Sickles and Sixpence: Deciding Your Fantasy World’s Currency

I’ve talked once about deciding on your fantasy world’s religion, but there’s another question I’ve been struggling with: money. Moolah. Coinage. Currency, whether it be in bills or beans or other shiny things.

moneyhobbit
*very* shiny things

There are two facets to fantasy money important to consider in world building — what counts as currency/trade in your fantasy world, and what do you call it?

Obviously, unless your plot deals intimately with the economic structure of your fantasy realm, you’re not going to want to inundate your readers with this kind of detail. Readers want to know about your characters, their troubles and the big ol’ exciting plot, not exchange rates and other economic jargon. 

But, think of Harry Potter. Going to Diagon Alley for the first time and getting money from his Gringotts vault is a threshhold-crossing moment for Harry. He’s brought into this  unfamiliar but amazing magical world, given a purse of gold coins, and told to go buy stuff. We learn so much about wizards in that chapter — we see their cauldron shop, the owl emporium, the shop that sells their custom-tailored Wizarding robes. And legitimizing the whole experience is a brief, comically confusing rundown of Wizard money:

moneygringotts

“The gold ones are Galleons. Seventeen silver Sickles to a Galleon and twenty-nine Knuts to a Sickle, it’s easy enough.”
JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

And suddenly, as a reader, we’re right there in it. We want a moneybag of tinkling, glittering gold galleons. We want to buy our wand and school books and get fitted for our robes. Even a brief mention establishing your fantasy world’s currency can go a long way to legitimize the world. It’s a little detail, but a fun one, and one you can make as unique or imaginative as you like.

JKR’s galleons, sickles, and knuts follow closely the gold, silver, and bronze standard many of us already know. Lots of fantasy writers model their money after present day currency; it’s familiar to readers and an easy comparison to make. They may use dollars and cents, gold coins, or other precious metals and jewels that can be easily understood by the reader as having some value.

moneySCROOGE

But you don’t have to be pigeonholed by paper money and metal coins. Depending on the deficiencies in your fantasy world, currency and trade could be anything that has worth or is desperately needed in that world. The Ancient Mayans used foodstuffs like cacao beans or salt for trade. Maybe your fantastical desert realm trades in vials of water. Or money comes in the form of owed favors. Or the currency consists of magical gem stones each with different values and potencies of power. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, leaves are used (rather disastrously) as currency on one planet:

“Thank you. Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich. […]

“But we have also,” continued the management consultant, “run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability, which means that, I gather, the current going rate has something like three deciduous forests buying on ship’s peanut.” […]

“So in order to obviate this problem,” he continued, “and effectively revalue the leaf, we are about to embark on a massive defoliation campaign, and…er, burn down all the forests. I think you’ll all agree that’s a sensible move under the circumstances.”
― Douglas Adams, The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

So, there’s lots of creative avenues you can play with deciding on your fantasy money. But how do you decide what to call it? That’s where I’m having the most trouble. I can never decide on a word I like very much. As a fantasy writer, you might want to use something more unique than “dollars”, but you don’t exactly want to invent a gibberish word like perflippetyschlop either. You want to use a word that seems familiar enough that the reader can tell, very quickly, that  you’re talking about money. In researching this, I came across a few ideas:

Find a name similar to real world currency. Use words like dollar, dram, pound, rupee, shilling, sixpence, copper, ruble, guilder, farthing, penny, crown, or mark to draw inspiration.
Create a word using synonyms, root words, or words in other languages meaning money, wealth, or value. For example, in Latin “unum” means one, “decem” ten, “centenus” a hundred; “pecunia” is a word for money,  “fortuna” a word for luck, chance, wealth and property. From these we get words like cents, pecuniary, and fortune.
Use a fantasy money generator, like Chaotic Shiny or the SeventhSanctum.
Build a word off known slang. 50 Slang Terms for Money gives examples like simoleons, stacks, two-bits, or brass.

The general consensus seems to be “don’t over-think it” (and, if you’re writing science fiction, don’t use “credits” because everyone already has), but I still think making your fantasy currency unique can be a fun exercise as a writer and an immersive experience for the reader. Here are some other resources you might find helpful:

PINK line

Now, I want to turn this over to you: if you’re writing anything to do with fantasy, does your world have unique money in it? What names did you choose? Is your money similar to real life bills and coins, or did you do something a little different? Tell me in the comments, let’s talk!

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9 thoughts on “Sickles and Sixpence: Deciding Your Fantasy World’s Currency

  1. Good points. I think current and historical currencies can be good models for fictional currencies in fantasy and science fiction. I also believe that writers creating their own monetary systems might need to familiarize themselves with existing patterns of commerce–not enough to qualify you for a PhD in economics, of course, but enough so that your monetary system makes logical sense.

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    1. I definitely agree that it’s important for writers to make sure their monetary systems make sense, though they should be careful how they parse that information out into the work itself; I don’t know if every story is going to require that level of detail.

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      1. Oh, yes, I completely agree. Just like all of the systems that are part of a fantastical world, these economy ideas should be discussed organically as part of the text. To paraphrase Chuck Wendig: you’re writing a novel, not an encyclopedia.

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  2. Great article, Christina! Currency is one of the things I need to give a little more thought in my WIP’s world. I’ve established a few things in my backstory documents, like the names and denominations, and that Eva and her fellow Councilors aren’t paid for their work and have to trade or barter for personal items instead of using coin. (Though their King gives them money for travelling abroad.) But it’s worth a second look to ensure I’m not missing something. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. It sounds like you’ve got a great, thought-out system in place! I still need to find some unique names for my denominations, writing a fantasy gives you such a huge playground, it’d be a shame not to do something fun and different!

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  3. I completely agree with you, I loved Harry Potter’s currency system and although it was only mentioned a few times it stuck with me and wasn’t over-complicated. I’ve read some books that are just way overly complex and then they expect to you know that an X is worth more than a Y but less than a Z.

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    1. Exactly! You don’t have to get super detailed into the ~economic structure~ of your fantasy world to create something interesting that readers will remember. HP’s money is simple, it’s unique, and while the exchange rate is comically complicated, the money itself isn’t difficult for readers to understand at all.

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  4. Pingback: Books & Blogging in May (a wild wrap up appears) | christina writes

  5. Pingback: Happy Writer - Sickles and Sixpence: Writing Currency in Your Fantasy Novel

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