Writing Lessons from Skyrim: Worldbuilding

Skyrim is a video game that came out in 2011, yet 7 years later it still holds up as one of the best fantasy video games of all time. It helps that the game is absolutely massive, and you could put literally thousands of hours into it. And many have. I myself have probably put about 300 hours into this game, which may sound like a lot, but compared to some gamers, I haven’t even scratched the surface. And there are still many quests and other story elements that I have yet to touch.

There is a lot that writers can learn from playing this game, especially if you’re a writer of fantasy. I have personally found it to be a huge help in my own writing. So what are some of these lessons that writers can take away from Skyrim?

Characters in Skyrim

First of all, just to get it out of the way. We’re not going to talk about character here. In Skyrim, you play the main character, but the character doesn’t have much…character, if that makes sense. You fill those shoes, you are the character. You’re not watching a character like you would in a movie. Of course, there is character development in the sense that your character levels up and gains skills, but ultimately the story-level character development is not a part of the game. And that’s okay! It has strengths in other areas.

Plot of Skyrim

Speaking of story, Skyrim does have a main plot, and it is about what you’d expect from a fantasy genre game. You play the Dragonborn, a character gifted with the voice of dragons which grants you certain abilities. You use this power to fight dragons throughout Skyrim, including one in particular named Alduin. Your quest to find the Dragon shout to defeat Alduin takes you all across the province of Skyrim, a northern tundra area filled with many races, primarily a Norse-like people. While all this is going on, the land of Skyrim is currently undergoing a civil war between an Imperial faction, and a group of Rebels. During the game you can decide which faction to route for, and doing so will affect the course of the game.

Lesson 1: Intersecting Plots

This brings me to the first lesson that writers can learn from Skyrim: multiple, intertwining plots. Skyrim weaves its main plot with that of the civil war, as well as many other side stories. Most of the side stories have nothing to do with the main plot, but many can affect the overall outcome of the story. This kind of intersection is great for plot. Having a fight against a dark lord-esc villain is great, but mix it up a bit by adding a civil war, or some other side plot, and you’ve created something truly complex. Now, most books will not have the number of side-quest stories that you would see in Skyrim. In fact, you want to avoid a lot of side stories unless they progress the plot or the character. But interweaving some of these stories can result in a richer plot.

Setting and Worldbuilding in Skyrim

The rest of what I have to say about Skyrim has everything to do with the third core element of a story: the setting. Setting and worldbuilding are where Skyrim excels beyond almost anything you’ve ever seen. In fact, when it comes to my fantasy writing, I will often play Skyrim just to get myself in the zone, fully immersed in a fantasy world, so that I can better write my own fantasy world.

Here are a few things that Skyrim can teach us about worldbuilding:

Lesson 2: Landscape and Nations

You’ve probably seen a lot of maps in fantasy books. Skyrim also has a huge map, and it is divided into various areas. Keep this in mind as you’re writing. In fact, it might be a good idea to start with the map before you even have your main plot written. Then determine what the ecology of each area of your map looks like. Readers like variety, and it can spice up your plot to have your characters move through diverse areas as they go along. You can even take this a step further to design each of the specific nations that reside in different parts of the map. What makes them different? Do they like each other? Do they have an established system of trade? These are all things that are clearly specified in Skyrim. The town of Solitude looks completely different from Windhelm, and that’s for specific cultural reasons that you uncover during the civil war story.

Lesson 3: Food and Gear

What kind of food do your characters eat? What about clothing? Where do they get the materials to make their armor and weapons? When do they sleep? These are all questions that Skyrim takes into account during its gameplay. While it isn’t 100% realistic, for example there’s no going to the bathroom in Skyrim, it can make you think about some things you might not have considered for the characters in your book.

Lesson 4: Races

Skyrim has its own plethora of races, such as humans, elves, lizard people, cat people, etc. If you’re writing fantasy, this can be a great idea. Look at what makes the races unique. What do they have in common? How do people of various nations treat people of other races? And this isn’t just for fantasy races. A lot of the same principles can apply to real-world deviations in skin color, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, etc. You could even have an extinct race leaving behind buildings, technology, or other things mysterious artifacts. Skyrim did this with the Dwemer race, which left behind a lot of interesting technology in the game.

Lesson 5: Language and Culture

Going along with races is the idea of language, of which the creators of Skyrim have developed several. Chances are, most races will come from a separate region and may have developed their own language, or at least a unique dialect. This is definitely something to keep in mind while writing fantasy. This will affect a lot of things, not only the way they talk, but what the names of their towns or people are.

The same can also be said of culture, which should be heavily developed in any novel. Establishing cultural areas like religion, art, legends, revered artifacts, the afterlife, politics, etc. can determine a lot about how a character in your novel might treat another. It can also provide the basis for nations interacting with other nations. Are they friendly or more likely to fight each other over their disputes?

Lesson 6: Magic

Lastly, let’s talk about magic. Now there are many types of magic systems you might have in your novel, and the magic system that Skyrim uses could be wildly different from your ideas. But it can get you thinking. For example, you could ask questions like how does your magic system work? Who uses it? How do they learn? Does it have any adverse effects? Is it limitless or bound by certain laws? What are those laws? Can they be used in other ways, such as the ability to enchant an object or create potions in Skyrim.

The magic system will also have an effect on the culture, economy, and religion of a fantasy world. And also, please note that while I’m talking about magic here, some of the same rules can apply to science fiction. Just substitute the world technology for magic.

And there you have it, that’s six writing lessons that you can learn from playing Skyrim. I highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t already. If anything, the level of immersion should inspire your writing. I hope this has been helpful, and let us know in the comments what other topics you’d like to see me cover. That’s it for today!

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