Posts Tagged likable characters

A foolish inconsistency – round out your characters with contradictions

Think about the people you know. Who are you are most curious about?

It’s not the ones who are most straightforward, although they are probably the easiest company. It’s the enigmas. The ones you can’t pin down, who dance to their own drum.

Consider the guy who’s gruff and abrasive when you talk to him, but surprises you by being fiercely loyal to his friends. Or selfish most of the time, but generous to a fault with a few special people.

More extremely, they might have an edge that makes it difficult to truly know them. Perhaps it’s a seam of aggression that unexpectedly comes out in a harmless discussion. They have secret buttons you don’t discover until you push them.

This crowd make great central characters.

It’s war

To observers, they may seem inconsistent. On the inside of them, it’s war. They feel strong one minute, undermined the next. Humbert Humbert in Lolita loves his own good looks, or is shy, or full of self-loathing. He probably doesn’t even make sense to himself.

They might feel the world is too small for them, but some complex equilibrium keeps them that way. There might be comedy from a character who complains their town is too dull, but won’t kick up a gear – like the Little Britain character   who complains about – and revels in – being the only gay in the village.

Or they might be headed for tragedy. Frank in Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road  feels he should be more than a suburban office worker. His wife hatches a plan for them to start a new bohemian life in France, but he gradually gets cold feet and starts scheming to stay. He makes like he’s in jail, but if you gave him the key he wouldn’t use it. But his wife will fight tooth and nail to get out.

Contradictory characters might sabotage themselves. Sheba in Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal  also has a sense that something is missing, despite her comfortable, married life. So she begins an affair with a pupil at the school where she teaches.


Contradictory characters might not be liked by the reader – but likability doesn’t keep us reading as much as interest does. In Revolutionary Road, Frank’s contradictions are going to keep us curious. What will he do and how will he justify it? (But our sympathies have to go somewhere, so the author makes sure we feel for his poor, trapped wife.)

What it’s not

Here’s something that isn’t a character contradiction: Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes. It’s certainly fun and it humanises a brave chap, but it’s no more than a physical challenge and has limited potential to cause him trouble. True character contradictions affect life choices, relationships, or make people do things that get them into trouble.

Contradictions at a simple level can round out a character so they aren’t a cardboard cut-out. But the deeply conflicted are story time-bombs.

Thanks for the pic, heyjoewhereareyougoingwiththatguninyourhand

I haven’t forgotten I owe you a post about blog design, paid-for themes, self-hosting and SEO. But I thought it had been too long since I tackled a meaty writing subject. Fear not, I will be posting more about blogging in the next week or so. And in the meantime, tell me…

How do you use contradictory characters? Do you have a favourite in fiction?

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Three curmudgeons from my school days: guest post at For Books’ Sake

I’m glad I wore my hat to meet these folks. They host live literary events around the UK, one of which was the recent Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Manchester, which featured on BBC Radio. Other writerly shindigs have made it to Channel 4’s TV Book Club, the pages of Company, Woman & Home and The Bookseller. One reviewer has described them as ‘blowing the cobwebs away from the literary world and infusing it with colour and life’. If you want to clasp them to your bosom already, skip the rest of this spiel and go there now.

They are For Books’ Sake, an online community that showcases classic and contemporary writing by women writers past and present. They rather like the look of My Memories of a Future Life and have asked me over to write about three characters who blew my own literary cobwebs away. So I whirled time back to my school days and picked out three fellas I’m glad I met between the pages and not in real life. Don a mad hat and come on over.

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How to wield back story with panache

How soon can you tell readers your characters’ backgrounds? Most writers are in too much of a hurry. Here’s how to deploy back story with confidence

We’ve got a tonne of stuff to let readers know at the start of a novel. What’s going on, who wants what, why it matters. And then there’s the background to the characters’ lives – how they know the people they’re with, what they do day to day. All the inventory that isn’t action but gives context and depth.

That’s back story.

Here are the two main problems with back story.

  1. Most writers fling it in too early.
  2. Most writers dump back story in one big chunk.

Both these problems mean the story grinds to a standstill. Which means the reader stops being engaged.

