How to Build Interesting Characters in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Many of us (especially those of us who are new to role-playing games) have difficulty devising interesting characters that we can enjoy playing with for an extended period of time. This guide aims to provide you with some essential pointers in creating cool characters and making memorable role-playing experiences.
This is not a strategy guide. There are plenty of good resources available already (many being right here on HubPages) that can help you create powerful and effective character builds. This article is intended specifically to help you fashion interesting characters from a role-playing perspective—characters that you can be proud of and look forward to playing with for a long time.
Tips for Skyrim Character Builds
I've found these game elements to be the most important when creating a Skyrim character:
- Motivations and Ambitions
- Habits and Quirks
Heavily Optimized Skyrim Characters and Superheroes
I like to compare heavily optimized Skyrim character builds to superheroes: they look great, kick ass and never shy away from danger. These kinds of characters are great for a few hours of button-mashing, but spending a lot of time with them will begin to reveal how thin and two-dimensional they are. You'll grow bored of being unbeatable and always doing the right (or the wrong) thing. The game eventually starts to become dull.
When players get to this point, they usually devise a new character and repeat the same experience with a different build. They look and play different, but it's the same kind of experience—you're still playing a superhero. Players often get stuck in a cycle where they can't seem to stick to any one character they create for more than a few levels (a terrible affliction called restartitis, which cure disease potions and praying at alters doesn't seem to cure). It doesn't have to be this way.
By contrast, there are players who do such an effective job creating a character that not only do they play through an entire game without ever creating a new one, but they end up recreating the same character-type when a new version of the Elder Scrolls is released. They succeed at creating that same character in a new setting. It's astonishing when you think about it. These players have created characters that have literally hundreds or thousands of hours worth of memories and histories. What's their secret?
The Secret to Creating Memorable Characters in Skyrim
The secret to a great character is that there really is no secret at all. The same techniques that go into crafting good characters for novels and short stories applies to creating good characters for RPGs.
Good characters possess a mixture of positive and negative qualities. They have families, histories, motivations, ambitions, habits, quirks, phobias and prejudices. In role-playing games, characters have the potential to possess an additional attribute or ability that sets them apart from the common man or woman. Let's take a look at each of these elements.
Why Family Matters in Skyrim Character Development
It might seem like overkill to think about your character's family history since you never get to meet them in the game's storyline. Despite that, thinking about your character's family is one of the best ways to generate ideas for your character.
Families have a tremendous impact on how we develop in the real world, and imaginary characters are no different. Was your character's father a jealous and abusive drunk? Was he a stern, principled and hard-working man? An undisciplined, but well-meaning clown? An unfaithful, absentee parent with a skooma addiction? A wealthy and respected merchant overly concerned with social status? Each of these fathers will have a profoundly different impact on your character. That impact will be different based on your character's gender and how they feel about their father. Does your character respect or reject what his or her father represents? How has your character's father's attitudes toward work, money, religion and family shaped your character's attitudes?
This same exploration can be applied to your character's mother, siblings and other guardians or influential people in their life. There is no need to go into extensive detail. Usually a few minutes of speculation is all it takes to come up with some interesting, new perspectives on your character.
My character, Elsbet, never knew her mother (Carienna) who died during childbirth. Based on how Elsbet's father spoke of her mother, Elsbet assumed that Carienna had been a prostitute. Her father was a cruel and self-obsessed man. He was often drunk, and preferred inflicting mental anguish on Elsbet over physical abuse. He was a fence for the Thieves' Guild in the Imperial City, and he was also a skilled alchemist and inventor. Elsbet spent her childhood being mentally tortured by this man and wanted to hate him with all her being. Of course, she couldn't escape the fact that he had raised her and was his own flesh and blood. This blend of hatred and obligation lends a unique flavor to Elsbet's character.
The Significance of Your Skyrim Character's History
History is a sort of catch-all category for questions surrounding where your character grew up, what his family did to make ends meet, and what sort of memorable or unusual events befell him. If you've thought through your character's family relationships, you've probably already come up with some interesting details about their history.
