1. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    My favorite strategies: does anybody else use these?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Simpson17866, Aug 25, 2013.

    Myers-Briggs: a personality test based on Jungian psychology that classifies people according to 4 axes, with a designation of 4 letters (INTJ, ENFP, ESTP) referring to where a person falls on each axis.

    Most respectable psychologists don't like using it in a professional capacity: it focuses on each axis having people only be at one end or the other, which ignores the fact that most people are very close to average; if height was divided only into "more than 5.5 feet" and "less than 5.5 feet," that information wouldn't be very relevant or accurate either (when I took the test online for the first time, I was almost exactly in he middle of one axis: INT- instead of definitively INTJ or INTP), and including the middle ground would result in too many people getting "neutral" on too many axes to produce relevant, specific information.

    On the other hand - as I first read on PlotToPunctuation - fiction works best when the characters are distinguished as much as possible and that writers could have very good luck using these descriptions to get ideas for how different characters could respond to crises differently, and I do find that a cast of characters with only has 1 or 0 neutral spaces each is easier and more interesting for me to work with then if a lot of them have 2-4 blanks.

    Managing character flaws vs. virtues: The most important thing I've read about character flaws is that they cannot simply be brought up at an early, inconvenient time and then somehow solved right before it becomes important at the end; rather, a flaw has to cause serious problems long before the end of the story, and if it's going to be dramatically solved at the end, then the character has to have been seen trying to change beforehand.

    One specific thing I like to do when contrasting the best parts of a character with the worst: make them both into the same thing.

    For example, one character that I'm working on would be considered Protective when her main trait is a positive but Vindictive when the same trait is a negative: she cares a great deal about people she deems "good," especially her closest friends, but she has no sympathy for anyone she deems "evil" and tends to get her friends in trouble when she over-reacts to a perceived threat against them.

    Another character is Creative as a positive but Indecisive as a negative: he can come up with a bunch of very good, intelligent, workable ideas, but needs to be forced to follow through on any of them, and can get his colleagues in trouble if his usual superior isn't around to keep him from hesitating for too long.

    Shallower Trivia: would the person's soundtrack be pop, rock, or metal; is the person more of a Snake, a Hawk, or a Lion; et cetera...

    What do you guys think? Do you do any of this too?
     
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  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    No, no, and no.

    Myers-Briggs merely chooses one of 16 pigeonholes to define your character. That's four more than signs of the zodiac, and I don't ask people, "What's your sign?" to categorize them either.

    Flaws and virtues is a trivial, shallow way of adding depth. You are better off using characteristic - at least that isn't a black and white partitioning. But people, and characters, are more than a collection of adjectives. They behave in seemingly inconsistent ways in different situation, often in complete opposition to their "signature" characteristics.

    Shallower trivia is again trying to box a character in a neatly labeled package.

    I take a behavioral approach. How will character X respond in this kind of situation? Might he or she respond in a completely unexpected way? If so, what might drive the surprising response? Is it out of character, or dies it add depth to the character?
     
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  3. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I agree with Cogito's objections to all this.

    Frankly, I just don't understand why people are drawn to character-building "aids" like these. Why do you need them? Don't you just see your characters, understand them? I usually see my characters in a flash, as though a snapshot just appeared in my brain. Some people can just reel off plots with no trouble; I can't. I see characters.

    The only thing I do if I don't really understand a character well enough is write scenes involving him. These aren't scenes that are intended to appear in the finished story. They're just there to put the character into a different situation. By writing out the scene, I'm forced to consider the character in depth, and to create more of him. Then I understand him well enough to write the actual story about him.

    Here's something you might try: Get a book of photographs of people. National Geographic magazine works well for this, too. Page through it until you see a picture of a person who catches your eye. It might be the uniqueness of the face, or the posture, or an unusual setting or lighting. DO NOT READ THE CAPTION. Just stare at the picture and imagine who that person is and what they're doing there. If you're anything like me, a personality will begin to emerge. You begin to understand the character; he becomes a being with his own life-force, a life-force you're intimately familiar with. You don't know the trivial things about him - where he went to school, how many siblings he has, what kind of music he likes, or any of the rest of that nonsense. You do know the important things - how much courage he has, what his sense of humor is like, the kinds of people and things he loves and would die for. You know his prides and his shames. You know his deepest fears and greatest glories.

    Stare at the picture until you get all that. It will come if you're patient. When you understand him, you can write about him - you won't be able to stop writing; he'll drag you through his story.

    But forget about all the Myers-Briggs nonsense and all the rest of the formulas. They won't help you.
     
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  4. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I agree with Cogito and Minstrel here, but I also like the idea of a single characteristic being helpful in one scenario and unhelpful in another. I don't think that's got as much to do with character-building as plot development, though.

    I really think if characters are to become story 'people' you can't treat them as game markers ...ie, you take the red markers with spots and I'll take the blue ones with stripes. They need to be complex and unique, same as people. Don't be afraid to create rather than construct your characters. Play with them a bit. See what they do.
     
  5. EllBeEss
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    EllBeEss Contributing Member

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    I agree with what everyone else has said.

    While these aids may give you a shell of a character to work with early on generally they end up forming only limitations later on, a very exaggerated example would be Character X cannot survive such-and-such event because his single characteristic is dadada which would not help him to escape from this scenario.

    I sometimes it hard to visualize my characters but then I write about them, write as them, I work out there past, their hopes and dreams for the future, I learn what makes them tick and how they would react to each and every scenario. It is only then that I really get to know them. The only parts of my characters that can be represented by a handful of words go on my reference sheet which contains little more than words like tall, brown eyes, and this word document exists only to ensure my long term consistency.

    Characters need to be like people, they need to have more making them tick than Jay is being mean because he is characterized as a mean person. They need to be relateable and able to drive a story. A shell is incapable of either.
     
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  6. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This.
     
  7. Motley
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    Motley Active Member

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    To each his or her own, but I can't imagine a more boring method for coming up with characters.

    Characters are people, and I don't psychoanalyze people, or put them into personality type categories when I get to know them. I just get to know them.
     
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  8. Smitty91
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    Smitty91 Member

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    This type of strategy was suggested to me, but it was so confusing about which personality type was which and I didn't have time to read up on each one. I find that a character description sheet works best for me.
     
  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Character sheets are great for RPGs, because they give the gamemaster a basis for objectively evaluating whether a player is "staying in character" or stretching parameters to stay in the game. For writing, they tend to result in flat, static characters.
     
  10. Smitty91
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    Smitty91 Member

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    Really?! I would think a character description sheet would give the character more depth, make them more three-dimensional, and give them an intriguing personality. At the very least, they should allow you to get to know your character better.
     
  11. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'm curious about this. Why do you think it's true? I know a lot of people use character sheets and swear by them, but how exactly do they help? I know my character's name and age. I know all the important stuff about him - the things I mentioned in my post above. I don't need to know his cat's name. How does it help me to know what kind of car he drove when he was in college? If it's important, I'll remember it. The idea of writing insignificant trivia down about my characters just seems a bit silly. If I need to write it down in order to remember it, it is, by definition, not important.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that some people spend time filling out character sheets so they can pretend they're writing when they aren't actually accomplishing anything.

    So I ask again: How, exactly, do character sheets help you?
     
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  12. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Ha! :D This! I think we all have our little cheat activities that make us feel like we're still in the process, when that's really not the case. Character bios is not the cheat I use. Maps! When I'm stuck, I manage to talk myself into the need for a pretty fantasy world map, so, you know, I know where people are going and how long it takes to get there. That's important, right?? ;)
     
  13. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Well, I think it's also because people are looking for a tool or method to solve a problem, when it really comes down to lots of observation (both of people and of well-written fiction) and practice.

    It's an attempt to apply intellectual heuristics to what is inherently an art. I can relate, having a scientific/engineering background.
     
  14. Lone Wanderer
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    Lone Wanderer Member

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    I have to agree with the consensus here, characters should be organic and not so crudely defined like a D&D character sheet. Your characters should be shaped by your world and their backstory.
     
  15. AnonyMouse
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    AnonyMouse Contributing Member Contributor

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    Character sheets, again? Okay I'll bite.

    In my opinion, they have their uses. If you don't want to have one filled with "useless trivia" like the char's favorite color, pet names, or their first car, then don't put those questions on the sheet. Simple. That seems to be the number one complaint I hear about character sheets and, IMO, one of the silliest, since it's so easy to fix. Its purpose is to promote in-character thought, so if any part of it isn't facilitating that, nix it.

    The second complaint I tend to hear is that filling out a char sheet is too limiting, or that it's pigeonholing your character. It's like shoving a square peg in a round hole. I agree… and that's why I think it works. It's no different than using pictures or writing a throwaway scene. (Which one could argue is also a past-time of those who are "pretending to write" instead of getting on with their story.) If done properly, it puts you in the character's shoes and drops him/her into situations you previously didn't have (or didn't know you have) the answers to. You're shoving a square peg into a round hole, not in an attempt to make it fit, but in an attempt to discover its true shape. With that in mind, I don't see why character sheets can't help develop a character.