So how do you judge when is the right time?

First woo your reader

Imagine you have a new acquaintance. I’m talking about real life, by the way. Don’t even think of telling them about your life until they’re curious about you. Tell them the bare minimum until you’ve bonded with them in an experience that has drawn you closer together. Even then, give dribs and drabs; don’t whammy them with your entire biography. Give only what’s immediately relevant, what arises naturally from what you do together and what you already know.

In our hypothetical friendship, can you see how much is being held back? And how the full picture might not come out for a long time?

This is like your book’s relationship with the reader.

Your reader meets the book, is pulled into the world of the characters. You have to judge when they are genuinely curious for a dollop of back story. And it’s usually much later than you think.

So where do you put it?

I’m just thrashing through a final edit of My Memories of a Future Life, and with a title like that you can bet it’s got heaps of back story. Here’s what I did.

Cut it all out

I made a copy of the book up to the first turning point and cut out all the back story. It ran very smoothly without its weight of explanation, and offered me natural places to reintroduce a paragraph or two. Once I’d got the characters safely (or perilously) to their point of no return, the reader was warmed up enough to welcome the first chunk of back story.

Here’s how I’m dealing with the rest.

Make the back story part of the action

What you imagined as background may not have to stay as background. Could you make it part of the active story? In Life Form 3, which my agent sent out to publishers this week, I caught myself struggling with a lot of explanations. I realised I’d brought the reader in too late. So I started the story earlier and dramatised a lot of the explanations in real time.

Leave it as late as possible

As we said above, there are points in the story where the reader will welcome a few pages about the distant details of the character’s childhood, or how they first got a job at the circus. The later you leave it, the more delicious it might be.

Use back story as bonding material

As well as explaining back story directly through the narrator’s voice, you can also use it to deepen a bond between two characters in a story. If one character tells another how their relationship with their stepson went wrong, that’s miles better than leaving it in back story.

So much of what works in writing mirrors real life. If you think of your book as developing a relationship with the reader, it’s much easier to see you can’t pitch a chunk of back story in the first few chapters. So woo them a little. Intrigue them. Bond the reader to your characters and to you as a storyteller. There will come a point where your back story is very important to them.

Breaking news – historical and speculative author KM Weiland has obviously been wrestling with this topic recently too. She’s just posted a case study on back story in one of Hemingway’s classic shorts – check it out here.

There’s lots more about back story in my book Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3

Thanks, Binder.donedat for the pic How do you deal with back story? Do you find it a problem? Do share any examples of novels that have handled this well!


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Time to get passive aggressive – get your main character out of the back seat

We hear a lot about passive and active characters, but what does this mean? And why is character passivity such a problem?

A problem I see in many manuscripts is that the main character is passive. By this I mean the character doesn’t seem to do very much. The trouble and events are inflicted on them and the story consists of them reacting or trying to extricate themselves. They’re in the back seat of the story – and other people (and forces) are in the driver’s position.

What’s wrong with that, you might ask? Certainly, many stories might kick off with an act from an outside person, a coincidence or bad luck. But if most of the mess and trouble that follows is caused by other people, and not the central character we are reading about, what happens?

The person in the driving seat becomes the more interesting character.

Well, of course they do. They have more gumption. They are pushed further by their hopes and fears. They are active shapers of their own destiny. They are more likely to surprise us. In short, they are riding a bigger rollercoaster than the character who is centre stage.

(Of course, you may be making a deliberate choice to make your character passive; but if not, you’re probably unintentionally neutering them.)

Not just novice writers

But the problem of making main characters passive seems to be a tricky blind spot – and not just for first-time novelists. I was once in a writing group that included several much-published authors, at least one of them award winning. While they read excerpts from their WIPs, the rest of us would frequently tell them off for making their main characters passive.

So it seems our natural inclination might be to put our characters in the back seat, rather than the one that has the wheel. Which makes me wonder – why?

Because we like it that way

For most of our lives we’re in routines – juggling the conflicting demands of work, play, family. Traditionally, a story might start when an event bolts out of the blue and disrupts the status quo. The writer thinks as we all would – what would I do? We’d deal with the distraction and try to restore normality as soon as possible. Because this is how real life works.

