Currency is an important part of any developed society, so it isn’t an aspect you should ignore if you’re creating a world for your story. Sure, you could use the standard bronze, silver, and gold pieces, but that doesn’t really add anything special to your story. You can use the currency in your world to provide more context about the society it’s used in, instead of just adding it in as an afterthought.
Now, you’re probably wondering how a currency can tell you anything about society, so I’ll provide some examples to illustrate this. Consider a traditional fantasy world, where there are established societies of dwarves, elves, and humans. Each society uses a different currency, that reveals more about the resources they have available to them and what they specialize in. The dwarves use uniformly cut gemstones to trade for goods. The elves, on the other hand, use delicate silver coins pressed in the shape of different leaves. Meanwhile, the human society trades exclusively with rugged, misshapen bronze coins.
Even if you don’t know anything else about the world, the currency that is used in each of those societies gives you a little bit of insight into how they operate. Dwarves are known to be miners and skilled craftsmen, so it wouldn’t be surprising that their currency is made up of precious stones. The elves, in this case, can be inferred to be careful artisans, with a reverence for nature. The human society in this example, however, is likely made up of simple farmers, who are perhaps just developing a new currency.
Stories thrive on details, so you should never neglect an opportunity to personalize an element of the setting. By taking the time to create a currency that is tailor-made for the society you’ve created, you can make your story even more immersive.
The Characteristics of Currency
Now that you understand the importance of customizing your fictional society’s currency, you could probably use some guidelines to help you brainstorm ideas.
There aren’t any rules that are necessarily set in stone when it comes to designing a currency, but there are certainly some common themes that appear in currencies from cultures all over the world. Most currency takes the form of metal coins, and there’s a good reason for that, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only option.
Metal coins are a common choice for currency because they tend to fit the following criteria for what works. The same goes for plastic or cotton bills. However, don’t feel pressured to conform to all of these criteria! They’re more like suggestions, not rules.
The material that the currency is made out of should be reasonably accessible, but not overly abundant. For example, think about gold coins. Gold is a material that is relatively common, but it is difficult to mine and it isn’t something common people would simply stumble upon.
For the dwarven example from the intro, the gemstones that they use for currency are common to them because they live in the mountainside, where the gems naturally form. However, each piece of currency can only be created with a significant amount of work mining and cutting the stones.
If a society creates currency out of a limited material, that leaves no room to expand the economy if the society grows. However, if the currency is made out of a material that is abundant and worthless, then nothing would stop the citizens from creating their own counterfeit currency and damagingly inflating the economy.
Another important aspect to consider when selecting a material for your fictional currency is durability. You need to select something that isn’t easily destroyed and can stand the test of time. That means it should be resistant to damage, water, erosion, and decay. If a piece of currency begins to degrade after only a few years, it could have disastrous effects on the economy and individuals’ wealth.
I’ve seen several different stories that failed to meet this criterion with their currencies. One story had elves exchanging coins made of wood, which wouldn’t be a very durable option. Wood is susceptible to water damage and decay, and it is easily broken. The coins would begin to deteriorate within only a few months, even if they were treated with something.
Another story used clay pieces for coins. That’s a little better than wood, but there are still some issues associated with that. Unglazed clay is extremely porous, so it would absorb water. Over time, the coins would begin to stink and would become discolored. And, if the clay wasn’t fired at a high temperature, the coins would be brittle and easy to chip and break. However, glazing the coins and firing them at an extremely high temperature could create a strong, nonporous surface that would make them more reasonable to use as currency.
Whatever material you select, make sure that it is going to hold up in the long term. If not, then make sure you are prepared to address these issues at some point in the story for the sake of realism.
Remember that the currency will be carried around on a regular basis, so it shouldn’t be needlessly cumbersome or heavy. Heavier materials, such as metals and gemstones, can work if they are small enough to make up for their weight, but other materials could do this job a bit better. No one wants to heft around a huge sack of heavy coins just to buy bread at the market, anyway.
This is a large factor in why paper, cotton, or plastic bills are so popular. The weight of carrying around $100 in bills is significantly less than if you were carrying around the same amount in change, so it makes sense. That doesn’t mean that weight is the most important factor to consider for your fictional currency, but it is something you should keep in mind.
Finally, you can stop thinking about the material your currency is made out of, and start thinking about how that currency is actually made. Coins have taken up the bulk of the examples so far, but there are countless other forms that currency can take. Coins themselves can even come in many different shapes besides just circles. They could have ridges, a hole in the center, or even be shaped like a leaf, like from the example of the elven society in the intro.
Currency can take the form of gemstones, metal shapes, rings, digital credits, paper bills, and much more. However, whatever shape you select needs to be consistent. You cannot have a coin that is circular and another coin that is meant to represent the same value a wildly different shape. They need to be as uniform and consistent as possible, or it would be much easier for people to pass off counterfeit currency as legitimate.
