How to Create Beautiful Characters in Skyrim
Learn About Skyrim Character Creation
Arguably one of the best features of Bethesda's role-playing games is the amount of control they give you over customizing your character's appearance. This tutorial will help you understand your own personal definition of beauty and what goes into creating good looking characters.
It might seem surprising that I spend so much time on theory in this article instead of telling you where to set the sliders, but let's be honest: the sliders aren't the problem; what's preventing you from creating the characters you want is not the sliders or the presets, but a general lack of awareness of what constitutes beauty for you as an individual. With the right understanding and a bit of practice, you can make any Skyrim character much more attractive.
If You've Already Started Playing
If you've already started playing but you want to change how your character looks and you are on PC, you can follow this guide to safely change your character: How to Change Your Appearance and Name. Just don't try changing the race!
Why Appearance Matters
Character customization is not a trivial feature in a role-playing game. In a linear game, where you play a character created by a writer and follow that character's progress through the story as it is related by the game, your identification with the character is handled by the author. A good writer can help you identify with the character through sympathy, well-written dialogue, and commonly shared values.
In a role-playing game, where the developers allow you to create your own character and write your own story, the developers can't count on a writer to create your identification with any particular viewpoint. They have given up some (but not all) control over your character.
Instead, the player learns to identify with his or avatar, at least in part, by customizing his or her character's appearance. By being able to create the character you envision, you are able to take something from your imagination and place it in the world created by the developers. You participate in that world. This participation creates an instant bond of identification and is a primary means of immersion. If you have trouble creating exactly the kind of character that you want to create, it can cause a loss of immersion.
One of the characteristics that many people imagine their characters possessing is great physical beauty. Who doesn't want to be able to play a character who is not only physically or mentally superior to their ordinary selves, but also much better looking? If you have trouble creating beautiful characters in Skyrim, this guide will show you a few things that you can do to increase your ability to model the characters of your dreams. First off, a few tips and tricks.
Tips and Tricks When Creating Your Character in Skyrim
Understanding beauty requires a lot theory and observation, which will be discussed below. That's pretty much all you need to understand in order to create more attractive characters. Nevertheless, here are a few practical tips that will help you get started:
- Sliders. For a quick, easy, conventionally beautiful appearance, set all of the sliders controlling the shape and size of a feature to the middle and slide all of the textures to the left. This will give you a well-proportioned character with a good complexion. This can serve as a good template for making changes. You'll still have to pick an appealing nose, eyes, and lips, but leaving all of your sliders in the middle will generally eliminate odd stretching. For some people, this will be enough. This works with all races.
- Start out bald. Get rid of the hair. When you start creating your character, set the hair style to bald or shaved. This will allow you to focus on the features without being distracted by extraneous details. A good looking character will look good with any kind of hair, so don't worry about it before you have to.
- Start with a clean face. For the same reason, get rid of the war paint, scars, and make-up. Like hair, these elements will just distract you from your primary objective. Leave them until the end.
- For orcs, de-emphasize their features. Orcs are distinguished by their overemphasized jaws, noses, and brows, so to make them 'more attractive' to humans, you want to tone those features down. For females, you want to offset their masculinity by giving them more delicate features. Most of the time, if you want to make a non-human face more attractive to you, as a human, make the features more human.
- Decide on human vs. animal. For beast races, start by deciding whether you want something on the 'human' pole of the spectrum or the 'animal' pole. If you want a more human-looking character, eliminate exaggerated features. If you want a more animal-like character, exaggerate features. Drawing out the nose is usually a good way to make them more animal-like. The beast races (Argonians and Khajiit) are different enough from human faces that I can't really offer any good suggestions beyond that; whether or not a cat-person or lizard-person is 'beautiful' is highly subjective.
- Be particular with elves. For elves, widen the face, shorten the chins, and pick smaller eyes and noses. Elven faces tend to be long and thin with exaggerated features (big eyes, long noses) which accounts for their unique appearance. Elves and orcs present special problems because they are similar enough to humans that their unusual geometry can easily lead to the creation of ugly characters, but not different enough (like the beast races) to be left to whimsy. Honestly, these are the hardest races to 'get right' (though see my screenshots for a few examples of 'better' and 'worse'). The dark elves, in particular, are hard to make attractive owing to an undesirable emphasis on 'bags under the eyes'. (You can correct this with a mod on the Skyrim Nexus if they bother you. See the next section.)
- Don't be too idealistic. Don't try to create that 'ideal face' on your first try. Take some time to get comfortable with the sliders.
- Don't be afraid of sharp contrast. Don't be afraid to push the sliders to the extreme. Sometimes certain features only become well-defined when contrasted sharply with others.