The second reason we naturally make our characters passive is this – most writers are the hermit, routine kind of person. It’s not that we aren’t shapers, making our destiny, but we do it most actively inside our heads. We observe, react, shuffle the cards – and write. It’s no wonder our natural inclination is write passive characters.

Stories are not like life

So all that is true to life, but stories and entertainment don’t work in the same way as real life. In stories we want trouble and change or they’re hardly worth telling. We also want to feel we are on a journey with a person who is driven to unusual and interesting lengths by what is happening to them. Someone who isn’t just reacting, but has interesting urges awoken by what is going on. Not fire fighting, but about a fire that is forging a new them. Active characters aren’t naturally more dashing than you or me. They are driven to new extremes – possibly to do things that they never thought they were capable of.

With all that in mind, there are two ways to naturally make your main character more active.

1 – If possible, don’t start a story with an event from outside – a death, a job loss, a hit and run, a murder. Instead, make the kick-off event arise from what the character is already doing. Grafting drama on from the outside can only produce reactions – when an active character needs to take action.

2 – Make this inciting incident something that makes it impossible for the character to go back to their life as they were before.

Find a way to force your character into the driving seat.

Do you have problems with recognising when your main characters are passive? Or do you prefer them that way?

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How to make your most ordinary scene interesting

Having a cup of tea on the way somewhere

Some scenes crackle off the page as we write them. Others fill logical gaps or give us information, but they can be the dullest scenes to write. How can we liven them up?

I’m a big fan of giving scenes in novels a purpose, but in some manuscripts I come across scenes that are all purpose and no soul. I can see the writer thinking – ho-hum, here’s where I introduce the main character’s parents over tea, here’s where they’ve got to be in the car going somewhere, here’s where he explains a set-up that we need or nothing else will make sense. The writer’s weariness slumps off the page.

But elsewhere in the novel, the tension is beautifully done, the characters spring into three dimensions as living, feeling people, with things to hide, issues that are at odds with some of the other people.

Wow, what just happened? It’s as if the book has come alive.

No. The writer has come alive.

The reader knows you were bored

When I point out that some of their scenes were flat, the writer usually says they had a hard time writing them. But, they say, I have to get those bits in, don’t I?

Going from A to B in a car, the Iron Man way

They’re right in a way. For a story to make sense you do have to convey a certain amount of information, background, and there are logical gaps you have to bridge.

But you don’t need any scene that you’re bored by. Because the reader can tell your heart wasn’t in it.

What I do

When I get to a scene that makes me feel this way, I rethink. How can I get my obligatory information across in a way that entertains me? I play a few improv games to make the dialogue snap, I mess around with the location or other things the characters can do until I hit on something that makes it all wake up. (You’ll find some of them in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence).

Or make them say the opposite

Another thing you can do if you have an obligatory conversation is make the characters say the opposite of what they needed to say.

In Hitchcock’s film of The 39 Steps, there’s a scene where the hero, Richard Hannay, is in a hotel room with the woman he’s handcuffed to. They’re lying on the bed and she’s obviously going to ask him if he’s really a murderer. And he’s got to explain. I was keen to see how the writers would tackle this because –

1 – we’re going to get a lot of explanation

2 – it’s all stuff we’ve already seen, yet he obviously has to tell her.

How in holy were they going to keep us interested?

Here, roughly remembered and greatly truncated because I didn’t think to write it down at the time, is how that bit of the dialogue went:

She: I’ve been told murderers have terrible dreams.
He: Only at first. Got over that a long time ago. When I first took to crime,
I was quite squeamish about it….
She: How did you start?
He: Quite a small way, like most of us. Pilfering pennies from other children’s lockers at school… a little pocket picking, a spot of car pinching… Killed my first man … In years to come, you’ll be able to take your grandchildren to Madame Tussaud’s and point me out.
She: Which section?
He: It’s early to say. I’m still young … You’ll point me out and say, “if I were to tell you how matey I once was with that gentleman, you’d be… ”
And so on. He didn’t explain how innocent he was. He went ludicrously over the top and claimed he was on his way to being the grand-moff master-criminal. Far from being a plodding piece of exposition, it’s a wonderful character piece that makes the characters trust each other a little more.

