Concept: Markets and Trade in Fantasy

Something often overlooked in a lot of fiction, fantasy or otherwise, are the economics in place that allow a writer’s world to exist. When it comes to worldbuilding, the writer must take all things into account if they wish to really weave a believable setting.

It’s serious labor of love. When was the last time you thought about the how your hero’s village makes its clothing? Where they acquire the cotton/wool/linen etc. for their textiles? Do they produce the raw material themselves, or do they trade with neighboring communities?

How about the infrastructure between villages? Is it sophisticated enough to allow weekly, monthly, or annual runs between villages?

Or does the story take place within a city, where doubtless everything is acquired from beyond the city walls? Or, conversely, like in the Hyborian Age, or as might be found in any otherwise swords & sandals-type fantasy … where the idea of civilization is usually more concerned with guarded cities and villages, while everything else in the world consisted of patches of hazardous wilderness between towns.

The fact of the matter is that most communities, even today, are largely agrarian. Producing food through farming and animal husbandry is sorta kinda what makes the neolithic era so important, and a large portion of the world’s population is, to this day, still largely concerned with the production and acquistion of food.

So in a fantasy realm, only prosperous trade cities or otherwise similarly-run commercial centers will have little do farming, whereas the “quiet village our hero called home” is, nine times out of ten, some kind of farming community.

Now, the readers need not know the intricacies of your world’s economics, unless of course the economics play a direct role in the plot (such as the story for the tremendous game Baldur’s Gate, which had an iron shortage). I’ve touched on the importance of economics in the past, and I thoroughly believe that it is the responsibility of the writer to consider some of these thing when fleshing out their world – even if only briefly. A great way to do this is to simply look at your character – better yet, if you have a sketch or character sheet of some kind, ask a pile of questions about what they’re wearing.

This is the female knight class from Final Fantasy Tactics. Gods, that game was so good.

Looking at the above artwork, we can ask a variety of economic questions largely separate from the character herself.

What metal is her sword made from? Where was the metal mined, refined, traded, and forged? Same for her armor.

How about the dress? Cotton from her home town, or fibers traded from a distant land? Perhaps the cape was woven from a rare, material acquired from mountaintop flowers that symbolize her devotion to whatever faith to which she might subscribe.

The leather of her gloves – that of common bovines, or an animal more exotic, or is it not even leather at all, but a fantastic material impervious to weather?

The dyes in her clothing would have to have been produced somewhere, as did the cords holding everything together. Even unseen things, like the lining of her boots, the oils along the blade of her sword, the perfume used to mask days marching on the field, or of course whatever obscured jewelry she might possess.

These are all things that, if presented with answers more interesting and complicated than “she got them when she enlisted,” or “found them in some hole that a trio of trolls called home,” or – especially – the cliche “they were passed down to her from her father.”

Like I said, the reader need not know the intricacies of everything, lest the writer fall into a Tolkien-esque level of description, but the more the writer knows, the more subtleties can be embedded, enriching the world.

When I was in Thailand, a day after the unforgettable experience with the tigers, I took the time pursue a newfound hobby: perusing the markets and bazaars. Chiang Mai is a city known as much for tourism as anything else, and with tourism there come markets geared especially for foreigners looking for souvenirs.

A shot of one of many of Chiang Mai's Sunday markets, set up near the Tae Phe Gate

One of Chiang Mai’s many Sunday markets, set up near the Tha Phae Gate, on the east side of the Old City.

The Sunday Market of Chiang Mai was nothing short of fun for me, because I was on a simple mission of looking for interesting things to send back to my home country as gifts.

I was also able to practice my haggling skills, which – to my surprise and growing delight – makes the whole process all the more enjoyable. As a foreigner, prices are of course inflated accordingly when I ask the price of things, but the very fact that the prices are flexible means that bargaining for trinkets and clothing becomes essential.

Besides, who would you respect more: the person who simply accepts the price you tell them, or the person who is a bit more shrewd and puts up a fight?

