Way With Worlds: Economics


[Way With Worlds appears at Seventh Sanctum at at MuseHack.  It focuses on worldbuilding as a writer or setting designer and is included here to help our readers who craft fictional settings]

We’ve talked origins, ecologies, and sentient life in your settings  We’ve discussed the culture that your intelligent life will have (again, if your story has intelligent life).  Now it’s time to get to economics which, much like real life has a lot of impact, but isn’t something we often think of (or think of fondly).

My guess is that upon hearing that “it’s economics time”, you’re probably not filled with enthusiasm.  If you are, great, but in general I find that, when he subject of world building and economics comes up, most people’s reactions are less than positive.  Sometimes they’re pretty negative.

Most people’s reactions to anything involving economics is usually not positive, often a mix of regret, ignorance, and understandable rage.  I could go on about the why of that for awhile, but that’s best for another time.  Let’s go forward with the assumption that, in general, you need a bit of a boost and guidance on writing economics in your world.

If you do enjoy this (like me), then read on anyway just in case, and welcome to the club.

Now let me say off the bat that if you don’t get into the economics of world building that with the right perspective it’s interesting, informative, and even fun.  I also would note that it can’t be avoided at all because, like real life, economics is everywhere.  But I’ll focus on the fun part.

It’ll be easier.

What Is Economics

Economics can be described in many ways, but for a world builder my summary is that economics is where culture, intelligent life, and the ecology intersect.

  • Your intelligent life needs to exchange goods and services among each other.  That’s basic trade.
  • Because they’re interacting with each other that becomes part of culture.  Institutions, policies, and ethics evolve.
  • You intelligent life needs to extract goods, energy, and resources from the environment.  They’ve got to actually get stuff to trade and to even survive – mining, farming, hydrogen harvesting, what have you.
  • Your environment thus shapes the culture of the intelligent life because of what is and isn’t available.  The world and how one survives in it are always part of culture (or should be, though a culture unable to interact functionally with the ecology is a great and perhaps familiar tale).
  • Your intelligent life is shaped by the ecology, and their interactions with each other are shaped by the ecology they live.  There’s a feedback loop.

As soon as two members of whatever intelligent species you create trade sharp rocks and furs you get an economy.  As you’ve been building your world, you’ve probably been creating a lot of an economy anyway, you just didn’t think about it.  That may have even helped.

I find looking at economics in world building as the life/culture/ecology intersection helps you write better simply because it makes you ask what’s going on and how things works.  It’s removed from dismal ivory tower economic theory, boring statistics, and the hyperactive economic pundits.

With this  perspective, it’s time to create economics in your setting.

Building Your Economies

When you’re building the economic part of your world, taking these three elements – intelligent life, culture, and ecology – lets you start creating what you need.

Now as noted there’s a good chance you’ve already build something of an economy into your world anyway – it happens almost automatically, even if it’s just grafting on a lot of assumptions.  In time, good world builders will develop the skills and abilities they need to build the economic parts of their settings – it becomes automatic  But, I’m writing this with the assumption you need some help – or may not know how much you know.

A great way to build any setting and story is to ask and answer questions.  So here’s the questions you’ll want to answer when building your economy:

Sentient Life:

  • What does the sentient life need to sustain itself (assuming of course it has a survival urge, which I’m guessing it does)?  How is that extracted from the ecology?  What are the repercussions?
  • How aware is your sentient life of the impact it has on the ecology – and the impact the ecology has on it?  How has this been integrated into their culture?
  • Has the sentient life developed any disciplines or theories on economics based on their experiences?  How are these influenced – and how do they help or hinder them?


  • How much of the culture is influenced by economic concerns and concepts – and how rational are they?
  • How does the culture support intelligent life’s ability to keep getting what it needs from the ecology?  How does it hinder it?
  • Does the culture involve any long-term planning to deal with ecological and cultural changes that may shock the economy?
  • Is there a good sense of history in the culture of past economic good and bad times, and how do the characters react to that knowledge?


