There’s No Target in Middle Earth: Economics in Fantasy

Back to Part 3 of my VirtualBalticon panel notes.

In your original fantasy setting, everything the characters own or interact with has to come from somewhere, from food and drink to durable goods. Let’s talk about how to build a believable material culture for your world.

These notes come from the titular panel from Virtual Balticon 54 with panelists: E.C. Ambrose (as moderator), Gail Martin, Roberta Rogow, James Stratton, and Beth Tanner.

First up, let’s talk about how people get this wrong. Some of the biggest pet peeves that keep cropping up in fantasy novels.

Pet peeves about fantasy logic

  1. Horses are not cars

    Horses are not like cheap used cars. They are expensive to both buy and to maintain. And, in a world with horses? You’re traveling the paths that exist, not a highway.
  2. Space and time have set values.

    Especially in alternate history, how long does it take to travel? How long does it take news to travel? It depends on who you are and where you live.

    Think of Napoleonic couriers, homing pigeons, ravens, and beacons.

    If you lived near their home base, you’d be far better informed, faster than many people betwixt and between the location where the news happened and where the news traveled.
  3. Stew is not portable.

    Think about your food preservation and its transport.
  4. Clothes are finite.

    Throughout history, many people only had only one change of clothing, and very little coin money. Most things were done by bartering.
  5. Wild country is rare in settled countries.

    Those ‘wild’ prairies or moors? Likely had something grazing on them, and a herder watching over them.

    Carpenters and loggers in the woods. People gathering medicinal herbs in all sorts of places. Open land outside of cities and towns were mostly farmed. There isn’t much up for grabs that someone doesn’t try to make a living off of… unless there’s a reason.
  6. Some fabrics are worth more than others.

    In The Hobbit, Bilbo’s robe is a patchwork robe, with a wide variety of expensive silks.

    (My Note: If he or his family were tailors and these were the offcuts? Maybe. But there needs to be a reason)

How To Set Up An Economy That Works

Here are some things to keep in mind.

  • What things are available in stores? What things must be given, inherited, or earned?
  • How good you looked often depended on family sewing skills — or the ability to pay someone with those. Plus, what cloth was from your region.
  • Coinage – do they have people, gods, or something else on them? Are they a consistent size, weight, or materials? Or mixed?
  • Show the different classes – there usually isn’t going to be a single economic class, even if they pretend it.
    • Someone’s usually in charge.
    • If someone is shocked at all the silverware, that tells us something about them.
    • If some people does something weird it can be: “oh, the coastal people usually do X”.
    • Are they nibbling on the ornamental fruit display?

The very best of science-fiction and fantasy showcase different cultures and hint at where they came from. They display the different economic systems and how that affects what people within them prioritize.

Examples of Good Fantasy Economics

  • Lois McMaster Bujold’s science-fiction VorKosigan series.
  • Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series.
  • Fran Wilde’s Bone Universe series.
  • Juliette Wade’s Mazes of Power (she also has a world-building blog)
  • Guy Gavriel Kay’s work

Inconsistencies with your world’s economy, while sounding like the most boring lecture, can make or break the story for many of your readers. Be sure to think through the implications of where material items came from and how they got to be there, and you’ll be well on your way to creating a functioning fantasy world.


Any tips or tricks I missed?

Any world-building favorites you’d like to give a shout out to?

5 thoughts on “There’s No Target in Middle Earth: Economics in Fantasy

  1. I’ve been working on a story which takes place after a war, and part of the story is the economic disruptions of transitioning from a wartime to a peacetime economy – though of course the characters don’t use the word “economy…”

    By the way, I learned about this site from your father, and give it a read now and then.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I first read your title, I thought, “Bilbo had a target on his back from the day he inherited the ring!”

    This is all great stuff. I actually have an easy out for some things. “Because dragons!” I mean, talk about disruptive market forces. But I tried to be realistic with that. Some things developed more slowly, and some more quickly. My bigger problem was that in the first book, I stuck somewhat too close to our history. I should have looked at “because dragons” from a bit more distance. But apparently it worked, anyway.

    On the other hand, distances, and especially travel times, were a joke in my first drafts, I found that using Google Maps, switching between terrain mode and photo mode, and allowing for 500 years of change, helped a great deal.

    Horses not only cost money and take work, but they can only travel so far per day, and are nowhere near as fast a car on a highway (or a dragon flying). Research on horses, combined with my own knowledge of walking, hiking, and running, made me do serious rework on timelines, how much food they had to carry, and dealing with (or avoiding) others while on a journey (for starters). Knowing intimately the journey on horseback from near Stirling to the Isle of Skye (Scotland) from my studies and imagination, it was pretty wild to drive it in a few hours, even with slow traffic part of the way.

    Liked by 1 person

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