Building Characters (Their Inner Workings)

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I will use Skyrim as a base game in this tutorial as it’s currently the game I’m playing and actively working on, but I use these techniques for all open world RPG games. It should be helpful, or mostly helpful considering any game restrictions, for all similar gaming.

This part of character creation is a very tricky subject. There are many ways in which people like to build their own original characters. Skyrim, in many aspects, is helpful because it gives them a preset world that they are crafting their character to. Other freeform RPGs are mostly the same, from old school games like Dungeons & Dragons to computer simulated games like Guild Wars. You may want to make a fallen god as your character who must right the wrongs of his past before he can help defend the world from a fierce, world-consuming dragon or make a lowly prostitute who battles her way through challenges and climbs up the ranks to be a Thane and, ultimately, the Dragonborn. It doesn’t matter what kind of character it is so long as it’s the one you want to play in the game. This guide will give you the sources I use as well as possible examples of sources for those who create characters other than the way I do.

I did a tutorial on how I make faces, but some people have to have an idea down with a plan before they worry about looks (I do both). For those that work this way, you can scroll down to my tutorial and examples. If you’d rather make a face first and build from there, just head on over to my Facial Creation Guide and then come on back. We’ll leave a candle burning for you.

Edit: I’ve completely forgotten about naming your character! I’ve added resources and information in below.

Basic Resources:


Website References:


Real Life Inspirations for the Elder Scrolls’ Races:

Note: These may look similar, but some of the races are contested concerning their real world inspiration. I believe that while a majority of the races have a dominate “origin”, some have a lot of minor references from different cultures. Also worth mentioning, these two charts only cover default playable races, not the other races in these games that are not playable.


Building Characters

Building the inner workings of a character first starts off with an idea. I tend to ask myself some basic questions to get this rolling:

  • Who do I want to play? (assassin, thief, barbarian, mage – i.e. character classes)
  • What skills am I looking to work with? (speechcraft, destruction magic, enchanting)
  • Is there a certain personality type or an alignment I want to explore?
  • Are there specific quests I am looking to do?
  • What makes this character tick (what’s their motive)? (revenge, loss, exploration, wealth, fame)
  • What gender and/or race are they?
  • Do I want a stereotype?
  • Do I want to use a character type I’ve created for another game?
    • I do this a lot because I like reusing characters, especially if they’ll fit into existing lore.
  • Is there a name I want to use?

Of course, there are a ton of other questions you can ask, but these tend to be my go-to questions.

Once I’ve gotten a basic idea down, I start thinking about their personality and history. Sometimes I center my idea of a new character on their personality; what they do in game and what they’ve done in their past before the game are all based around who they are at a fundamental level. My character Lilith is a good example of this. I made her with a very specific type of personality in mind from the personality alignments commonly found in RPG games. She is considered Chaotic Evil. Now, she doesn’t fit every aspect of that archetype (she does have a moral code she follows), but it’s the general idea that’s important here. Alignments and personality types are good for giving you an outline to start out a character with, but as people are rarely one dimensional, characters become more realistic if they, themselves, are more well-rounded.

Another way to create a character based on personality is to build them on a very specific personality type. Although most of the examples on the webpage provided make them all sound “good,” you can easily manipulate the examples to make them more neutral or evil. The “Commander” personality reminds me of Emperor Palpatine while The Joker is an “Entertainer.”

If you ever get stuck on what a character would do you can refer to their personality alignment or type to see how they would react based on that.

History based characters can be a challenge. You should really get into a biographic state of mind with this one. When I come up with a character in this way I usually use something from the game I’m playing, like a faction or a supernatural ability (like vampirism) I want the character to have. For this example, I will use my character, Athena. I wanted to make a character who had prior knowledge and had already worked with a faction in Skyrim dealing with hunting and destroying all things Daedric. I researched the Vigilants of Stendarr and came up with a backstory that had her deeply involved and molded by the faction. Her biography almost makes her seem simple in that she was an orphan and raised by the Vigilants, thus adhering to their teachings because that’s her “home.” However, I was planning on having her get involved with some Daedric quests where she’d have to do something for a few of the Daedric Princes in order to keep peace somehow and that it would really test her beliefs on what it means to be good and evil. It would also affect her on her unintentional journey becoming a celebrity with being the Dragonborn.

A third way to create a new character is to combine both history and personality by centering a character’s whole life on motive. Kiera, my Breton Necrowitch, was created this way. I came up with two words that I wanted her to center around (my default character choice is female), revenge (the dominant trait) and power. From revenge, I was able to make her history where her mother left her at an early age so the mother could become something more powerful. This left Kiera alone at a young age and forced her to fend for herself in an unforgiving world. Power came into play because instead of just getting revenge on the woman who left her, she now sees the whole world as having wronged her and she believes she’s the only one that can shape it in a better image – or destroy it all.

