An odd bit of world building

I gang, Craig here today. Some of this has been on my mind lately, and I’m trying to avoid a political rant. I generally avoid those like the plague in my public persona. We’re going to put this soapbox away, still discuss the topic, but from an author’s point of view.

Many of us write stories that are fantasy, other worlds, or even other dimensions. We’ve discussed before how we still need to do a bunch of research, but these kind of stories also require some world building. My topic today is something that’s rarely thought about; economics.

I always think of economics like a pyramid.

The lowest, and most structurally important level, I call industry. It’s kind of a misnomer, because agriculture also forms one of the stones. These are businesses that produce something, tend to ship it away, and bring money back into the local economy.

Industry produces the wealth. It shores up everything else. This is where your dwarven miners might be kind of important. Maybe you have a cooperative that farms an entire system of planets. That system is likely very wealthy. Nice target for space pirates.

The cash that flows back in, usually provides a pretty good wage, and that money gets circulated to the next level.

I call the next level, commercial. This is where the more necessary merchants live. Think about it this way, workers from your steampunk dirigible factory, take their union-scale wages, and buy the basic necessities for their families. The money moves; therefore, the commercial employees all get a paycheck to feed their families with. If times are good, maybe there is enough for some philanthropy. The community might even grow.

The next level is a mix of commercial and professional services. It involves things that might not get purchased if money gets tight. People tend to put off visits to the dentist, or the purchase of a jet-ski when money gets tight. When things are good, these merchants get to eat too. Maybe your grocery worker has enough cash left over to buy one of those cool steampunk hats with all the gears and things. Now the haberdasher gets to eat, and may have enough to visit a restaurant.

The pyramid keeps growing. Every level gets farther away from necessity. A thriving place might have a philharmonic, a local ballet, and eventually the pyramid ends at the idle rich.

I want to touch upon transportation too, because it’s an odd duck. I’m inclined to call it a commercial enterprise, but it fits into all the levels to some degree. Industry needs to get those pods to Mars, and the idle rich want to travel to exotic places.

One of the key functions is that money has to move around to have a viable economy. If everyone has a coffin full of gold buried in their back yard, they may consider themselves personally rich, but it does the population zero good.

This doesn’t mean every community must have an industrial base. Industrial money will flow quite a ways. I can speak from personal experience having grown up in a mining community. The money generated in tiny Elko, Nevada, got spent from Boise to Las Vegas, and Reno to Salt Lake City. Those communities benefitted from our industrial base.

You can certainly have a little version of Hobbiton; whereby, the community eats locally grown food. Even then, they will need some cotton or wool from somewhere.

Want to write a thriving community, give some thought to a successful industrial base somewhere nearby. Want things to tank, ship all your industry to another planet or country. Soon the people will be preying upon each other. Cyber crime will go up, because commerce cannot feed upon commerce. Those who get left out will find a way to survive, even if it’s unsavory. This is a long game, and more like musical chairs than an overnight sensation. If you dry the mines up, you will have more thieves on the roads, and provide a nice habitat for underground dwelling monsters. It may seem contrary, because thieves will have less to steal, but it’s human nature to not want to become thieves, prostitutes, or smugglers.

I’m not saying you should write all of this into your story. In fact, it’s a good idea not to. This is one of those things you ought to consider to make your world more realistic.

A thriving, smoke belching ray-gun factory is likely plunked into a thriving vibrant community. However; if the windows are broken, the night shift has been canned, and they can’t get the teamsters to visit – then the community will be a bit more disheveled. Cops might be shady, prostitutes might walk the streets, smuggling will increase, and you can use that to your advantage in some stories.

In a downtrodden community, the top levels fail first. You won’t see as many silicone implants, or perfect cute noses. Maybe the plastic surgeon starts cutting his Botox with saline, and writing prescriptions he shouldn’t for some extra cash. Automobiles will have to last longer, and you can reflect that in your story. Maybe in fantasy, the horses on the street should have gone to the glue factory a couple of years ago.

This is the kind of thing that deserves a sticky-note on your storyboard. (Yeah, I storyboard. Modify for your method.) Don’t go into great detail about the economy, but consider it when designing your worlds.

How about you guys? Do you consider the economy when world building? Does this post inspire you to give it some thought?


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45 thoughts on “An odd bit of world building

  1. Great points. I’m writing magical realism and that has its own distinct set of problems. My fantasy elements happen within the real world. There is world planning going on but only in glimpses and when it is necessary. A hierarchical societal structure is mandatory anytime you deal with fantasy structure. Even then there is no real perfection because nature is too contrary. That makes it seem real, I think.

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  4. I always feel left out when I hear of World building I don’t world build. I just create a story in the world that I occupy. I admire you speculative, and Fantasy authors since your creativity genes are off the charts. Thanks for the post, Craig.

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  5. This is an aspect of world-building I haven’t yet explored much. You now have me thinking I should dig deeper. Fabulous post, Craig.

    Wishing you and yours—and our SE community and their loved ones—a healthy and happy Thanksgiving. (I’m off to start prep work on our meal. Ciao!)

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  6. I normally don’t have to do world-building, as my books primarily reflect contemporary settings. When I create fictional towns, I do have to stop and think of set-up and economy to a degree.

    Economics factored heavily into my Point Pleasant series of novels (particularly the first book) but those elements were based on research and historical fact. Between the collapse of the Silver Bridge and the town’s leading employer closing shop shortly afterward, the area suffered a huge blow.

    Loved your thought process in this post. Great job!

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  7. I do a lot of thinking about the economics of the fantasy worlds that I write, and also about how the economics shapes the culture. For example, in “Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts”, technological advances have made the human lands very prosperous, but have also increased the demand for magical goods from the various non-human kingdoms. As a consequence, many of the fantasy races are adopting human customs and tastes, even when they don’t quite make sense. I have a scene where my narrator walks down a street in Hunger City, the capitol of Nivose, and notices how many of the morauxe, the locals, have clothes made to look like human styles, listens to street musicians playing “Never On Sunday” and notices a restaurant that advertises “hand-burgers” and “strudel pies”.

    The wealthiest of the morauxe are those who do business with humans and are exposed to human customs, and who make an effort to be more like their biggest clients to attract more business. The poorer relations start to imitate the rich folks, because everyone wants to look rich and powerful. And along the way some things are lost or found in translation.

    On the other hand, a poorly thought out economy in SF/F fiction can break my suspension of disbelief. A lot of cyberpunk/dystopian works will have wealthy corporations that own everything and masses of horribly poor, but don’t explain what these megacorps do to make money. What do they make? Who do they sell it to? Other corporations?

    Or fantasy cities in exotic, remote locations. So they have massive diamond mines, but what do the miners eat? Where does the food come from in the middle of the mountains or the desert? Of it is shipped in, how, and by whom, and from where?

    I think you’re right, it’s not always necessary to explain these things, but the author has to know in order to describe the surroundings.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. What a great and thought-provoking post. I haven’t considered economics to this degree, but you certainly have set me thinking, lols. Thanks for sharing, Craig 😊

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