How to Build Interesting Characters in Skyrim
A lot of people, especially people who are new to role-playing games like Skyrim, have difficulty coming up with interesting characters that they can enjoy playing for a long time. This guide will give you some pointers to help you create cool characters that provide you with memorable role-playing experiences.
This is not a strategy guide. There are plenty of good resources available already (many right here on HubPages) that will help you create powerful and effective character builds. This article is intended specifically to help you build interesting and memorable characters from a role-playing perspective, characters that you can be proud of and look forward to playing for a long time.
Superheroes and Real Heroes
I like to compare heavily optimized Skyrim character builds to superheroes: they look great, they kick ass, and they never shy away from danger. That kind of character is great for a few hours of button-mashing, but when you spend a lot of time with them you'll start to notice how thin and two-dimensional they are. You'll start to get bored of being the best and always doing the right (or the wrong) thing. The game starts to get dull.
Typically, when players get to this point, they roll up a new character and repeat the same experience with a different build: they look different, and play different, but fundamentally, it's still the same kind of experience: you're still playing a superhero. Often, players get stuck in a cycle where they can't seem to stick to any 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.
There are players who, by contrast, 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 recreate the same character when a new version of the Elder Scrolls is released and continue playing 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
Well, it isn't really a secret at all: the same techniques that go into crafting good characters for novels and short stories apply to creating good characters for RPGs.
Good characters are a mixture of positive and negative qualities, they have families and histories, motivations and ambitions, habits and quirks, and phobias and prejudices. In role-playing games, they also have something a little extra, some characteristic or ability that sets them apart from the common man or woman. Let's take a look at each of these elements.
It might seem like overkill to think about what your character's family was like if you never get to meet them in the game, but thinking about the 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, abusive drunk? 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, and 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, sisters and brothers, and other guardians or influential people in the character's life. You don't need to go into a lot of 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 in childbirth, though based on how her father talked about her, she assumed that Carienna had been a prostitute. Her father was a cruel and self-obsessed man, frequently drunk, who preferred inflicting mental anguish on Elsbet over physical abuse. He was a fence for the Thieves' Guild in the Imperial City, though he was also a skilled alchemist and inventor. Although she spent her childhood being mentally tortured by the man, and wanted to hate him with all her being, she couldn't escape the fact that he had raised her as his own flesh and blood. This blend of hatred and obligation lends a unique flavor to Elsbet's character.
History, Or Everybody Has a Past
History is a sort of catch-all for things like 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 your character's history.
In Skyrim, the only event that the game really forces you to explain through your history is why you were crossing the border, and how you ended up being captured by Imperial soldiers. The game does a good job of implying that your arrest was probably a mistake, so literally anything could have led up to this moment. Maybe you were taking medicine to a sick relative across the border, maybe you were escaping from a gang of criminals that your character owes money to, or 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 big impact on how you role-play your character for the remainder of the game, so give it a bit of thought.
My own character, 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 probably justified. It also says a lot about her character and the kinds of things she was getting into before the game began. It was clear from the start of the game that the Thieves' Guild was going to play an influential role in Elsbet's story.
The second big moment in your character's history comes almost immediately after the opening credits and has an almost equally big impact on your character's story. Who do you follow into Helgen Keep? Do you overlook your near-execution at the hands of the Imperials and follow Hadvar, or 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, so it's not necessarily an easy choice to make, even with an executioner's axe hanging over your head.
If you choose to pursue the civil war questline, this decision is obviously going to have a big impact on your subsequent choices, though the game leaves you the option of changing your mind once you escape the keep. In Elsbet's case, she 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 knows.
Motivations and Ambitions
Whether you know it or not, your character is motivated to behave in certain ways. Typically, when we don't really plan our character, our character's motivations tend to mirror our own motivations--or rather, the motivations we would have if we were a more powerful version of ourselves.
If you're a basically helpful and good-natured person, your alter ego in Skyrim is probably a do-gooder who accepts every non-evil quest that comes her way. If, in real life, you derive your greatest satisfaction from achieving your goals, your character is probably highly motivated to be the very best at what he does and your primary focus will revolve around gaining experience and improving his skills.
Unfortunately, because these are our own motivations, they don't often create a lot of interest in our characters. They don't make the role-playing experience unique and captivating. If you had to watch a movie about yourself, you'd probably become very bored very quickly, even if other people did find 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 my character, Elsbet, who is a disturbed, amoral, unprincipled, and borderline psychotic thief who prefers to murder the competition than engage in some good-natured ribbing, but I find her intensely interesting to play because she is nothing like me (I hope).
When creating your character, don't be afraid to give them goals and aspirations that are different from your own. If you are, by nature, a very liberal and open-minded person, try role-playing a character who is straight-laced and brimming over with prejudice. If you're naturally a very 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, she's desperately trying to reverse the roles that she and her father played, where he was the cruel and despotic ruler of the household and she the powerless servant. She wants to rule others, to treat them cruelly and with impunity, and to be admired for her cunning and feared for her ruthlessness. This long-term objective influences every thing that she does, from which quests she accepts to undertake to how she deals with her enemies. It's a powerful motivation that gives her character weight and interest and that makes role-playing her engaging and memorable.
Habits and Qirks
Habits and quirks are distinctive behaviors that characters engage in that make them memorable. Maybe your character collects books or likes to dump all of their unnecessary loot on the floor of their house or always eats 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 help establish these kinds of characteristics: maybe your character chops wood to release tension, goes hunting on the weekends, sells talismans (enchanted amulets), 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. Although engaging in these activities won't have much of an effect on your character's stats or on the world around him, 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 and make them different from the habits or quirks you have given to your other characters.