    The real trick with character sheets, (as with any character-building aid,) isn't to focus on the aid itself, but on the character. Just about anything can work -- yes, even those phych-analysis tests. It's not about the questions or the answers, it's about the thought processes linking the two. By the time you're done, you'll probably want to throw the answers out anyway, because that guy or girl in your head will be screaming at the top of their lungs how the pych-test or the picture book or the char sheet got it all wrong. Congratulations, your character has a voice now.

    If you just mindlessly fill in the blanks, you'll get nothing out of it. Likewise, if you mindlessly flip through a picture book, it won't help you develop a character. If you mindlessly make maps, it won't help with worldbuilding. If you mindlessly write a scene about Bob going to the grocery store, it won't help you discover Bob's true self. Don't just go through the motions! If you think and truly invest some mental energy in these seemingly-diversionary exercises, your understanding of that fuzzy, hazy person in your head will become clearer.

    Now, with all that being said… I only use character sheets for roleplaying. (And there its primary purpose is to give other players and the game master a general idea what the character is like, to encourage collaboration. It's a different beast entirely.) Personally, I don't use aids of any kind. My process typically involves a lot of thinking. Just thinking. No frills. Time and silent contemplation is all I've ever needed or wanted. But that doesn't mean I can't see the value in aids.
     
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  16. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    That's all very well and good, 'Mouse, but just about all of your post consists of reasons not to use character sheets. You say writing throwaway scenes is "pretend writing" too, and you're often right, but in my case, sometimes those scenes do become part of the story, and at the very least, they help me practice my other writing skills as well as character development.

    Other than that, though, everything you wrote agrees with everything I wrote against character sheets. Let me rephrase my question: What do character sheets give you that my method doesn't? What is special about character sheets that make them a superior character development tool? Why would motivate a writer to use a character sheet when other, probably better, methods are available?

    I probably shouldn't be asking you, because you don't use them and don't need them.

    But enough people use them that I'm thinking where there's smoke, there's fire. I really hope the answer isn't that people use these things because someone who wrote a "how-to-write" book needed to pad it out with extra material, and recommended using character sheets (and provided samples).
     
  17. Pheonix
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    Pheonix A Singer of Space Operas and The Fourth Mod of RP Staff Contributor

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    I think that a character sheet might be useful to keep idea's organized. I've never used them except for in the RPG forum, but I could see them being minorly useful. Like if you wanted to keep track of a specific event of character backstory that might not appear in the main body of the story. Or to keep track of minor characters so that they stay in character...

    But I like for my main's to evolve naturally as the story progresses and not be too worried about them staying in character all the time, since most people don't always stay in character.

    Truly complex characters need more than a page long sheet to live on, they need time and attention to develop... And no amount of gimmicky character development exercises are going to replace the act of sitting down and writing a character existing in his/her own world.
     
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  18. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This.
     
  19. AnonyMouse
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    AnonyMouse Contributing Member Contributor

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    My point isn't that character sheets are better. IMO, they share the same ratio of pros and cons as any other method (and that's what I was trying to point out in my previous post). What I find strange is, every time this issue comes up, people are quick to shoot down character sheets and offer up other aids, such as using pictures or music or writing throwaway scenes, as if those methods are somehow superior. Why? Why are those methods widely accepted when character sheets are not?
     
  20. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    As I said, characters usually just pop into my head, pretty much fully formed. I only write throwaway scenes if there's something about them I don't understand and need to. And when I suggested using picture books, I meant that only as an exercise. I never create my own characters that way. I just suggest it to people who seem to think they need character sheets or some other aid.

    To answer your question, frankly, I don't see the need for any kind of character-creation aid. If I don't have a character in mind, I don't write - I don't even get motivated to write. I certainly wouldn't attempt to create a character by filling out a form - any form, even one with decent questions on it. I almost find the thought of that repulsive. It's as if I'm Dr. Frankenstein trying to assemble a man out of pieces of corpses. The difference is, Frankenstein had lightning to animate his creation, but there's no lightning in a character sheet (or any other aid). So I'm left with a heap of dead body parts sewn together instead of a living person. It's a frightening thought.

    I guess I need to start with the lightning. If I've got that, the body parts don't matter - I've already created life. The lightning is the character. All that nasty business of digging up corpses and hacking parts off them is the character sheet.

    I don't know if that makes any sense to you, but it's the best metaphor for the process I can come up with right now.
     
  21. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    My objection to character sheets is that they eliminate ambiguity and they simplify. And that they're prescriptive, while scenes are descriptive. (Yes, yes, you can violate the prescription, but that's still what the character sheet often is.)

    If you write a scene in which a character finds a hundred dollar bill in the watermelon display at a high-end grocery, pauses as she passes customer service, and then carries that money outside and gives it to the homeless person begging there, you've learned things about your character by describing what they did in a specific situatino.