Learning from the example of the Chatty Swede from earlier days, and drawing experience from conversations with Firebeard in days of yore – not to mention simply reading about stuff all the time – I gradually learned what various items were actually worth. As well as the whole haggling process. I do not claim to be a master haggler, of course not – but I am something of a penny-pincher, which comes off as a hard bargainer anyway.

I bought a dress for a friend back in my Old Hometown, initially something in order of 180 baht ($6), but talked the teller down to 150 or so (so, $5). At that price, I decided to buy two – much to the joy of the merchant. Small successes fuel bigger ones, and I found myself haggling for even minor items – a hairband-like thing, initially 90 baht ($1), I talked down to something like 60. We’re talking the difference between dollars and quarters here, which to them is of course a big deal, but from my perspective, it’s not necessarily the amount of money that makes acquisition of these things so special. Rather, the fact that I haggled, drove down the price to even lower than what was already reasonable to me, makes the cloth and bracelets (and even a lamp) feel really worth that much more.

In once instance a more brazen merchant, with very good English skills, did most of the talking. He was selling chopstick sets, which I found interesting enough to look at, but had no inclination to buy – however in the markets, even the slightest bit of interest (or even showing the slightest politeness by stopping to address someone who tugs your sleeve or shouts for you to look at them – politeness which can easily be misinterpreted as interest) is like the scent of blood to sharks.

The man proposed his price – something like 400 baht ($12.50-ish). I kept silent, nodding my head as I calculated the amount in my head.

“Okay,” he said, seeing that I was not leaping on it. “I will give you a discount. 350 baht!”

I nodded, looking at the plastic-wrapped set, admiring it’s beauty and wondering to myself whether I actually needed this. After all, I had about two-dozen chopsticks at home already. The merchant proceeded to demonstrate the toughness of the included mat by stretching it taught multiple times.

“It cannot break, or your money back,” he said, and informed me that the chopsticks themselves were made by his family. Very special, also very strong, and they’ve been making chopsticks for decades. I offered compliments that the things did in fact seem quite nice, but made to place the set back down. No doubt he could see that I was interested, but not interested enough, and in truth I sought means to politely escape.

“You are the first customer of the day,” said the merchant, “so I will give you first-buyer price! 300 baht!”

Not bad, I found myself thinking, especially since I didn’t say a thing. I tried to leave, but he handed me a calculator. “Name your price!” he said, “Tell me what is reasonable to you.”

I took the calculator and entered 250. Or perhaps 280. I can’t quite remember. ($7.50 or $8.50).

The merchant hastily agreed, no doubt glad to have made a sale.

WP_20141101_11_33_37_Pro

And here it is. A pair each of chopsticks, chopstick “holders,” placemats, napkins, and cup mat things.

Not only that, he proceeded to ask me questions, seemingly showing an actual interest in me as more than some walking white-skinned wallet. He seemed to be especially intrigued that I lived in SouthEast Asia, that I wasn’t his typical customer – the usual clueless tourist.

That or he had practiced his act well.

In any case, I complimented him on his English, on his skill at selling (he did win, after all, since I confess I had no intention of getting the chopsticks in the first place), but they felt special, and more than the money spent or the value in the item acquired, I got the memory.

And the experience.

Who knows how much this was actually worth. I probably over-paid regardless.

Markets like this can be found also in Viet Nam. The legendary Ben Thanh Market, the central hub of Sai Gon – which I have experienced only once, during my first few days after landing – is a veritable nest of hagglers and merchants. I actually look forward to returning there to practice bargaining with peddlers, arguing over $5 garments and trinkets I don’t need.

Yeah baby, this was the backbone of Sai Gon, and remains strong !

In fact, I rather look forward to the day I can acquire clothing, textiles, objects, whatever, and perhaps sell them abroad. Such a thing would be more of a pet project than a real source of income, as the process is new and fun to me.

And it all contributes to writing. It’s all connected to the economics of the settings of our myriad stories. Production of goods is just one chapter in a book of economics in fantasy – how about trade? Haggling and bargaining in bazaars and markets has been a long-standing tradition of cultures around the world for… probably about as long as the idea of “trade” has ever existed.

 

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