My own character Elsbet has 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 (because 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 just always been this way. Elsbet also has a fascination for Dwemer ruins and goes out of her way to explore them and collect strange and rare artifacts.
Phobias, Or Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?
People are afraid of all sorts of things: failure, public speaking, needles, and the number 13. In Skyrim, it's hard to role-play many of these kinds of experiences because there is no connection to the gameplay, but 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 things since you tend to encounter the same things over and over, but a simple way to role-play the fear without making your character unplayable is just to change your strategy when fighting these creatures.
Ordinarily, Elsbet is a very cautious and calculated killer. She prefers to sneak in from the shadows and always uses the best strategy she can come up with for defeating her foes (typically incorporating copious amounts of poison). When it comes to spiders, however, she has exactly one strategy: kill it with fire! Spiders drive her crazy, force her to stop sneaking, and compel 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 at most two at a time. When you go chasing after spiders with flames shooting out of your hands, however, you tend to attract a lot more attention. Her phobia creates a limitation which makes her more interesting to play.
You can apply the same reasoning to other kinds of fears: 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, fear of water may force your character to take long detours around lakes and along rivers looking for bridges, fear of heights may force you 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 and how it can be applied to your game to create memorable experiences.
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.
Every person, 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 this 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, different, heroic, or even epic? Perhaps its unflinching courage in the face of danger, 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, but 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 just generally 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.
Typically, she tries to avoid combat, or end it swiftly, striking from the shadows, using poison or Fus Ro Da'ing enemies over cliffs or balconies. If traps or other enemies are nearby, she'll use those to whittle down her opponents to a manageable size. When pressed into combat, she uses her followers as human shields, using the distraction they create to avoid danger or gain some sort of advantage (sometimes she'll just avoid enemies entirely, letting her followers deal with them, and just go after what she came for). Outside of combat she has no qualms about stealing from her employers and friends, or manipulating factions to work against one another.
Typically, when you're 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 your best strategy if your goal is to role-play it. Frequently, it's the unoptimized parts of your build that make the character interesting and challenging to play. The previous sections have talked a bit about various ways you can create interesting handicaps for your character, but I'd like to discuss the concept of gimping in a little more detail here.
There are really two kinds of gimping that can occur: gimping to make the game more challenging, and gimping because it fits your character. Although a lot of players start out by gimping their characters for the first reason, it often turns into a good role-playing hook.
You might start out by limiting yourself to iron weapons and armor to make the game more challenging, but what if your character had a reason for only using iron weapons and wearing iron armor? Maybe your character is part of a clan of warriors that actually do spurn stronger metals and materials? Maybe your religious views forbid it? Maybe your family suffers a curse and you turn into a hideous, deformed monster if you 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 that, with the exception of shields, my character wasn't allowed to wear clothing and armor taken from corpses. I did this to make it harder for Elsbet to get good gear and to give the difficulty of the game a little boost. 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: 1. most armor is custom-built for the person who wears it, so it likely wouldn't fit her anyway, and 2. it was icky. Who wants to wear something covered in blood, guts, sweat, lice and who knows what else? Although it started out as a gimp to make the game more challenging, it turned into a gimp that enhances my role-playing.
Skyrim is not a difficult game, and 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 other important ways in order to increase the difficulty.) Investing a perk here and there in a skill that you're interested in but that is not part of your optimal build is not going to make a noticeable impact on your ability to succeed. But 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, 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 Elsbet, I used Alchemy a fair bit to create poisons. That's in keeping with her build, but I realized fairly early on that it wasn't a good skill to invest in for role-play reasons: her father, although he earned most of his money fencing items, 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 where I really need a specific potion. I thought this would be difficult at first, but I quickly discovered that, being a thief, I could steal just about any potion I needed, find it in a dungeon, or buy it from a merchant. And, 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, Lockpicking, and Speech perk that I've unlocked. Not because they are the best perks in the game, but because these are three of the skills she uses the most: manipulating people and stealing from them right under their noses gives her a rush and a feeling of superiority. I've also invested a few of my perks in Smithing and Enchanting. Elsbet gets her interest in creating things from her father, but doesn't have the same kinds of strong negative associations with these skills that she has for Alchemy. I don't use these skills a lot, 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-combat 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.
Looking for More Adventure?
Taking Your Role-Playing to the Next Level
Even after doing all of these things, you can still do more. While I don't engage in these activities myself, there are plenty of players out there who write stories, keep journals, blog, record videos, create webcomics, and draw pictures of their characters.
As you can probably tell, by the time you've created a rich and complex character, it isn't hard to create a story around them, write it down, and share it with other players in the fan fiction sections of popular forums. If this kind of thing appeals to you, by all means, go for it. It could very well put your feet on the path toward an enjoyable (and hopefully remunerative) career.
These are all the tricks that I know of (that I can think of, anyway) that I use to create interesting characters for Skyrim. This is by no means an exhaustive list; I didn't even touch on race, 'class', or standing stones, which are generally considered to be the key elements to character creation, but that's because you already know how to use those elements to your advantage (and if you don't, 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 not known how to ask the right questions to get you from desire to concept. With these tools at your disposal, you can build a character that is every bit as interesting and complex as the characters you read about in stories and novels. So 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: