One of my heroes and inspirations, a fellow by the name of Mark Rosewater, has talked at length on occasion about a design concept he calls “Top Down.” Mr. Rosewater is a big part of the design process that goes into Magic: The Gathering, in my opinion the single greatest game ever conceived by mankind. Before we get into the meat of what top down design really is and how it applies to the writing process, you need to know a little something about the game itself first. Magic is a card game that gives players the opportunity to build a deck from a very wide variety of cards, and each affects the game in a different way. The game has a basic rule set, and is structured in a way that rewards players for finding ways to bend or break those rules while putting their personal stamp on the deck which they use to do it. If you ask me, there’s a little something in it for everyone, so if you can keep an open mind you should give it a try. Anyway, each set is filled with fresh ideas and new concepts for cards, but the basic format always stays the same, with each one looking more or less like the example shown here on the right, the “Empyrial Archangel.” Now, when the development team sat down to design the set that this card was a part of, you may notice that it could have started in two different places. The first option is to start with the function, all that text you see near in the box near the bottom of the card. “Flying” and “Shroud” are two words understood by players to affect how this particular card can be used, and also how other cards can be used to affect it. The next line details what this particular card does for a player beyond the standard fare. The last line is what players know as “flavor text,” which has no practical impact on gameplay, and just serves to give players a clearer picture of the world in which these games are being played when taken in conjunction with the rest of the flavor text on other cards. The other possible starting design point would be the name, or concept, at the top of the card. The term “top down design,” then, refers to the practice of beginning the design process of a card from the top of the card, and finding functions that fit the concept later on during development. In other words, top down design essentially makes the statement, “You know, what this set really needs is some kind of glorious, warrior angel,” as opposed to the statement, “We don’t have enough things in this set that can fly yet, and we also need to create an opportunity for a player to avoid damage somehow.” A glorious, warrior angel is the likely result of the second statement, but in that instance the concept was made to satisfy the necessary function, instead of creating the function to give the concept legitimacy.
These two different approaches to design apply to any creative process, across the board. Let’s put it in broad terms that relate to the creative writing process. When you’re still in the conceptual stages of telling a story, it’s a pretty safe assumption that one of the things you know about your story is that it is going to have a protagonist. You may not know much about him/her/it yet, but you know that you’re going to have a main character. If we can agree on that much, then we can probably also agree that your story will feature an antagonist, as well. The first thing I want to note here is that antagonism is a character’s function. Unless you’re dealing with the basest form of creative cheese, the thing that makes the antagonist tick is probably not simply a desire to be an antagonist for the sake of it. He or she will probably be motivated by something else that happens to, directly or indirectly, put him or her at odds with the protagonist due to the fact that, really, an antagonist is often just a protagonist who doesn’t agree with the rest of the characters, or the reader. So, in the case of our example here, the first thing we know about our antagonist character is her function. The rest of the character will be fleshed out against the backdrop of this one, ultimately important thing. Whatever else about her may be true, there won’t be anything that conflicts with the fact that she is an antagonist to the point that she ceases to be one; her function gets the final say on what traits get included with her personality, and which ones don’t. And this, I would like to point out, is most often the way that it should be.
As a writer, I love being able to design a character from the top, down. Sometimes that can be where your most complex and interesting creations come from. However, if top down design is used too often, or too liberally, it can all go very wrong, very easily. Now, let’s take the first step of designing our character from the top this time, purely in concept. Let’s say she’s smart, classy, and funny, but hides a dark past in which an alien race kidnapped her father and brainwashed him into murdering his entire family when she was a child, and she barely escaped with her life. Also, we’re going to decide that super heat vision is cool, so she has that, too. Immediately you can see the fun and beneficial side of top down design, right? There are no constraints. You can conceptualize anything you think is a cool thing to have in a story, and put it in your character. Let’s notice, too, that the above description can be molded to fit into either one of the two aforementioned basic character functions (protagonist, antagonist). You can make either function complement the concept, if you choose. But what if we want our story to take place in a realistic, prohibition-era Chicago? Now we have a problem, because super heat vision doesn’t really fit all that well into a realistic setting. This serves as a basic and stark example, but this is the root of why you have to be careful when designing a character (or anything else) from the top, down–if the concept forces you to compromise other elements of your story, or forces you to ignore or accept obvious storytelling inconsistencies in order to validate it, the result isn’t going to be pretty. This doesn’t just apply to character design, either, as Exhibit A on the left demonstrates. This movie is a prime example of what happens when the concept drives absolutely everything, in all the wrong ways. The pitfalls of top down design in writing are never as obvious as what we’ve detailed so far. By the time you finish watching “The Genius Club,” it’s pretty obvious that the concept of the movie is its entire point–an (allegedly) intellectual debate about whether or not God exists, the necessary final conclusion being that yes, He does. Where you happen to come out on this particular issue isn’t important for the purposes of our discussion here. What we need to observe is the writer’s decision to mold absolutely everything–dialogue, character development, setting, plot points–to achieve an end that validates the movie being made about that concept. Everything else in this movie takes a back seat to its concept, and it results in shallow characters with un-relatable motives and completely laughable dialogue. Now, I present to you Exhibit B, another movie undoubtedly driven more by concept than by anything else. The infinitely important difference here is that “Memento” tells its story within the context of that concept, and doesn’t use it solely to justify that concept’s existence. Overall, it might seem like a subtle difference, but watch both of these movies and find out for yourself what a difference it makes.
When you think up an awesome main character for an awesome story, it can be tempting to make everything around her find its purpose in complementing, and even amplifying, her awesomeness. But if that comes at the expense of understandable character motives, or natural dialogue, or a well-rounded plot, then your story, and by extension your character’s awesomeness, will be worse for it. In conclusion, top down design is certainly not a literary crime. But we, as writers, need to be mindful of how much we let it drive our creations. Even if a concept is amazing, it’s the world around it that makes sure it stays that way, just as heroes are validated by the strength of their villains.