In a good story we’re interested in every scene. So every time you find yourself wearily thinking ‘I’ve got to get this bit in’ or ‘they have to go here or say this’ wait, think and brainstorm. Turn off the autopilot and find a way to write it that excites you.

Do you have any tips for obligatory scenes? Or examples of scenes where writers have found a great way to liven them up? Share in the comments!

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Would you cross the road to avoid them? A problem with flawed characters

Characters with major flaws aren’t always endearing. Here’s how they might scare the reader away

Most writers are aware that if their main character is going to change, they have to set them up as incomplete, or flawed, or in need of something.

But I see a lot of manuscripts where they’ve gone too far. The MC is so abject, feeble, whiney, wussy, miserable, dysfunctional or even bonkers it’s a wonder they ever acquired a bipedal stance.

And that usually makes them hard to tolerate.

First impressions count

In the first few pages of a book, we’re deciding if we want to spend time with the characters. Although flaws can definitely be humanising and endearing, creating a character like this is such a fine balance. If they’re too draining, we’ll quietly put the book down.

Yes, there probably are people like this in real life. But do you seek them out? Be honest now. You let voicemail take their call.

The faithful friend solution

Often the writer senses the character is not likable enough. So they give them a faithful friend who is always looking after them, and hope this persuades the reader that something about them is adorable.

This friend has endless patience for the MC’s feebleness, unreliability and bad behaviour. They may even give a tough-love pep-talk from time to time. Personally I either want them to take centre stage as they have the more interesting life, or I want to give them a slap too.

But flawed, damaged, incomplete characters can be quintessential drivers for a good story. So how do you build them?

The actual, real solution

Don’t make the flawed character helpless.

Ask yourself: how do they cope? Presumably they need to earn a living, manage a family or keep up with schoolwork. Even people with quite serious problems manage a juggling act where they keep it under control – just about.

Show that. Perhaps they are keeping a high-powered job in spite of being blitzed on cocaine. Or pouring Darjeeling demurely at the vicar’s tea party while being tormented by horned demons. Or playing the romantic lead in a drama despite being abused by their real-life husband. Or trying to please their parents who want them to be accountants, but sneaking off to circus practice because that’s where their heart is.

People who really have problems paper over the cracks and carry on as if life is normal. Readers love to spot the holes – and they love the plucky, the brave, the fighters.  Make them show their hero qualities by what they are already having to cope with – and the reader will love them.

Thank you, Freya Hartas, for the pictures – more of her work can be found at her fab blog Carl Has The Funk

Who are your favourite flawed characters?

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Talking characters – Victoria and me

I’m back at Victoria Mixon’s for the second part of our weekly editor chats. Last week we hammered out plot. Today the subject is characters. We discussed techniques for developing characters, what makes a character with dignity and depth, whether to use all your research – and my dislike of what some of you call plaid and what I call tartan.

Hey, we’re all allowed unreasonable quirks. Take a highland fling over to Victoria’s blog and see what it’s all about… Thank you, Lee Carson, for the picture…

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Let your MC succeed while they’re failing – the power of reward

Hmmm... is there an upside to being upside down?

I’ve been chatting with Jonathan Moore about plots and he asked this very good question: Do you think the idea of worsening failures needs to be applied comprehensively for a plot to be compelling?  What happens if you give the MC a break now and then?

Most plots feature struggles – things go from bad to worse. The hero tries to do something (or stops something happening), and that kicks off a series of events that escalate. But Jonathan has identified an important point here.

Before the MC finally gets what they want (or doesn’t), you have to give them a break.

There are two reasons.

1 Predictability

A plot can seem too predictable if all we see is failure after failure. The reader can get bored, not to mention punch-drunk. And for a story to have momentum, the reader needs the feeling that things are changing – a story of novel length needs to, as I said a few weeks ago, move the goalposts. So unless you specifically intend to bludgeon the reader with misfortune (which I find Thomas Hardy’s novels do), the MC needs some rewards before the end.

