its creation, writers will find that putting a little time into creating currency for their world will only enrich the reading experience of their readers.