Today's writing craft post addresses an aspect of scene-setting that's very dear to my heart: wear and tear. Whether you're writing in our world or creating a new one, your setting will feel so much more real if you include the elements of it that are makeshift, shabby, and imperfect.
This isn't just window dressing. I strongly recommend considering wear and tear when you're doing preliminary worldbuilding, before you even start plotting. That's because it touches on many other parts of the world—including economics, social class, societal attitudes toward worn and repaired objects, and available materials—as well as how much time and skill the characters have for figuring out how to make do. Exploring it ahead of time may lead to insights that influence characterization and story.
Shabby, worn things carry a lot of feelings. They may be cherished hand-me-downs from a beloved relative, or aggravating reminders of an unkind one. They may be a signal of personal or societal poverty. They may belong to a character who's too busy to replace them, or so depressed they can't muster up the energy to repair them. They may be tools that perfectly suit their wielder and can't be used by anyone else. They may be seen one way by their owner or user and a completely different way by someone who isn't aware of their history. Working those emotional resonances into your story will give it powerful depth.
As for their effects on plot, consider how worn tread on old shoes might make incriminating footprints at a crime scene. Needing to find and patch an air leak on an aging spaceship or wrangle with a glitchy AI could distract your space opera protagonist at a crucial moment. A snobbish romantic protagonist might at first dismiss their love interest, failing to see the worthy soul under the threadbare clothes. A hero on a quest might keep getting sidetracked by needing to buy new boots, because something goes wrong with every pair: they're too big or too small, the laces break, the seams split.
Wear and tear should happen in any story that takes place over a long period of time. "Check engine" lights come on; phone and flashlight batteries burn out; someone drops a favorite mug and breaks off the handle. This doesn't have to shape the plot, but it should be there to make the setting feel real. Showing how characters react to these situations can lead to fine moments of characterization and development: yelling at the car or calmly taking it to the mechanic, crying over the mug or sticking the handle back on with a wad of chewing gum.
Wear and tear happens to bodies. People and animals need rest and food and water. They get sick, and they need medicine and time to recuperate. They're injured, and they may heal well or poorly, sometimes with significant consequences. They get thinner or fatter and need new clothes. They die. They also help others who are sick or injured, and grieve others who die, and take others shopping for new outfits. There's nothing less real-feeling than a character with a perfect body that never has hay fever or creaky knees or a toothache or even a mosquito bite. Again, don't feel that you have to make injury or illness plot-relevant; disabled and ill people can be great protagonists on their own merits, without the story being about their bodies or treatments or coping mechanisms. But do avoid the ableist trap of seeing completely abled bodies as the default. Show the characters' experiences of embodiment, with all its joys and irritations.
Entropy can be a pernicious villain, or simply a fact of life. Beware of creating a slick plastic world populated by slick plastic people (unless you're deliberately setting out to do that). Show the chipped china and the duct tape. Your setting, story, and characters will spring to life.
Happy writing! And thanks as always for your very generous patronage.