This goes without saying, but not everything is going to be in the same sort of price range. You wouldn’t spend anywhere near as much money on groceries as you would spend on a house, for example. If a character is paying for a house that costs 40,000 units of currency, then it isn’t realistic for them to drag out a bag of 40,000 copper pieces. This example highlights the need to have units of currency that represent larger values.
Many fictional stories rely on the use of platinum, gold, silver, and bronze or copper coins. A platinum coin could be worth 100 gold coins, while a gold coin would be worth 100 silver coins. This ability to divide and stack currency will make it much more useful for people in the society to actually pay for things. However, the way you choose to divide the currency is very important. If each coin represents 1/100th of the next most valuable coin, and assuming you are using copper, bronze, silver, gold, and platinum, then the conversion rate would be:
- Copper = 1 unit
- Bronze = 100 units
- Silver = 10,000 units
- Gold = 1,000,000 units
- Platinum = 100,000,000 units
Looking at those numbers, it doesn’t really seem practical. If a platinum coin is worth 100,000,000 copper coins, then your society either has an enormous wealth gap, or the economy is so inflated that anything smaller than a silver coin would be worthless.
To make that system work reasonably for an average society, you could either cut down on the number of different coins they use, or you could change the conversion rate between coins. If each coin is worth 1/10th of the next most valuable coin, then the conversion rate would be:
- Copper = 1 unit
- Bronze = 10 units
- Silver = 100 units
- Gold = 1,000 units
- Platinum = 10,000 units
That seems like a more reasonable spread for converting coins. However, this doesn’t mean that each coin needs to represent exactly the same percentage of the next most valuable coin. That’s definitely the more simple way of doing this, but that isn’t how U.S. coins work. 1 dollar could be worth either 4 quarters, 10 dimes, 20 nickels, or 100 pennies.
Assign different values to different pieces of currency and play around with the numbers for a bit until you find a system you like.
Other Considerations for Currency
In some stories, currency can take vastly different forms. Some societies may depend on the use of energy, magic, or souls to fuel their economy. The currency could also take the form of dust or fluid, depending on the properties of those materials and society’s ability to contain them.
If your story contains magical elements, then your options are practically limitless. Coins could be made of unicorn horns, or people could trade with dragon scales. Currency could be derived from emotions, like fear or joy. It could really be anything you can imagine, as long as you can justify it.
However, unless your story revolves around the use of currency, you probably don’t want to distract your readers with something outlandish. If it isn’t important to your story, then you might want to keep it simple.
The currency that is used in your world is going to depend on the type of society that will be using it. For more information on how to create a fictional society, check out my other article: Creating a Fictional Culture, Step by Step.
Currency for Developing Societies
Just because your society has an official currency doesn’t mean everyone is going to use it. When a currency is brand new, it might not have had time to spread to everyone. In addition to that, some people may not have faith in it, and might choose to continue with their previous way of life for as long as possible. In these cases, societies likely rely heavily on a system of bartering instead of—or in addition to—the official currency.
Bartering allows individuals to trade goods and services for other goods and services without any money involved. A fisherman could trade fish for grains from a farmer, while a beekeeper could trade a jar of honey for a basket of eggs. People could choose to continue to barter with one another for some time after a currency has been widely distributed. In fact, including units of currency in these trades could help introduce the new system into common usage.
Another situation in which people may choose to barter is if the wealth gap makes it impossible for them to live otherwise. If society is firmly divided between the rich and the poor, the poor could revert back to a system of bartering to ensure that they are able to eat. Making money would become just a rich man’s errand, while the poor create an economy around what they each contribute to society.
Naming Your Fictional Currency
In my experience, coming up with names for things is the hardest part. Maybe that’s not an issue for you, but I find it difficult to come up with names that are simple and appropriate. Sure, you could lean back on whatever the currency is made of, such as “gold pieces” or “rubies,” and that probably wouldn’t hurt your story much. It might, however, make all the work you did to create the currency go to waste since the name isn’t memorable enough.
However, a name can add an additional touch of personalization to your world, especially if you are going to use a more traditional form of currency. The Harry Potter wizarding society uses traditional bronze, silver, and gold coins, but by naming them Knuts, Sickles, and Galleons, that provides just one more immersive detail for fans of the series to enjoy.
When coming up with a name for your currency, you should consider what the entire currency is called, as well as what all the different parts are called as well. You could, however, refer to different pieces of currency by the same name, but with different descriptors. If your currency is called “Corts,” (see, I told you I’m not good at naming things) then the different types of Corts could be Bronze Corts, Silver Corts, and Gold Corts. That can be a lot easier than coming up with unique names for each type, and it won’t negatively affect your story to take this route. The naming conventions you choose can just be a matter of preference.
Best of luck with worldbuilding! I know you can create something great.