Aging a world is the process of adding additional elements, both major and minor, to create the sense that a world has a rich history and isn’t just a flat set piece. Many worldbuilders design elaborate histories and timelines for their worlds, and while this can be an important organizational step to building a robust world, communicating that history to the audience is equally as important. And unless your world exists only as a historical document, finding ways to do this without simply listing off a series of events leading to the world’s present is an important task for a worldbuilder. Luckily, there are many tips and tricks to inform an audience that a world has some age to it.
Create a Timeline and Reference Past Events
Not all worlds will have timelines, and even less will simply share them with an audience. Nevertheless, they can be important tools for worldbuilders. Creating a history leading up to your world’s present is often the first step in helping a creator age a world. These timelines help inform the present and allow the worldbuilder to focus on the zeitgeist, or current spirit of the world. For example, if a war was recently waged, the people of the world may be weary and forlorn. Perhaps the buildings are still battle-scared or dangerous ordinance can still be found scattered across the less traveled areas. Characters making minor references to past events is also a quick and easy way to age the world. These mentions may refer to personal histories, or to world events. Just be sure any reference appears natural and not forced.
Remember, just because you mention something to an audience, doesn’t mean you need to fully explain it. Often it is better to leave certain things as slight mysteries or half-hidden elements. Leaving the audience wondering what ‘The Great Thanksgiving Disaster’ really was is often better than explaining it.
Add Grime and Junk
Nothing stays clean or new for long. Especially if it’s out in public. Adding trash, debris, dust, grime, moss, and other elements that accumulate over time can help age your world. A well-worn path, a smoke-stained fireplace, or a sag in a leather armchair can also be minor details suggesting an aged world that has been lived in for some time. All of these are elements that help add depth to your fictional world.
Relics, Legends, Fossils, & Ruins
Including elements that only exist because there has been some passage of time is an obvious way to age a world. These elements may be legends, myths, historical relics, fossils from another age, or the ruins from some long-forgotten civilization. Again, don’t neglect more minor elements – freezer burned frozen chicken, old newspapers, retro or antique items (whatever those may be in your fictional world).
Fads & Current Trends
The opposite of including age-dependent elements like ruins and fossils, including present-day fads and trends can also be used to age a world. This is because the presence of such a thing serves to contrast this current rage with what came before, both suggesting to the audience that this world has existed before and allowing the worldbuilder to highlight the current moment.
Stimsticks were the newest drug of choice among the Argoloth royal elite and the Underworld was happy to keep them supplied.
Overtime the language that people use changes. Often people will develop less formal jargon, or shortcuts in their vocabulary. Creating slang terms in addition to more formal names for world-specific elements can immediately give a fictional world more depth. Including ‘dead’ languages is another approach.
Naming areas and locations is another opportunity to age a world. While this may be as simple as calling somewhere Old Town and somewhere else New Town, it can also be far more intricate. Places may be named after local legends, or important historical figures or events. There may even be endonyms and exonyms present in your world which all serve to highlight a complex history. In addition to formal names of places, people may have come up with their own nicknames for areas, suggesting that these are places they have frequented for some time.
Political relationships and events are another opportunity to age a world. Diplomatic relations change over time and offer a ready and important avenue to highlight past events. If two nations distrust each other, it suggests something to the audience about their past interactions. If they have been allies for some time, it provides an excuse to inform an audience of the timescale of that friendship.
Aging Your Characters
Aging a world doesn’t just refer to the physical elements present in a fictional world. It can also refer to aging the characters and people that inhabit it. No, this doesn’t just mean making them older. It means giving the audience the impression that your characters have actually lived in this fictional world for a while. For instance, if two people have been in a long relationship, they should understand each other’s mannerisms, tendencies, etc. Individual characters may have developed personal rituals, traditions, or habits. Always rubbing a worn lucky statue before an event, making sure a coffee mug always sits exactly on a stain ring, setting out the paper for a loved one before they wake, are all examples of small details that help give the sense that characters have existed in your fictional world for some time and have gotten to know both it, and other inhabitants.