The only event in the game that really forces you to explain your history is when you cross the border and end up captured by Imperial soldiers. Skyrim does a good job of implying that your arrest was probably a mistake. That means anything could have led up to this moment. Maybe you were taking medicine to a sick relative across the border or escaping from a gang of criminals that your character owes money to. Maybe you heard about the civil war and were actually planning on supporting your kinsmen by joining the Stormcloak Rebellion. This is the defining moment in your character's history, and the explanation that you come up with will have a monumental impact on how you role-play for the remainder of the game. Be sure to give it a bit of thought.
I decided that Elsbet was caught trying to steal a merchant's wagon, his horses and all of his wares after creating a distraction in a border tavern. This history shows that her apprehension probably was not a mistake, and that a trip to the headsman's block was justified. It also says a lot about her character and the kinds of mishaps that she was getting into before the game began. It was clear from the start that the Thieves' Guild was going to play an influential role in Elsbet's story.
The second pivotal moment in your character's history comes almost immediately after the opening credits. You must decide who you will follow into Helgen Keep. Do you overlook your near-execution at the hands of the Imperials and follow Hadvar? Do you throw your lot in with the Stormcloaks and follow Ralof? Both of these characters are portrayed very sympathetically in the game, and you spend about the same amount of time with each of them before making your decision. It's not necessarily an easy choice to make with an executioner's axe hanging over your head.
Choosing to pursue the civil war questline is a decision that is obviously going to have an immense effect on your subsequent choices. Thankfully, the game does leave you with the option of changing your mind once you escape the keep. Elsbet chose to follow Hadvar, a Nord who supports the Empire. Since Elsbet is an Imperial herself and knows nothing about the Stormcloaks beyond their nationalistic pride, she figured it would be safer to stick with the enemy she is familiar with.
The Role of Your Character's Motivations and Ambitions
Whether you realize it or not, your character is motivated to behave in certain ways. Typically, when we don't really plan out our character's personality, their motivations tend to mirror our own. In other words, our characters will possess motivations we would have if we were a more powerful version of ourselves.
If you're a helpful and good-natured person, then your alter ego in Skyrim is probably a do-gooder who accepts every virtuous quest that comes her way. If, in real life, you derive your greatest satisfaction from achieving your goals, then your character is probably highly motivated to be the very best at what he does. Your primary focus in the game will probably revolve around gaining experience and improving his skills.
Unfortunately, since these are our own motivations, they don't create a lot of interesting characters. They fail to create a role-playing experience that is unique and captivating. If you had to watch a movie about yourself, you'd probably become bored rather quickly despite other people potentially finding it interesting.
When playing a game like Skyrim, you have the unique opportunity to direct a movie about someone else's life. I'm nothing like Elsbet. She is a disturbed, amoral, unprincipled and borderline psychotic thief. Elsbet prefers to murder the competition rather than engage in some good-natured ribbing. I find her tremendously engaging to play with because she is nothing like me.
Don't be afraid to give your character goals and aspirations that are different from your own. If you are, by nature, a liberal and open-minded person, try role-playing a character who is straight-laced and brimming over with prejudice. If you're the naturally shy, reclusive type, try role-playing a loud-mouthed, mead-swilling, bar-brawling ruffian. You might be surprised to discover just how good it feels to get out of your own skin and be a different kind of person—even if it is only a video game.
Elsbet's ambition is to become the most powerful woman in Skyrim, and she'll do anything to attain that goal. Although she doesn't realize it on a conscious level, Elsbet's desperately trying to reverse the roles that she played out with her father. He was the cruel and despotic ruler of the household, while she the powerless servant. Now she wants to rule others and to treat them cruelly and with impunity. Elsbet yearns to be admired for her cunning ways and feared for her ruthlessness. This long-term objective influences every thing that she does, from which quests she accepts to how she deals with her enemies. It's a powerful motivation that gives her character weight and that makes role-playing her engaging and memorable.