Other ways employ the third method of using keywords, but instead of focusing on words based on personalities or coming from a biographical history, they focus on character classes or skills. I do try and have all my characters use classes, even though vanilla Skyrim no longer uses them. To get around this I use Disparity. This allows me to follow a path in skill development as I level and lets me focus on major skills first, then minor skills as needed. Picking a class can often trigger an idea for a character right away for me, or if I want to do a spell casting character looking at the classes can give me ideas on where I want my focus to be. There is also the option of creating custom classes or editing existing classes in Disparity, so that’s helpful as well (some ideas and other classes not found in the Elder Scrolls universe can be found here). Rebekah was created in this way (mostly, I was also basing her on Athena to “remake” the character). I wanted to have a very determined hunter of Daedra and skimming over the classes “Witchhunter” fit and allowed me to (re)mold her history and the rest of her personality to better suit a new character since I was not happy with Athena at this point. Cynwrig was also created by me focusing on types of magic I wanted to use. I found a mod called Elemental Destruction and decided to create a cryomancer (ice mage) who can use ice, water, and wind destruction spells.

Quests are sort of an extension of some of these ways to create. Sometimes I think on the questlines I want to complete in a specific series and in specific ways and this allows me to determine what kind of character I want. If I want to do The College of Winterhold quest, Dragonborn, and then other magic-focused quests, I’ll typically make a knowledge seeking mage character who doesn’t mind bending the rules to get what he wants. If I want to do the Thieves Guild questline, then the Bard quests, followed by the Civil War in favor of the Imperials, I’ll make an adventuring thief who wants the lazy empire in charge but doesn’t want much conflict in their life.

Race and Gender are also two great ways to focus on a new character, albeit a little harder if you don’t know if the game has mechanics that affect these traits. Plus, Skyrim’s vanilla character creation system negated a lot of these features (although they’re still used for customization purposes), except for racial bonuses. Mods like Disparity greatly enhance this idea of gender and racial difference and allow it to come into play more like in the older Elder Scrolls games. In this mod females and males have different stats, persuasion and intimidation vary depending on your race and gender, endurance and speed are affected by weight and height, and all races have slightly different bonuses and weaknesses. For me, these differences allow for further customization.

While the games of the Elder Scrolls’ lore have certain races they use in their default vanilla system, there are mods that you can use to have a custom race or you can make your own race using programs like Creation Kit. A lot of people like to base their character on an already established race in the games’ lore, but others like making their own custom race. I haven’t used custom races for my Skyrim, but I have in Morrowind. It can add a lot of depth to your character and truly make them unique. A big downfall is mods that modify the racial and gender mechanics of the game can’t always pick up on custom races, so you’re left with only using their class systems. If you’ve created a race you love, it might not be a big deal, but this can break the idea of immersion for some people.

Gender bias is harder than racial bias to notice in Skyrim, but it seems to be there. For example, The Imperials have more men in their ranks and most of their Holds employ only male guards whereas the Holds governed by the Stormcloaks and the Stormcloak army itself have a good mix of men and women. The racial prejudices are more apparent. Altmer are hated for being (mostly) a part of the Thalmor. The Dunmer tend to be vastly hated by the Nords more so than their hate for other beast or mer races. Both race and gender can determine a character’s personality if they are a gender/race that could cause them to get a lot of discrimination. If you pick a male Dunmer you might have him follow the Imperials and hold a grudge towards the Nords and how the Stormcloaks treat his kin. You could also have an outside-born female Nord who might find conflict with her brethren in her race’s homeland and her choice of using magic instead of becoming a warrior. Or, you could make a male Breton who was born in The Reach region of Skyrim feel he needs to help the Foresworn regain their territory and hopes to instigate the conflict between both sides of the civil war.

Sometimes it’s tempting to make a stereotypical character in Skyrim. A Nord who is a Stormcloak, an Imperial who follows the empire, an Altmer who is a mage, and a Khajiit who is a thief are all typical stereotypes found in the Elder Scrolls games. I’m not saying it isn’t okay to have these characters, they can be fun to play and some of us are just dedicated to the empire! Just don’t go lax on creativity. I once had a Breton who sided with the Stormcloaks, but I also have an idea for a Daedric-worshiping Dunmer. One is very stereotypical, one is not. They’re both good choices and with complex backgrounds and personalities can both be rewarding to play.

Reusing characters from other games is also a way to go. If you have a favorite character from another game, why not? You might have to change some parts of their history to fit the new game, but this can be a fun way to add new life into a favorite character you’ve held onto for years. My character Lilith (above) was taken from another game.

Names! Sometimes I already have an idea for a character by a name I want to use. These names tend to be based on mythology, folk tales, cinema, or anything of the like and usually have defining traits and qualities already attached to them. One of my first ever characters for Skyrim was based on Daenerys Targaryen from The Game of Thrones TV show (I haven’t finished the books). Athena, mentioned above, was partially inspired by the goddess of the same name once I had a general idea of who I wanted the character to be.


Putting it all Together

Once I come up with either their history or their personality, I then work on the other aspect so that I have a complete history and personality profile. These can always change later, but it’s good to have a solid idea to work with. I often write the profile down for my own use and for reference notes. They also come in handy for creating your own character archetypes. I have an archetype I’ve named “Sigyn” that is a basis for my character Sigyn as well as Athena, Failim, and Rebekah. They won’t always be similar, but they tend to follow similar patterns in personality and have similar playthrough styles.