But variety isn’t the only reason to cut the MC some slack.

2 Giving rewards makes a story more compelling

Often, giving the MC rewards can kick off an even better story. He wants something, he seems to get it. He gets more embroiled and that leads him into deeper do-do.

In Andrea Newman’s An Evil Streak,  a lonely single man has a creepy, obsessive relationship with his niece. When she was a child she was his angel. She bursts into puberty and starts dating, and he’s abandoned and jealous – the first blow. But then she falls in love and needs a place to sleep with her boyfriend. Kind, creepy uncle offers her his flat – a triumph as she is in his power like never before. Even better, he puts up a two-way mirror and watches. The rest of the story is a seesaw of successes that ensnare him more and scrapes that make the failures worse.

A perhaps less amoral example is The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist. The Unit features a futuristic world where childless single people are given at age 50 to medical science. They live in the lap of luxury while undergoing medical experiments, and will eventually make the ultimate sacrifice as organ donors. The story follows a woman who goes into such a clinic… and falls in love. Suddenly she has found what she has missed all her life – but is it too late? She is given hope, has those hopes dashed, is given more hope again… and the reader is right with her on the rollercoaster, heart leaping and stomach lurching.

This early success – where the character seems to get what they want, makes what unfolds so much more powerful. By involving us in the successes, the failures become more devastating.

Who else might you give a break to?

Giving a character a break is used to very interesting effect in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, which became the first Hannibal Lecter film. For much of the novel we have watched the murderer Francis Dolarhide as an appalling monster. Then, unexpectedly, he strikes up a relationship of genuine tenderness with a blind girl. This goes to the very root of what he needs in life and lets us see a human side to him (while also making us afraid for the poor girlfriend as we’re sure she’s going to trigger his vicious instincts at any moment). Just as we wonder if this will redeem him, he sees her talk to a colleague and gets jealous – and then we know that as far as he is concerned, the universe has betrayed him and nothing will stop him. And that makes him even more formidable.

Rollercoasters need ups as well as downs. So when you’re making things worse for your characters, don’t have them fail all the time.  Explore what happens if you give them what they want – and snatch it away. Maybe do it several times. Thanks, Jonathan, for a provocative question as always!

Share your favourite examples of characters being rewarded!

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New Year special – writing sins that scupper a story Part 4: Did You Hear About The Morgans?

Weak story links, lazy plotting, wrong point of view, unsatisfying endings… Although Chez Morris we’ve taken time off from writing, we’ve seen some DVDs that have roused me to write posts of protest. So, to keep your critical faculties ticking over until life resumes as normal, I thought I’d share them with you in this five-part mini-series. (And yes, beware spoilers…)


Today: Did You Hear About The Morgans?

Did You Hear About The Morgans? features a couple from New York who are separating. Out one evening to discuss their divorce, they witness a crime and are forced to go to a safe house, in a tiny town hundreds of miles away from the city.

This sounds like a great concept –danger, soul-searching, an unsophisticated town to put the New Yorkers back in touch with what really matters.

Writing sin 1: story delivers on expectations only superficially and not deeply

Did You Hear About The Morgans? delivers on none of the promises, except in the most mechanical way. There are a number of mishaps and small-town oddities, but they seem to operate only to set up superficial and unsatisfying pratfalls later.

There are nominal attempts to get the Morgans involved in the community – Mrs Morgan, who is a real estate agent, helps the doctor to sell his house, and Mr Morgan, a lawyer, helps an ornery old grump to write a will. None of these have payoffs later, or are particularly funny, or – most important – challenge the characters at any personal level. They seem to have been put in only to show that the Morgans had jobs, and to make the community like them. But in a story like this we want the change to be the other way round – the main characters have to grow to like the community and thus have discovered some new values.

Taking the Morgans out of New York didn’t force them to act in new ways, so there was nothing gained by doing it. All it seems to mean to them is that they miss their lattes, vegetarian restaurants and the internet. This story is partly a fish out of water scenario – and should be more than simply a way to force characters to spend time together. The setting should be instrumental in the characters’ change.

