Some Very Basic Tips For Creating Fictional Currencies

2015 Artwork Creating Fictional Currencies Article

Well, let’s talk about money today. No, on second thoughts, “money” is too much of a limited term – let’s talk about currency. Yes, as I’ll discuss later, the two things are subtly different from each other. More to the point, let’s talk about how we can come up with interesting fictional currencies for use in comics, stories etc….

The easiest way to create a fictional currency for your story or comic is to just base your currency on a real one. I mean, I’m sure that you’ve probably seen at least one of two sci-fi movies, stories or comics where the currency is just referred to as “credits”. These credits usually happen to function in a very similar way to pounds, dollars, euros etc…

If you can come up with a realistic-sounding name for your fictional currency, then you can pretty much copy any form of real life currency. After all, most modern currencies have fairly similar mechanics – for example, they use a base-ten system (eg: 100 pennies in a pound, 100 cents in a dollar, 100 cents in a euro etc…) because it’s easier to calculate things using this system (eg: compared to, say, pre-decimalisation British currency, which used a base-twelve system, where there were 240 pennies in a pound). So, yes, real currencies often have a lot in common with each other.

There’s nothing wrong with copying real currencies in all but name – especially if you want your story or comic to be “realistic” or if currency isn’t a major part of your story. Not only that, doing something like this also a way of including currency in your story without having to explain it to your audience – since pretty much everyone is familiar with how real currencies work.

But, there are much more imaginative ways to come up with fictional currencies than this though…..

Although the word “currency” is often used interchangeably with “money”, these days, a currency is basically any system that people use to transfer value to each other. This means that anything used as a currency must have some kind of value to the vast majority of people who use it.

Many modern currencies have moved away from this slightly (and more futuristic currencies, like Bitcoins, have moved away from it even more), but if you look at the history of most modern currencies you’ll see that they were originally used as a stand-in for something with inherent value.

For example, until relatively recently, banknotes in the UK had have [Edit: I can’t believe I got this wrong!] a phrase like “I promise to pay the bearer the sum of (?) pounds” on them. This was something of a hangover from the days where paper money could, theoretically, be redeemed for an equivalent number of pounds of gold.

Technically speaking, gold was the currency. Gold was the valuable thing involved in all transactions. The paper money was just a stand-in for it.

So, if you want to create an interesting fictional currency – then you have to work out what is valued in the “world” of your story.

To give you one example, a while back, I heard about a sci-fi movie called “In Time” which is based on the idea of time itself being used as a form of currency. This is an absolutely brilliant idea because, let’s face it, time is the most valuable thing in the entire world. Everything we do, we can only do because we still have time left. We all only have a limited amount of time in this world, so time is a valuable thing.

To give you another example, in Chris Carter’s brilliant – and short lived- dystopic sci-fi TV series “Harsh Realm“, bullets were used as a form of currency. Since a lot of the story takes place in a lawless wasteland, traditional currency systems would be totally useless. However, the more bullets you have, the more chance you have of fighting off bandits, hunting for food etc… So, bullets have a practical survival value in this setting which makes them perfect as a form of currency.

Finally, the classic example of something other than money being used as currency is how cigarettes are traditionally used as currency in prisons.

So, look for something that you characters find valuable and base your fictional currency on that.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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4 comments on “Some Very Basic Tips For Creating Fictional Currencies

  1. babbitman says:

    Can’t resist quoting the bit on money (& the universe) from Hitchhikers:
    “Although there are three major units, (The Altairian Dollar, the Flainian Pobble Bead and the Triganic Pu) none of them count. The Altarian Dollar has recently collapsed, (again) the Flainian Pobble Bead is only exchangeable for other Flainian Pobble Beads, and the Triganic Pu has its own very special problems. Its exchange rate of eight Ningis to one Pu is simple enough, but since a Ningi is a triangular rubber coin six thousand eight hundred miles along each side, no one has ever collected enough to own one Pu. Ningis are not negotiable currency, because the Galactibanks refuse to deal in fiddling small change. From this basic premise it is very simple to prove that the Galactibanks are also the product of a deranged imagination.”
    And in a similar vein to the idea of time as a form of currency, Terry Pratchett used the idea of ‘work power’ (my term to try and distill the concept into something understandable) in his Discworld book “Making Money”. The Wiki article on it says:
    ‘According to Pratchett, Making Money is both fantasy and non-fantasy, as money is a fantasy within the “real world”, as “we’ve agreed that these numbers of conceptual things like dollars have a value.”‘

    • pekoeblaze says:

      LOL! But, I have to ask, what is the exchange rate between the Triganic Pu and the Altairian Dollar?

      Surprisingly, I’ve only actually read a few Terry Pratchett books, but the idea of “work power” as a form of currency is kind of an interesting one – it’s kind of like the old concept of barter, I guess.

      But describing money as a fantasy within the real world is a relatively modern thing though, since currencies obviously used to actually be backed up with gold. Hmmm… I wonder what would actually happen if you actually went into the Bank of England, handed over a tenner and asked for your ten pounds of gold? LOL! [Edit: My guess is that you’d probably just get a polite refusal, although banknotes still have the “I promise to pay the bearer…” thing written on them LOL!]

  2. Martin Frowd says:

    Given the promise is still there, one wonders if you could sue the Bank of England for breach of contract if they failed to supply the 10 lbs of gold in exchange for the tenner.

    Here’s another thought: the value of a commodity, and therefore its use as a currency, can be directly related to a) its scarcity, b) its usefulness, or both. For example in Frank Herbert’s Dune – the de facto currency underpinning the galactic economy was melange (the spice that enhanced lifespan and had various other “interesting” side effects depending on the consumer), but the most useful local currency among the Fremen tribes on the titular planet was water, because it sustained them in the desert.

    • pekoeblaze says:

      Yeah, I can’t believe I’d forgotten that it was still there (although, given the tiny font that it’s printed in, it’s easy to miss LOL!). Thanks for pointing out the mistake, I’ve just amended the article 🙂

      As for the breach of promise, I’m guessing that someone has probably already tried to sue them over it in the past or something. And, since everyone isn’t currently carrying around piles of gold, I’m guessing that there’s probably a court ruling, regulation, line of legislation etc.. somewhere that points out that the “promise” isn’t actually a promise.

      Ah, I didn’t really think about scarcity or usefulness, but that’s totally true. Although I did see a video on Youtube (I think it was this one) which pointed out that scarcity-based currencies [eg: the gold standard] do have their limitations though. But, yeah, scarcity and/or usefulness were probably the origin of many currencies.

      Ah, it’s been a little over a decade since I read the “Dune” books. So, although I remembered that spice was used as a currency, I’d forgotten that water was used as a currency (although, for some reason, I still remember that everyone in the desert wears stillsuits to conserve water and that the Fremen have no word in their language for “drowning”).

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