If I’m having trouble getting some elements of a character down, but I have the major parts like where they came from, what their class is, and their gender, then I’ll refer to a guide like this to help me sort through any minor issues. I don’t use it all, honestly that’s a bit much unless I’m using it for an actual story (which I have done that), but it can help me polish up a character quite well by getting into the nitty-gritty of things.

Now is the time I focus on how my character looks (need ideas?). Sometimes this might mean some changes to what I’ve already set down for them, but that’s okay. Looks can tell a lot about someone and can inspire more ideas on who this character is.

Once I’ve got the history, personality, and face down, I decide on some small – but hefty – decisions. I use the racial overhaul mod Disparity to add more flavor to my game (many options are not necessary for the mod to run, it’s customizable). In this mod, there are modifiers for race, gender, and weight (height is changed but it doesn’t affect any skills). Because of this, I take into account these options when building my Dragonborn. In Disparity, speed is affected by your weight (instead of height as in vanilla), with 53-57 being the optimal size for the best speed. Endurance is also affected; 100 max weight allows you to carry more while the minimal weight of 0 has no strength modifier attached to it. To sum up the author of Disparity, if a character looks strong, they’ll be strong. I follow some general rules, but these in no way are set in stone: Mages have the lowest weight (I see them as working out their mind more than their body), Thieves have a middle weight (they need some strength to help with endurance, but the speed aspect is the bigger need), and Warriors have the heaviest weight (bigger weights equal more muscle). Obviously, some classes will be exceptions: Battlemages usually wear heavy armor as well as cast spells, so they’d benefit from the heavier weights. Nightblades also use magic, but they have a big focus on stealth as well. They’d benefit more from a mid-range weight. If you’re going for vanilla stats for speed, the taller the race (or character with mods like RaceMenu) the better the speed.

Gender in race overhauls usually effects intimidation and persuasion. If your character isn’t focused on speechcraft, these aren’t important. However, if they are, it’s important to note that females have a higher chance of persuasion and a lower chance of intimidation, while with males it’s the opposite. Females (can) also have a weakness to them in terms of physicality as it tends to be a “rule” that males hit harder. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen. ^_<

Because of racial bonuses, different races have a greater advantage over certain classes than other races. They also start out with different skills and have varying innate abilities. In the vanilla game this does come into play, but with a lesser extent compared to mods. Altmer are very good spellcasters with bonuses to all schools of magic and start out with a higher level of magicka than other races. They would make great Mages, Sorcerers, or Spellswords. Orcs are very skilled with all things war and have starting skills in both weapon styles, block, and heavy armor. The Barbarian, Knight, or Warrior class tend to be good for them. Khajiit have a majority of their skills in the stealth area. With high sneak bonuses, they’d make good acrobats, assassins, or thieves.

Another thing to consider with race: Why not pick a race and a class that are different? A Nord Mage or a Bosmer Barbarian might have contradictory skills for their class, but that does allow you to have a broader skill set in the game. It also makes for a more universal character. Not all in a particular race have the same occupation and some could even be born without the ability to use their “bonuses” (think of a magic-less Dunmer).

After all this, if I haven’t decided on a name, this is the time I usually do so (sometimes it’s after making the character’s appearance). There are a few places I go to if I want a general name that fits a profile I’ve already done or that fits into the Elder Scrolls’ lore. Believe it or not, there are some very specific naming practices used by Bethesda in their Elder Scrolls games. I think they started solidifying around the third game on how the names were created, but sometimes they do use existing names by changing up the spelling but keeping the pronunciation. This tumblr has a lot of naming information, especially the specifics of how the more exotic races like the mer (elves) and beast (humanoid animals) get named. It can be quite complex and can vary within the same race depending on where the person grew up, so take time in reading the articles. The Dunmer are a good example of this, they have a certain naming system in their more cosmopolitan areas, while their names are much different within the tribes who still practice the old ways. This is slightly different for the “man” races like the Nords, who often use names that are pronounced and are spelled like they come from our own world. There are a lot of examples on that tumblr as well as on the UESP Lore: Names page for all Elder Ecrolls specific race names. There are also places like the Fantasy Name Generator that have Elder Scrolls sections that help you come up with names.

Sometimes I want to use a name that I want to be original to my character. This is when I usually take a name from mythology, legend, or even a movie. If you do this you don’t have to base your character around the character’s/person’s name you’ve taken, but as I’ve already mentioned, it can be fun to recreate him or her for a game. If I’m having a hard time coming up with a name, I check sites like Behind the Name and either search for a name who’s meaning suits my character, or find a name that fits the race’s inspiration (see the two versions above in the resources section) and also would suit the character. My follower Isi was named this way. I was coming up with her race and some parts of her personality and decided to name her Isi (“deer” in Native American) based on these factors.

Once I’ve gotten the character made to my liking and have a groundwork to how they’ll be used in Skyrim, I’m off to play!

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