    If you write in your character sheet "Jane is very honest; she would never keep anything that doesn't belong to her," you've made a simplistic statement, and _prescribed_ your character's behavior. That prescription might seem to rule out the scene; surely your "honest" character would hand over the found money to customer service, so that they can find the owner.

    But, no, in writing the scene, you follow nuances of your character's personality that you wouldn't think to put in a sheet. She dislikes the wealthy customers in the grocery, and is irritated at returning a piece of their ill-deserved wealth to them. She would feel too guilty keeping the money herself, no matter how badly she needs it. She realizes, seeing the homeless man through the window, that here's the perfect solution--she can give it to someone who needs it even more than she does. Robin Hood at the Whole Foods. She goes home happily to her ramen noodles, knowing that the homeless man will be happy today too.

    And now I know the character much better.

    I just don't see a character sheet guiding me to that place; I need the details and nuances of a scene.
     
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  22. EllBeEss
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    EllBeEss Contributing Member

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    I don't use character sheets but I have done something similar as a starting point to build a character. It was just the basis, this group needed a leader who must act in a certain way to drive the story so I had to come up with a character. I didn't put down pointless information but I did build up his past around how he needed to act in a certain scene. After I did that I built up his personality to reflect his past. As soon as I got this down he became a lot more than the info I'd written about him and I destroyed what I had written.

    I don't think there's a problem with using character sheets as long as they are a basis for creativity rather than a limitation. I suppose now that I think about it you could make a character using any method as long as you don't let it limit you and if the character doesn't fit, you will not force them into a mould. Then again that's just me. Since I think that people's past is what shapes them I tend to build my characters first by their personality, then their past and finally by refining their personality to reflect their past. Since I build characters in this way I find it very useful to know seemingly pointless facts about the pasts of characters because it is these little details that remind me of who my character is and what they want to achieve.

    In a related note I think everyone managed to scare off the OP.
     
  23. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Bolding is mine.
    How do you know?

    I use character sheets. I write down the character's name, age, looks, history, and possible weapons etc. s/he carries, so I won't forget. Or does the definition of a character sheet include you should follow it like a fundamentalist follows the Bible, and if the abovementioned is all I add to the sheet, that's all there is to the characters?

    I also do the thing I quoted from Minstrel. Guess you can do both? I use both. It's fun, and it works.
     
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  24. EllBeEss
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    EllBeEss Contributing Member

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    I think that the major distinction between using character sheets to produce a static character and a three dimensional one is in what exactly is down on them. Using a character sheet as the be all and end all of a character's personality is very likely to create a flat character but I do not see how using them to record history and static details is worse than keeping such information for more minor characters in your head.
     
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  25. AnonyMouse
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    AnonyMouse Contributing Member Contributor

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    @minstrel
    Your characters come to you pretty much fully formed. You and I are very similar in that regard, but not everyone is like us. For those who aren't, they need something to cobble together the bits and pieces in their head into a cohesive character. At the end of the day, that's really all character development is: putting the pieces together.

    @ChickenFreak
    As I said, it's not the end product that matters. Just because writing a scene puts more words on the page doesn't mean it's more helpful in developing a character. As I said before, it's not about what you write on the character sheet, it is about the process of answering the questions, each of which should be designed to encourage in-character thought. To use your own example:

    Why can't a character sheet guide you to this? You just thought your way through this entire scene, nuances and all, without actually writing it. The question, "what would Jane do if she found a hundred dollar bill on the watermelon aisle at Whole Foods," is enough to stimulate thought, even if all you write on the sheet is "Jane is very honest; she would never keep anything that doesn't belong to her."

    @KaTrian
    Using them as reference material is something I haven't touched on, since I was focusing on the character development side of things, but you bring up a lot of good points. This one, in particular, hit the nail on the head:

    Thank you! Why do character sheets get treated like the most restricting form of character development? I understand people are too complex to be contained in one-line answers to the questions on a character sheet. And I understand that the answers will change as the character changes. But, guess what, the same can be said of other writing exercises.

    Characters are too complex to be contained within a single scene, or photograph, or snippet. That's why I don't even bother with writing aids; anything I write down about them, outside of the story itself, is destined to be limited and superfluous and will almost certainly change. Personally, I just keep it all in my head, where it's free to evolve ad infinitum.

    To return to the earlier example, would Jane still give the hundred dollars away at the end of the story, as opposed to the beginning or middle? Would she have done the same if this were Jane ten years ago? What if it were Jane ten years from now? What if it were a different store or more money or less money or her rent is due...? Are these questions thought-provoking? Do they encourage character development? Would having them on a sheet in front of you be helpful? I say, "yes."
     
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