Writing sin 2: wooden characters

This is the central problem. The main characters are wooden. They never discover anything about themselves. It’s a story about a reconciled relationship, but we never see how the two Morgans relate to each other now, what they were like at the start, what had gone bad and how it changed.

There are hints at fertility problems and conflict about starting a family, but these look as if they have been flung in in a desperate attempt to press emotional hot keys, rather than being thought through.

The characters also don’t live up to the professions the writers gave them. Mrs Morgan ran a company so famous that she was on the cover of a glossy magazine. Mr was a high-powered lawyer. They should have had some corresponding personality traits, such as tenacity, ruthlessness and ingenuity. When people like that are in conflict with each other, particularly emotional conflict, they should become ugly. It looked like nobody wanted to risk making the Morgans a bit nasty. This misses the point of a story like this. If they don’t bring nasty traits out in each other at the start, they have no way to mellow at the end.

Writing sin 3: changing the story direction without putting enough work into the new elements This is just a guess, but it looks to me as though Did You Hear About The Morgans? started life as a thriller. Probably a lot of that material was taken out, but the thriller elements that remain (including how the hitman tracks them) are the best honed and have obviously had multiple drafts.

Also, the supporting cast are far better realised than the main characters. Although they have less screen time, each of them gives us a sense of a real person with aims, hobbies and troubles – conspicuously lacking in the main characters.

It looks like the film was rewritten in a hurry, but nobody paid any attention to working through the main characters properly.


Tomorrow: Sherlock Holmes

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New Year special – writing sins that scupper a story Part 3: Salt

Weak story links, lazy plotting, wrong point of view, unsatisfying endings… Although Chez Morris we’ve taken time off from writing, we’ve seen some DVDs that have roused me to write posts of protest. So, to keep your critical faculties ticking over until life resumes as normal, I thought I’d share them with you in this five-part mini-series. (And yes, beware spoilers…)


Today: Salt

Salt starts well enough. Angelina Jolie’s character, Evelyn Salt, is preparing for her wedding anniversary when she discovers she is not a CIA officer but a Russian sleeper spy – and is given an assignment to assassinate the Russian president. Her husband is kidnapped, and she goes on the run. Pretty soon she finds her husband, just in time to see him killed. For the rest of the film, she carries on with her mission, tries to avoid capture and flushes out the real bad guys.

Writing sin 1: breaking the connection with the audience In the commentary the director, Philip Noyce, reveals they cut a scene from the middle, in which Salt is interrogated by the CIA after apparently assassinating the Russian president. She tells them she had to look as though she was going on with her Russian orders because the Russians have her husband and this is the only way to find him. Noyce said he regretted taking the scene out because it ‘broke the umbilical cord with the audience’.

With this scene in the film, she is struggling to rescue her husband – and so we are rooting for her. If it is cut out we have no idea what her motivations are, and are left only with the question of whether she assassinated the Russian president or not – a character we have not been made to care about, and an action whose consequences to us are remote and theoretical. For the rest of the film we are wondering whether she is a patriotic American or a Soviet baddie, but again this is impersonal. What the story made us care about at the beginning is whether she loses her husband. When they discarded that from the film, they cut out its heart.

Writing sin 2: bodged ending

The director’s commentary reveals there are three possible endings to Salt. In the first ending, she kills her Russian handler (who earlier on killed her husband) – thus ending on a note of emotional closure. The test audience didn’t like it – possibly because without the earlier umbilical cord scene it looked glib.

So what did they do instead? In the released version, Salt is unofficially allowed to escape on condition she kills the other sleeper spies – which looks like it’s leaving the treadmill on for dozens of sequels. The third ending is a variation on this – a news bulletin hints that the new US president might be another sleeper spy. This is intellectually clever but not emotionally –because we haven’t been made to care about the consequences of that. Plus, we can hear that cynical sequel treadmill grinding.

Endings do have to be clever and surprising, of course. But they also have to tackle what the audience most cares about. The revenge killing of the handler would have done this, but only if the thread had been kept.

Tomorrow: Did You Hear About The Morgans?

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