It’s now time for everyone’s favourite world-building topic: the economy. Wait, come back! Yes, it can be a dry topic but it can also have a big impact on your world.
Consider Black Panther and the fictional country of Wakanda. Its primary resource, Vibranium, is a powerful metal that allows Wakanda to remain rich yet completely isolated—a premise that raises interesting economic questions. The Economist magazine, for example, has an article called “Wakandanomics” which considers what a Wakandan economy would look like in the real world and how it would compare to the economies of other countries.
As the article explains, Wakanda is unusual in that it doesn’t export its most valuable resource. Instead, Wakandans use Vibranium to make their own weaponry and transport, as well as the “nano-tech” panthersuit. From the article: “It is as if Botswana not only mined, cut and polished diamonds, but also designed and produced the world’s diamond necklaces, drills and bearings.” Even Wakanda’s finished products are bought and sold almost entirely by Wakandans themselves. With that in mind, you should ask yourself what effect the economy has on your world’s trade relationships (and vice versa).
“Given that economic conditions can have a significant impact on people’s motivations, you may want to consider whether your fictional world is capitalist, socialist, or something else entirely.”
Another example of a fictional, robust economy can be found in the Star Trek universe. In the “post-scarcity” Star Trek federation, money as we know it no longer exists. Everything they need—including hot meals—they can get through the use of replicators.
Manu Saadia, who appeared with Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman on a New York Comic Con panel, is the author of Trekonomics. He points out that a society in which material wealth is abundant changes people’s priorities. Its inhabitants are more likely to value status and therefore want to cultivate talent and intellect. People continue to find things to compete over, as well. As Saadia says, “[w]hat’s not abundant in Star Trek’s universe is the captain’s chair.”
Krugman, for his part, provides a real-world example of shifting values due to economic equality: “Some of us live—actually college professors—live in an environment where there isn’t that much disparity in salaries but there’s lots of disparity in prestige and how you’re regarded….” The end of want does not guarantee the end of evil or major problems, either. Referring to the Star Trek universe, Krugman says “there’s violence, there’s war, there’s an amazing number of holodeck malfunctions.”
Given that economic conditions can have a significant impact on people’s motivations, you may want to consider whether your fictional world is capitalist, socialist, or something else entirely. Maybe, like Star Trek, your world doesn’t have money but, unlike Star Trek, is primarily agrarian. In Lord of the Rings’ “The Shire”, for example, it appears that its Hobbit inhabitants rely almost entirely on local resources and agriculture. The One Ring itself, however, could be considered the ultimate currency. In a world that includes limited access to magic, anything that makes magic possible, such as the One Ring, becomes immensely valuable.
Granted, you likely won’t take a deep dive into economic theory in your actual narrative. But knowing how your world’s economy works can help you better understand your characters’ motivations and shape the way your stories unfold.
After graduating from Ryerson University in 2009, Alex spent many years trying to figure out exactly what he wanted to do in life. Eventually he decided to focus on writing. He spends his free time following the latest political news and cheering on the Toronto Blue Jays.