Economy in your built world

People who can remember the 1980s know that there’s such a thing as a world without an internet, and it’s possible to have an economy that runs on paper, not electrons. That’s a very different economy than the one we have now. A lot of the jobs people have today didn’t exist in 1980.

If your story world has a very different economy than the one you live in, you’re going to have to think hard about how it works. Your first cut at it probably won’t be perfectly consistent. You’ll have some things to iron out.

You can go as deep as you like here. I can’t tell you everything, because I don’t know everything, but I can get you rolling. How far you roll is up to you. Start with these questions and then keep adding your own until you are sick to death of the whole thing:

What are some typical occupations in your story world?
Which occupations are high-prestige and which are low?
Are some occupations limited to a single gender? (If your story world has genders.)
Who grows the food?
Who prepares it to be eaten?
How do people get fed, and where, and when?
Do people use currency, and if so, what kind? Coins? Paper? Electronic? Some sort of intangible asset (such as honor)?
How is money stored? In banks? Computers? Under the mattress?
Is money distributed out fairly evenly, or is there massive inequity?
Who owns the land?
Is land partitioned out equally or unequally?
Do the owners of the land work it themselves, or do they hire out the labor?
How does inheritance work? Is land inherited? Money? If so, does gender affect who can inherit? Does the first-born inherit more?
Do most people own the houses they live in?
Does anybody own the houses they live in?
Is there community property that needs to be maintained? If so, who makes sure that the maintenance gets done, and that it gets shared out fairly?
Can people own animals? Do animals have any rights at all?
Can people own other people? If so, what are the rules on this? Is the ownership absolute? Is there a time-limitation on ownership? Does the owner have the right of life-and-death over the person owned? Is the person owned considered a person?
Do people have the right to move around, choose their occupation, choose their mate, choose their home? If not, who makes these choices?
What level of knowledge does this society have?
Is knowledge maintained in people’s minds only, or is it recorded? If it’s recorded, what medium is it recorded on? Do all people have the ability to access knowledge, or is it limited to certain high-skill people? If access is limited, what is the reason for this limitation? Is it expensive to record knowledge? How durable is the knowledge?
What forms of entertainment does this society have?
Is entertainment cheap or expensive?
Who provides the entertainment? Can anybody do it, or are there only a few super-skilled people who do all the entertaining?
Are there special locations where entertainment happens, or can it be done anywhere?
What kinds of sports does this society have?
Are sports for everybody, or is there a physical elite that plays while most people watch?
Are the sports competitive or cooperative?
Are the sports dangerous? How acceptable is it for people to die while participating in sports? How common is it?
Who does the healing in this society?
Do healers need special training, or do they just develop their natural skills?
Are healers paid or volunteer? Do they have high social status or low? Are they trusted or scorned? Do they have real knowledge or are they mostly quacks?
Are healers restricted to treat people of their own gender, and if so, what is the reason for this restriction?
What forms of spirituality does this society have?
Are there people who are paid to lead out in spiritual practices, or it is a do-it-yourself world? Are there spiritual elites? Is it possible to make money by being a spiritual leader?
What is the legal structure of this society? Are there written laws, oral laws, or is it an every-man-for-himself dog-eat-dog world?
Are there judges in this society? Are they volunteer or paid?
Are they trained in special schools or do they just exercise a natural talent for justice? Or do they act as judges by virtue of holding political power, in which case they don’t answer to any higher authority?
Are there military forces in this society? Are they volunteer or paid?
Are there different military forces in the same society, and if so, do they compete for control?
Does the military have any special training?
What is the social status of the military?
Are there police units in this society? Are they volunteer or paid? Trained or untrained? Cruel or kind?

That’s enough to get you going. There is no limit to the questions that you can ask.

Please note that answering these questions is not your end goal. The point of these questions is to get you thinking about what kinds of conflict can develop in your story world. Your end goal is to tell a great story, and story means conflict. In a world where everybody is happy happy happy, all the stories are boring. You don’t want that kind of world. Resist the urge to make your world fair. Make it unfair. Make it grossly unfair.

If you look at the questions above, you’ll see that many of them suggest ways to make your story world horribly unfair, to put your people at odds with each other.

That’s bad for them, but it’s good for you, because your job is to foment discontent, conflict, misery—and to forge a great story out of it.

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