One of the first things to keep in mind is that an economic system is not a money system. A money system is part of the economic system, but economy is so much more. An economy is about how the resources of a world are exploited and how the wealth created by that exploitation is spread around. Closely related to the economic system is the political system because that describes how the people that deal with all this wealth and activity are organized, and the two are always closely tied together.
As human history has shown there are many, many ways to organize both economic systems and governments. What is important to your believability is internal consistency.
For example: suppose you have taken time to describe a Stone Age family living in a grass hut by the beach as part of a Stone Age village.
OK… then we read…
Momma hears a ring tone, whips out a cell phone, listens, and says, “Papa, it’s the Joneses. They have half a dozen lobsters to trade.”
“Tell them we’ll give them two pearls, and not a coconut more.” grunts Dad while he is mending nets with the other men who are at the hut.
What happened here? Is it believable?
What we have here is a mix of technologies, and that mix implies a difference in economies. The cell phone is not coming from the Stone Age, barter-based economy you have been setting up.
Is it believable?
It can be if your story includes elements of culture differences as part of its theme, or perhaps a touch of humor. This could be part of a story about the lives of villagers next to a new alien city that has sprung up recently, or something ala The Flintstones. But if this is a dramatic fantasy story about vikings, sirens and maidens, this scene is going to be tough sledding.
The lesson here is: Have the economy support the story. Decide what the story is about, then weave an economic setting around that premise. The story can be about the economy, or the impact of a new technology, that’s fine, but take the time to figure out the implications of the economy or technology.
Some common pitfalls
The most common pitfall I see in stories is scale. Here is an example:
The messenger rushes in, bows before the king, and relates the bad news.
The king’s face darkens with outrage. He shouts, “GENERAL MAYHEM!”
“SIR!” replies the general who moves to in front of him and salutes.
“This means war. I want you to attack The Baron’s castle at…” checks his wrist hour glass, “Five o’clock this afternoon.”
“Yes Sir!” General Mayhem salutes crisply, about faces, and marches out.
…Umm, yeah! This general is going to mobilize how many men? Have them march how far? In how long? This is a scale problem. In an effort to rush the story along, this writer has de facto shrunk the army to about twenty men, made General Mayhem a sergeant, put the Baron’s castle about five miles away, and made it about the size of a McDonald’s.
This is an example of a scaling problem. I find them ugly, they pop me out of belief suspension. But it should be noted that many readers are insensitive to scaling issues, and many stories with bad scaling problems are considered good stories. For example, because the Star Wars franchise centers around a handful of characters, I find the Empire feels more like a county than a country.
A second pitfall relates directly to economies. Try this scene:
The strong, silent hero rides his horse into the western town situated in the middle of a plain of endless hard cake mud.
As he rides by the general store, he hears a fair-voiced damsel inside plead to the store owner, “Please, just a little more credit?”
He stops in front of the saloon. He walks through the swinging doors, by twenty men sitting at tables, up to the bar…
Umm… exactly what is keeping this town alive, and the people there? What are these people doing for money? Where are the merchants getting their supplies from? What is the town shipping out to bring those supplies in?
In sum: Who’s paying for what?
This is the full-face economic problem. Once again, for some kinds of stories it is ignored. But if you ignore it, you are writing a fairy story or a parable. And the problem with that is there are only seven story types, so you are going to be doing a retread of someone else’s retread. Your challenge becomes a fashion challenge: Can I write what is fashionable in story telling right now?
The alternative is to take your economy seriously, and reveal what differences technology and economy make to how people live. That will provide you with an endless variety of new stories. I find this a lot more fun.
One last pitfall to note, this one being about writing about real economies: There is a lot of disagreement among readers about how an economy should function, and that disagreement is based on emotion. This is why it’s easy to write completely preposterous stories about evil bankers and evil rich businessmen and have many readers enjoy the result. But this difference in beliefs is does have an advantage if you write about believable and internally consistent economies: You can make editorial comments, and people will take them seriously.
Seeing it like a tourist or seeing it like a native?
One important element of a believable economy is the context of the viewer: Are you viewing this economy as a passing through stranger or an I’m living it full-time native?
This difference first hit me when I was being an English teacher in Korea. I did so for many years, and found that what looked strange and alien the first year started looking more logical and practical as I stayed longer and experienced more. Here is an example:
When I traveled into the countryside on the weekends to see second-tier tourist attractions, I would stop at country convenience stores to get a Coke. One day I noticed that the Coke cans were consistently put on the shelves upside down. This was strange, and this was no accident!
It was also a great topic for the weekday English class. I would tell my students about my travels and let them help me understand what I’d seen. I loved it because I learned more, and they loved it because talking about my travels was talking about a familiar and comfortable topic for them. That made it easier for them to practice their English.
When I brought up the upside down Coke mystery they responded, “Oh! That’s to keep the top from getting dusty. You don’t do that in the US?”
“… No, I guess that’s because in the US they are always inside a cooler.”
Mystery solved, and I was now seeing this from the native perspective, not the tourist perspective.
This perspective issue is something to keep in mind. When you are telling your story, who’s seeing your economy and what background to they bring to their sight?
And there you have it. In sum:
o If you’re telling a parable or a fairy story, a believable economy is not important.
o Economies shape how people relate to each other and their environment. This is why it is important to your story.
o Economies are an emotional issue and different people see them as running different ways. This gives you the chance to do some editorializing, but it means that some readers will disagree with how believable your economy is.
o Is the observer in your story native to the economy or a tourist? Observers will see the economy differently depending on their background.
Have fun with your economies.