Attributing Habits and Quirks to Your Skyrim Character
Habits and quirks are distinctive behaviors that characters engage. Perhaps your character collects books or likes to dump all of their unnecessary loot on the floor of their house. It could be that they always eat a certain kind of food (I have a character that is constantly eating apples).
Skyrim gives you a few tools that you can use to establish these kinds of characteristics. It's your choice whether your character chops wood to release tension, goes hunting on the weekends, sells talismans or collects bugs. Maybe they refuse to use weapons and armor crafted by Orcs or Elves, enjoy cooking, carry a lucky bear claw, refrain from robbing corpses in tombs or always sleep in until noon. Engaging in these activities won't have much of an effect on your character's stats or the world around him, but they are all activities you can engage in to make your role-playing experience richer. My general rule of thumb is to give each character two or three of these habits or quirks. I would also recommend the traits be different from the habits or quirks you have attributed to any of your other characters.
I gave Elsbet one very distinctive (and deplorable) habit: after clearing a dungeon,
she likes to gorge herself on the food and get drunk on the bottles of wine lying about (almost every dungeon has wine and food lying around). It's weird, and I don't know how it started (though I suspect it was a response to a particularly prolonged and challenging boss battle), but for some reason she's always been this way. Elsbet also has a fascination for Dwemer ruins. She goes out of her way to explore them and collect strange and rare artifacts.
Phobias—Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?!
People are afraid of all sorts of things: failure, public speaking, needles and the number 13. It's hard to role-play many of these kinds of experiences because there is no connection to the gameplay. However, there are a few phobias that can be role-played.
Rats, spiders, bears, the undead and just about any other creature in the game can become a source of terror and loathing for your character. (If you're a 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer', fan you'll probably remember Anya's adorable fear of bunnies.)
It's hard to be an adventurer in Skyrim if you're paralyzed with fear at the sight of these creatures and critters since you tend to encounter the same ones over and over again. A simple way to role-play the fear without making your character unplayable is to simply change your strategy when fighting these creatures.
Elsbet is an extremely cautious and calculated killer. She prefers to sneak in from the shadows, and she always uses the best strategy she can come up with for defeating her foes (this typically involves incorporating copious amounts of poison). Although, when it comes to spiders, she has one clear approach: kill it with fire! Spiders drive her crazy! They force her to stop sneaking before compelling her to dual-flame the nasty critters with everything she has. After all, a flaming spider isn't something to be scared of, it's an Argonian treat! Okay, so I made that last part up. The point is by using a less optimal combat strategy when dealing with a specific kind of foe, you expose your character to more risks and atypical combat experiences. Elsbet is used to dealing with foes one or two at a time. That is unless she's attracting a lot more attention chasing after spiders with flames shooting out of her hands. Her phobia creates a limitation which makes her more interesting to play.
You can apply the same reasoning to other kinds of fears. For example, a fear of the dark may force your character to equip a torch or cast a candlelight spell even if you don't really need one to see. Your character may take long detours around lakes and along rivers looking for bridges if they dread water. A fear of heights may compel them to walk slowly across stone bridges in Nordic tombs or avoid climbing in the mountains. Use your imagination to see what you can come up with. Be sure to consider how the phobia can be applied to your game to create unforgettable experiences.
It's Either Prejudices or Everyone Hates Mudcrabs
Prejudices are unfavorable dispositions toward certain types of characters. Typically, when you hear the word prejudice, you're most likely to think of racial prejudice, but characters can be prejudiced about more than the genetic makeup of other characters in the game. For example, you may be prejudiced toward children, old people, poor people, rich people, spell-casters, meat-heads (non-spell-casters), criminals, authority figures, people of the opposite sex or even people wearing the color red. The real world is filled with a rich diversity of prejudices, so there's no reason Skyrim can't be filled with them, too.