  • Can the ecology sustain what intelligent life is doing to/for/with it?
  • What limits does the ecology place on intelligent life – and is the intelligent life aware of it?
  • How is ecology changing as the intelligent species interact with, exploit, and sustain it?

When you’re writing out the economic parts of your world, you may also find yourself confronting a lot of real-life questions and your own assumptions.  That’s good, because one reason that economics is so dismal in our world is because it’s more a near-religious faith than actual policy and understanding.  When your world building surprises and shocks you, you’re doing a great job.

In fact, you may learn a few things.

But while building, you might want to get into levels of details, get more information, and eland your horizon.  Maybe you even get into this, or maybe you need help thinking this over . . .

Getting Into Details

If your early want to do some hardcore economic world building, you’re probably better off finding out about real economics.  Fortunately there’s plenty of ways to do that that don’t involve sitting in a class and falling asleep, or wondering if some economic expert is necessarily insane (hint – if he’s yelling all the time and uses sound effects, yes).

So a few resources if you want to dig in deep

History: Books on historical periods relevant to your writing or similar to your writing are usually pretty informative.  Economics always rears its head, wether it’s logistics for an army, or how you build a new temple.   You’ll also have a lot of fun learning about economics this way.

Documentaries: Grab some DVDs, hit the library, or go on a streaming video service and look for relevant documentaries.  You can even play these in the background while doing your world building to see if anything is adsorbed by osmosis.  I recommend history documentaries, oddball documentaries relevant to your specific interests, and shows about people’s careers – that’s where you learn how real life works.

Real Economics: If you’re up for it, actual economic texts, videos, blogs, and more may give you the information you need.  It may take some research to find someone reliable, but it’s usually worth it.  You probably don’t need to go this far unless it’s a serious part of world building – or if you’ve gotten bitten by the research bugs.

“Traceback:” This is a great way to do some serious economic world building.  Pick a subject you want to learn on and dive into it deeply.  Want to understand colonization, or when/why gold was valuable, and so on?  Pick a subject and figure out “why.”  This is for dedicated worldbuildgers, but it can be educational.

A fair warning, research usually challenges your own economic assumptions.  As a world builder, of course, that’s awesome.  After awhile it may even get addicting.  Speaking of . . .

So When Do I Stop?

Some people may have trouble getting to work on the economics in their world, but after awhile it can be hard to stop.  More an more seems relevant, more and more details get thrilling.  Just as someone can over describe a magic system or faster-than-light technology, people can eventually get into amazing detail about economics in the setting they’ve created.

So when do you stop building your economy?

Well, first, you stop when you’re done and think you have enough – just because you design it doesn’t mean it has to be mentioned directly in your story.  But as noted worldbuilding can get addictive so you may need an idea of when to stop yourself.

I’d say you’ve gone far enough when you’re comfortable that you know how your world works, and then a bit more in detail just to be safe.  You’re also good when you have enough to have a reader understand what’s going on if you explained it, but you’ve also got those little extra details that give the economy life.  This is a challenging call, like much world building, but I usually find the gut feel you get of “OK,t hat’s enough I truly ‘get’ this” is a good measure.

Now again you may bee having fun.  Go for it – just remember the difference between world building and story telling.


Worldbuiding economics is usually best done by asking what economics really is (to remove us from assumptions and the threat of boredom), asking questions about the factors that bring our economics together, building our world building abilities, and learning what we need to know.  You’ll kind of notice I’m a bit down on “general” economics here.

That’s simply because the problem hat often plagues humanity will also plague your writing – too much economics is B.S.

So go and dig into your worlds economics and ask what’s really going on, what’s really happening, and why.  Challenge your assumptions, create your world.  It’ll be more believable than many worlds, and probably many in-theory economists.

You’ll likely learn a lot as well.

– Steven Savage