Economic Worldbuilding: How Class, Economy, and Money Affects Your Characters

Hi Rosiee! Thanks for inviting us to the Be Your Own Mentor blog. We’re so excited to delve deeper into the following topic … economic worldbuilding! 

Let’s get started!

Maybe you’ve heard of the book The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain. A little known book, right? Well, if you do know it, then you likely know of the plot — two people from opposite classes (one poor, one rich) meet and decide to exchange lives. The poor becomes the rich, the rich decides to live like the poor — you get the picture.

What if something similar happened to your main character?

Together, Sarena and I have been working on a book similar to The Prince and the Pauper where actual long-lost twins — one a princess, the other a thief — meet.

Lots of shenanigans ensue from there. But you want to know one of the most important aspects of the process of writing a dual-POV, Prince-and-the-Pauper-like tale?

Economic worldbuilding.

(As if worldbuilding isn’t tough enough, amirite?)

First, let’s define economic worldbuilding. I want to preface this by saying this is NOT the end-all, be-all of economic worldbuilding — and that we’re still learning, day by day, how class, economy, and money affects our main characters.

So here we go: 

Worldbuilding deals with not just magic systems and mapmaking your kingdoms (though both are important!), but rather the ways in which your world and characters intertwine. When thinking of economic worldbuilding — and the ways in which our characters identify with the people and places around them — we think immediately of class inequalities. There are, unfortunately, always unfair and unjust qualities to society, but in our characters’ worlds, they each perceive ‘inequality’ and ‘unfairness’ in their own ways. Think about the ways in which your character views the world around them. This will greatly help inform the economic worldbuilding you set out to implement into your book.

Let’s break this down a bit:

Class: this is the way in which society categorizes and organizes itself, creating unintentional — and intentional — hierarchies. Clearly, a king, queen, or noble would be at the highest tier. A good example of a book that examines class is Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan. The world is divided into three castes: Paper (the lowest and most oppressed); Steel (humans with monster-like physical qualities); and Moon (the ruling caste of demons composed of soldiers and nobility). The main character of Girls is a Paper Girl, someone chosen by the king to live in the palace and serve him. The book explores issues of class identities, class relations, and ultimately how those in higher positions of power abuse and use those below them to their advantage.

Think about your own manuscript. Is there a caste or class system? Who is in power, and why? Previously on the blog, Hannah Whitten spoke about political worldbuilding, so be sure to take a look at that to get a better sense of your world’s politics before you dive deeper into its economics. It’s important your readers know where your character falls in the spectrum of the greater whole of society, and where they’ll end up by the end of the book. It’s important, too, to think about how these greater powers/castes/classes can be dismantled.

Economy: We’ve never taken an economics class, but economics lives and breathes around us — and our characters — on a daily basis. Think about the wealth of the country your character lives in. Is their kingdom/queendom/empire in talks of trade with another country? What resources does their kingdom thrive on, that other kingdoms don’t have? 

Money: Yes, money very likely exists in your world. You might’ve even made up a few words to explain their worth (galleons and sickles, anyone?). I think a great example of a book that explores how money can be tied to magic is Everless by Sara Holland. Essentially, the book takes place in a world where time itself is magic, created from your own blood. Your blood is then turned into coins that can be diluted into drinks, and add years to your life. On the other hand, there are people called Bleeders who can, quite literally, slash time from your veins by spilling your blood.

You’ve probably heard of the phrase “time is money.” And of course, there are always questions you can ask yourself when uncovering and layering the economics of your world.

All this to say: There are a lot of factors that play into deciding the economics of your world. When considering how to begin your economic worldbuilding, consider the following.

How does my character fit into the larger scope of my world?

When thinking of this, ponder the way your character interacts with the world and people around them. If they’re a thief, perhaps they only have one trustworthy friend — or none at all. If they’re an assassin, maybe they were taken in as part of a larger guild and therefore interact with their own “mini society” within the greater one.

What does my character want?

Oftentimes, your character’s motivations are going to tie into the way the world works — and its politics. This is why setting up your worldbuilding rules ties so deeply into the economics of it. Looking back at Everless, time is taken from blood and then made into coins; so time is quite literally money, and to make money you must give away some time from your own life. So if your character wants more time, they need more money. In our own manuscript, the book opens with the character wanting to steal naan (an Indian flatbread). But that micro want then opens up into the macro desire: not just for food, but for someone to share that food with — a family.

How does my character’s position in the world affect the way they think?

If your character is poor, they may hate the rich. If your character is rich, they may never think about the poor (or think very little of them).

Overall, economics are extremely important to worldbuilding, but is oftentimes overlooked during first (or “zero”) drafts. But the next time you’re ready to pop open that fantasy or sci-fi manuscript, think about how your world — the macroscopic view of it — ties into the microscopic visions, wants, and desires of your character.

Again, a big shout-out and thanks to Rosiee for inviting us onto the blog! It was a blast!

SarenaAndSashaPhotoSarena and Sasha are twin sisters living in Ontario, Canada. They love reading books in their spare time and enjoy sci-fi, fantasy, and mystery novels. They are both authors and publishing students, and have been writing books since they were nine years old. They are represented by Peter Knapp at Park & Fine Literary and Media.

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