There aren't a lot of ways to give your prejudice impact in the game, but there are a couple: don't accept quests from characters you're prejudiced against; don't buy from or sell items to them; don't take them as followers; steal from them, even if you're not a thief-class; exit conversations with them without answering their questions and walk away. You may be inclined to pick fights with them in taverns, but be careful: these brawls often lead to wholesale slaughter. If you can get away with an assault and pay a fine, though, it's a great character-building skill.
Elsbet has a real hatred for rich and powerful people. The Jarls, the wealthy people who hang out in the courts, and people like Olfrid Battle-Born and Maven Black-Briar really get under her skin. They're arrogant and self-important and deserve to be put in their place. It's a good thing Elsbet isn't consciously aware of the fact that she is exactly like them.
Instilling Special Idiosyncrasies in Your Character
Everyone, whether they know it or not, has some sort of special quality or skill. Mine happens to be taking small ideas and turning them into monstrous abominations and then writing copiously about them. Because Skyrim is an epic fantasy adventure, your character should be no different.
So what sets your character apart? What is it about them that makes them special or even epic? Perhaps its unflinching courage in the face of danger or an uncompromising nobility of character, a relentless thirst for occult power, or a completely unpredictable and chaotic personality. Courage, nobility, ambition and unpredictability are all traits that most people possess to some degree or other. In your character's case, it should be of epic proportions.
If your defining characteristic is courage, then be courageous: never sneak, always stride (or preferably, charge) into battle. If it's nobility of character, never attack someone first, never sneak attack and if they want to fight bare-fisted with you, fight without a weapon. If your character only cares about occult power, only use spells (or staffs) for attack and defense and don't wear armor. If your character is unpredictable, use different weapons and armor in every dungeon. Use different potions, rings and amulet combinations. Cast different spells, and never repeat the same tactic twice. Try to surprise your foes by doing something unusual and unexpected.
Elsbet's defining characteristic is her sense of entitlement, which is truly of epic proportions. Because she is not a particularly powerful warrior or spell-caster, her unchecked, self-serving avarice and desire to dominate manifest in a very calculated approach to using NPCs and eliminating enemies.
She either tries to avoid combat or to end it swiftly, striking from the shadows, using poison or Fus Ro Da'ing enemies over cliffs and balconies. If traps or other enemies are nearby, she'll use them to whittle down her opponents to a manageable size. When pressed into combat, she uses her followers as human shields. The distraction they create helps her to avoid danger or gain some sort of advantage. Sometimes she'll just avoid enemies entirely, letting her followers deal with them so she can go after what she came for. Outside of combat, she has no qualms about stealing from her employers and friends, nor about manipulating factions to work against one another.
How to Effectively Gimp Your Character
When designing your character, you tend to think about ways to optimize them for combat, magic or stealth. This is a good strategy if your goal is to 'beat' the game, but it isn't always the best approach if your goal is to role-play. It's usually the parts of your build that aren't specialized that make the character interesting and challenging to play with. The previous sections in this article have talked a bit about various ways you can create interesting handicaps for your character, and now I'd like to discuss the concept of gimping in a little more detail.
There are really two kinds of gimping that can occur: gimping to make the game more challenging and gimping because it fits your character's persona. Although a lot of players start out gimping their characters for the former reason, it often turns into a good role-playing hook.
You might start out by limiting yourself to only iron weapons and armor to make the game more challenging, but what if your character actually had a reason for only using and wearing iron? Maybe they are a part of a clan of warriors that actually do spurn stronger metals and materials? Maybe their religious views forbid it? Maybe their family suffers a curse and they turn into a hideous, deformed monster if they don't wear iron? When you feel a need to impose a handicap on your character to enhance gameplay, take the extra step and come up with a good role-playing reason to support it. Making this one little change can take something you do grudgingly into something you welcome and enjoy.