- Think about race. Pick a race that provides the kind of presets you want. This really depends on which is more important to you: your race or your appearance. You can create a beautiful character in any race, but if there is a very specific look you are going for, you may want to choose the race that has the closest-matching preset. Nords tend to have very angular jaws, Imperials tend to have squarer jaws, and Bretons tend to have very round features.
- Pay attention to little details. At the same time, beautiful faces are more often created in inches than miles. Once you have a general shape that you like, often all it takes to take a face from average to extraordinary is a large number of small tweaks.
- Go easy on the facial cosmetics. When it comes to war paint and makeup, very often, less is more. Subtle tones tend to provide softer, more natural appearances. That doesn't mean there's never a time or place for bold colors, but they should be reserved for creating striking effects, not used as a way to make your character 'better looking'.
- Step away from your creation. Sometimes, in the heat of inspiration we lose our objectivity and a face that seems original and inspiring at the moment of creation is often too extreme for us to appreciate when we sit down to role-play the following day. Generally, if you wait a day after creating your character, you will have enough perspective to correct any over-exuberant choices you made. Obviously, this only works if you can edit your character later as PC users can. If you are on a console, I recommend you wait an hour before finalizing your character. Get up, do something else for a while and then go back to it. Even an hour can make a huge difference. If it seems like a hassle, just remember: you might be playing this character for hundreds of hours. One hour isn't going to kill you and will pay off handsomely. (Pun intended.)
How Do YOU Define Beauty?
This might seem like strange advice, but an important place to start is to get to know your personal definition of beauty. Don't assume that you already know what you like. You may know who you think is attractive, but think about why you think they're attractive. Many people are much less consciously aware of what they find attractive than they think they are.
Pop culture promotes all sorts of stereotypes about physical beauty. Big eyes and full lips, for example, are often exaggerated in cartoons to denote female beauty. These features are, indeed, attractive on many women for many people; but do the people you find attractive actually possess these characteristics?
When I first started studying faces, I was surprised by how often my preconceptions (what I thought I thought was beautiful) failed to match my observations (what actually attracted my interest). As a teenager, I had always assumed that big eyes and full lips were what I found attractive in women, and that, other things being equal, women who possessed these features would be more attractive to me. When I sat down and started comparing features I discovered, much to my surprise, that many of the women I found most attractive possessed neither of these features. In fact, many of them had smaller than average eyes and lips.
The point of this personal anecdote: If you don't know what you actually find attractive, you may be customizing your characters to match your preconceptions instead of your desires. This doesn't mean that these features are unattractive--the characters you make following your preconceptions will no doubt still be attractive to you--but they will lack that special quality that you associate with beauty and will fail to live up to your expectations.
When photo-sourcing, a great way to find tons of high-quality pictures of faces is to Google actors or actresses.
Try Googling "chinese actress" or "brazilian actor," for example, and see what comes up.
The Anatomy of Beauty
The first thing you need to do then, is figure out your own personal definition of beauty.
- Look at pictures. The best way to do this is to find pictures of many different men or women that you find attractive and start taking notes. Try to get pictures that show them looking straight forward, profile views, and three-quarter views.
- First, pay attention to the frontal view. Study the shape of the head from the front. Is it round, square, rectangular, oval? Is the chin pointed or flat? How wide are their jaws? Does the jaw slope steeply from the chin to the base of the ear, or is it flat and square? Notice how the slope of the jaw from the side view affects the shape of the jaw from the front. A steep, sloping jaw will result in a more triangular appearance for the chin from the front.
- Notice the cheekbones. What about the cheekbones? Are they high or low? Are they wide or narrow? Are they prominent or subdued? High cheekbones are another one of those cultural stereotypes. They are beautiful on many people, but there are many equally beautiful people who have rather undefined cheeks.
- Forehead size matters too. Also notice the size of the forehead. The forehead is one of those areas that no one notices unless something looks 'off.' Skyrim doesn't really give you any control over this, but is useful to know about.
- Don't forget about the facial features. Now, pay attention to facial features. Now that you've examined the broad, framing elements of the face, let's take a look at the features that tend to get the most notice: eyes, noses, and mouths. (Skyrim doesn't give you any control over your ears, so we won't even go there.)
- Eyes. Do the people you find attractive have large or small eyes? Do their eyes slant up or down as they approach the nose? How about as they approach the edge of the face? Are they spaced close together or far apart? Do they sit high, close to the brow, or low? Are they deep-set, or bulging?
- Nose. What shape of nose is most attractive to you? Is the bridge shallow or deep? Is it straight, curved, or hooked? Is the nose long or short? Does it extend down close to the lips, or is it more petite? Is the tip of the nose rounded or pointy? Are the nostrils broad or narrow? Do they have a tilt? Noses are wonderfully complex shapes and a great source of interest in a face. Unfortunately, they are also very hard to get right. Skyrim doesn't give you a lot of control over specific features (not as much as Oblivion) but it is still good to know what you are looking for so you can find the best match from the available options.
- Mouth/Lips. Mouths can be just as complex as noses. It's not as simple as just bigger or smaller. Lips come in a wide variety of shapes, so it's a good idea to take a careful look at the shapes that you like. Some lips are long and thin, others short and pouty. Very often, one lip hangs out farther than the other. One may be full while the other thin. Many have graceful curves but many are almost formless. The appearance of the lips in Skyrim is controlled by three sliders: Mouth Shape, Mouth Forward, and Chin Forward, which controls the overbite/underbite. Like the nose, Skyrim doesn't give you a lot of control over the way your character's mouth appears, but understanding the different shapes will help you pick one that works.
Studying facial anatomy will help you identify the different features that go into an interesting face. Many of these features are customizable in the character creation screen in-game. The ones that aren't will at least tell you why you can't create a certain look that you're going for.
Well-Proportioned Faces: Balancing Features
One thing you will probably notice as you study these faces is that many of them have very different features. It might be hard for you to identify a single set of features that you like. You may find that one person you find attractive may have features in direct opposition to the features of another, equally attractive person. You may also find when you sit down to create your character that certain features, which you find attractive in isolation, don't work very well when combined together. (I refer to this affectionately as the 'Frankenstein effect'.)
This happens because every face is defined not only by the individual features that go into it, but by the balance or harmony that exists between them. If the balance is good, the face 'works' and is attractive to you. If it doesn't, the face fails to be attractive even though it may possess attractive features. That's part of the reason why different people find different people attractive. Fortunately, when creating your character, you only have to worry about pleasing one person: yourself.
- Tweaking features. If you think about the overall shape of a person's face as the canvas, you will find that you need to make the individual elements that you have selected as attractive work within the confines of this surface. Big eyes and big lips won't work together on a face that is the wrong shape: there simply won't be enough room and the face will look cartoony. The same thing can happen if you choose features that are too small. But combining two very different features, for example, very big eyes with very small lips, can result in equally odd results.
- Finding a balance. A certain harmony has to exist between these features. Choosing larger eyes, for example, may require that you choose slightly larger lips and a slightly larger nose to provide balance. However, depending on the size and shape of the head, you may find that this doesn't work, and you might have to scale the eyes down slightly to get a good result. (Skyrim doesn't let you scale the eyes--or many other features--directly like you could in Oblivion, unfortunately, so often your only choice is to choose different eyes.)
Balancing features is a very iterative activity. Every time you adjust something, you'll find that you have to adjust something else to accommodate it. Often, the only difference between an okay face and a beautiful face is a few small tweaks.
Too much tweaking, however, can result in something I call 'mannequin face': after hours of tweaking, the face no longer looks human, but like a mask or some sort of creepy doll. When this happens, I sometimes have to start all over again from scratch.
A good way to avoid mannequin face is to get to know how the different sliders work and how different features work together before you sit down to create your masterpiece.
- Again, understand balance. Mannequin face is often a result of failing to understand balance, and how the different sliders interact. If you widen the jaw, it's going to have an impact on how the mouth looks, and probably the eyes as well because it's going to affect the relationship between them. The same thing happens when you adjust the cheekbones. Nothing exists in isolation.
- Everything is connected. By the same token, because a head mesh is composed of a limited number of polygons, if you stretch one area of the face, it's going to have an impact on another area. In Oblivion, this impact could be quite significant, and it was very easy to create grotesque monstrosities at the push of a slider. In Fallout 3, Bethesda corrected this by creating presets and reducing the number of sliders. The result was less control over the final appearance of your character, but it also made it much, much harder to create an ugly avatar.
Skyrim uses basically the same system as Fallout 3. In Skyrim, it is relatively easy to create an attractive character, but you have somewhat less freedom than you had in Oblivion. Nevertheless, since the head meshes use more polys, even without all of the control of Oblivion, most of your characters are going to look better, and look closer to what you imagine. Many of the presets in Skyrim, in fact, are fine just the way they are. But it is always possible to create more attractive characters by learning how to use the sliders.
The Makeover Challenge
One good way to learn how to use the sliders is to experiment with features you don't typically find attractive. Pick a feature that you wouldn't ordinarily pick and try to make a beautiful face that includes that feature. This takes the focus away from creating some abstract ideal and places it on learning how to balance different features. After doing this a few times, you will probably discover that you can create a beautiful character using any feature.
If you really want to test yourself and grow as a face sculptor, I recommend you try the Makeover Challenge: pick the ugliest preset you can find in the game and turn it into something beautiful.
I've done that here with three faces Dark Elf 1 (above), Wood Elf 9 (below), and one of the Orc presets (below).
The Wood Elf 9 preset is, in my opinion, the ugliest preset in the game. Many of the less attractive presets are simply wrinkled and easy fix with a quick tug on the Complexion slider. The Wood Elf 9 preset, however, looks more like a wooden mask than a living character. (To be honest, I'm surprised by some of the presets they've included and can only assume that they have intentionally made them unattractive to encourage you to customize them. It certainly worked on me!)
Engaging in these kinds of experiments will help you refine your skill with the sliders and will teach you about many different kinds of beauty. More importantly, they may lead to some fresh and surprising characters that you would otherwise never have discovered.
If you're playing on PC, you can improve the appearance of your characters in significant ways by downloading mods.
Most beautification mods use file replacement to achieve their effects: replacing the diffuse, normal, or specular maps, for example. Some use other techniques, like making all eyes or hair available to every race.
A great place to find mods is the Skyrim Nexus. In particular, I recommend the following:
- Detailed Faces, by Xenius. Increases the resolution of the diffuse maps.
- High Quality Eyes, by Xenius. Replaces the diffuse maps used for the eyes. Makes a much bigger difference to your character's appearance than you might think.
- Detailed Lips, by Xenius. Increases the detail in the lips.
- No More Blocky Faces, by Xenius. Improves the normal map by removing compression artifacts in the original files.
- Detailed Bodies, by Xenius. Increases the resolution of the body textures. Hands and shoulders, for example, will look much crisper.
- Beauty Faces for Females, by necKros. Replaces the female face textures. An alternative to Detailed Faces.
- Less Harsh Elves, by Amanda LaPalme. Removes the wrinkles and bags under the eyes from elves.
- Better Females, by Bella. Skin replacer. Good if you want your characters to look a little more glamorous.
- Younger Females, by Chanon. Another skin replacer. Removes most of the lines in the faces without making the skin look too airbrushed. Gives women a softer look.
- Proporsia, by Zonzai. Proporsia is a character save with proportions set to 'scientific' standards of beauty and includes slides showing the relative proportions of each feature. This can be a useful tool if you want to understand the mathematical mean of beauty. Don't forget that these proportions are based on statistical averages. They don't define beauty, per se. Many very good-looking people vary tremendously from these averages.
The characters in the screenshots in this thread use Beauty Faces for Females, Detailed Bodies, Detailed Lips, High Quality Eyes, and No More Blocky Faces.
Give Your Character Character
This is the fun part, where you get to play with things like scars, dirt, war paint, hair, and makeup. Use these tools to give your character a personal history, social class, and attitude.
And don't forget to give them character! Sometimes the difference between like and love is a small imperfection that gives a person's face individuality and history and makes them memorable.
The airbrushed models you see in magazines are certainly beautiful, but they also frequently seem to have the personality of cardboard. For me, the absence of imperfection is the absence of character. Don't be afraid to take your perfect character and add some minor flaw to give them life and make them feel more real. Make the lips a little smaller or the brows a little lower. This small, subtle difference can make the difference between a character you like to look at, and a character you like to spin a tale with. Remember, these details are the best way to capture a character's mood or attitude!
Knowing a bit about the different files that go into making a game character can help you identify problems and select appropriate mods to address them.
Here's a quick run-down of the biggies:
- Head mesh: This is the 3d polygon mesh that determines the shape of the head. Different races use different head meshes: humans and Argonians, for example have differently shaped heads, which is what makes their features so strikingly different.
- Diffuse map/texture: The diffuse map or texture (also known as a color or base map or texture) provides the head mesh with color, like wrapping paper around a box or paint on a sculpture.
- Normal map: The normal map controls how smooth or bumpy the face appears, and is used to simulate things like wrinkles, bags under the eyes, scars, etc. Normal maps can be identified by their primarily bright blue appearance.
- Specular map: The specular map controls how shiny the surface of an object appears. Specular maps are important for simulating human skin, which has a wide range of shiny and dull patches across its surface. Specular maps can be identified by their primarily black and white appearance.
When you're playing Skyrim, the engine uses all of these different files (along with a few others) to determine how to render your character's appearance. As you can see, character models can be quite complex!
If you really can't get the look you're going for and you're on PC, you can always try downloading a save game created by someone else. The SkyrimNexus has a whole category devoted to it with almost 500 saved games (there will probably be thousands by next year).
If you have a specific look you're going for, I might be able to provide some advice, or even take a request. Just shoot me an email or comment below!