In order to make my own game a little more challenging on lower levels, I created a rule for myself at the start of the game. I decided that my character wasn't allowed to wear clothing and armor taken from corpses (with the exception of shields). I did this to make it harder for Elsbet to acquire quality gear and to intensify the difficulty of the game. In order to make the rule more palatable, I thought about why she wouldn't take a sweet suit of armor from a corpse and came up with two reasons: most armor is custom-built for the person who wears it so it likely wouldn't fit her anyway, and because the armor was icky. Who wants to wear something covered in blood, guts, sweat, lice and who knows what else? What started out as a gimp to make the game more challenging, turned into a gimp that enhances my role-playing experience.
Selecting Perks Based off Your Character's Personality
Skyrim is not a difficult game, so there is absolutely no reason for you to worry about building the most powerful character that you can. Elsbet is intentionally non-optimized in many important ways in order to increase the difficulty of the game. Investing a perk in a skill that you're interested in, but that is not part of your optimal build, will not make a noticeable impact on your ability to succeed. Spending points willy-nilly is also not a good way to build a solid and distinctive character. When selecting perks and attributes to improve when you level up, be sure to think about the things that your character wants, not what you want for your character. (That's a bit of a mind-bender, I know, but stay with me.)
When I started playing with Elsbet, I used alchemy a fair bit to create poisons to keep with her build. I realized fairly early on that it wasn't a good skill to invest in for role-playing reasons. Although her father earned most of his money fencing items, he spent most of his time tinkering with potions in the cellar. Elsbet really doesn't like to be reminded of her childhood or to be associated with her father (although she, like him, turned out to be a criminal), so I stopped using alchemy except in the rare instances when I needed a specific potion. I thought this would be difficult at first. I quickly discovered that I could either steal just about any potion I needed, find it in a dungeon or buy it from a merchant. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for Elsbet, frost spiders are a common nuisance in Skyrim, so cheap poisons are easy to come by.
I've also purchased every pickpocketing, lock-picking and speech perk that I've unlocked. These aren't necessarily the best perks in the game, but they are three of the skills she uses the most. Manipulating people and stealing from right under their noses gives her an adrenaline rush and a feeling of superiority. I've also invested a few of my perks in smithing and enchanting. Elsbet inherited her interest in creating things from her father, but she doesn't possess the same strong, negative associations with these skills as she does for alchemy. I don't use these skills often, but having them reinforces my concept of her character and gives her something to do when she's not out adventuring. In spite of what you may have heard about the negative impact of leveling up non-combative skills, investing my perks in these skills has not made the game that much more difficult. If you have to choose between role-playing and optimizing your character, just be aware that your role-play is going to suffer if you worry too much about creating the perfect build.
Elevating Your Role-Playing Experience to the Next Level
Even after implementing all of the previously mentioned peculiarities, there is still more that you can do. While I don't engage in these activities myself, there are plenty of players out there who like to write stories, keep journals, blog, record videos, create webcomics and draw pictures of their characters.
By the time you've created a rich and complex character, it isn't hard to create a story around them. Try writing your encounters down and sharing your experiences with other players in the fan fiction sections of popular forums. If this sort of thing appeals to you then go for it. It could very well put your feet on the path toward an enjoyable (and hopefully remunerative) career.
The Endgame and Your Return on Investment
I have recorded all the tricks that I can think of to create captivating characters in Skyrim. This is by no means an exhaustive list. I didn't touch on race, 'class' or standing stones. All of the aforementioned features are typically considered to be the key elements in character creation, but that's because you already know how to use those elements to your advantage (and if you don't, then you can find plenty of help online about them). There are probably plenty of players who can suggest additional tricks that I didn't include here that they use to create compelling gameplay. I'd be happy to read about them in the comments section.
Ultimately, the quality of your role-play experience in Skyrim is going to depend on how much you are willing to invest in your character. Up until now, you may have had the desire, but did not know how to ask the right questions to execute the concept. With these tools at your disposal, you will be able to build a character that is every bit as interesting and complex as the characters you read about in stories and novels. Now stop reading about my character, and go make your own!
Check the links on these pages for more great tips to help you get the most out of Skyrim: