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Archives for July, 2010

What Star Wars teaches us about character introductions

In real life, we make judgments about people, often within mere seconds of meeting them. Those judgments, whether right or wrong, are incredibly difficult to change later on. You don’t, as the saying goes, get a second chance to make a first impression.

The same is true in our books. Scenes where we introduce readers to new characters are tough to do well, because we don’t get much space to play with before readers make up their minds. Not many paragraphs pass before readers decide whether they like, loathe, admire, or pity a new character. So we have to act fast.

Star Wars is a great example of how to do this well, and exhibits most of the core techniques I want to talk about. Star Wars (and I’m talking about Episode IV, here) manages to convey to us, in very short amounts of screen-time, the essential nature of all of its main characters and shows them to be unique, distinctive individuals. We can take some lessons there as to how to effectively introduce our own books’ characters.

Show them in action

When introducing a protagonist or other POV character, consider showing them in action. By this I mean putting the character in a scene where he or she has to actually do something. Make it a situation where the character has to make some kind of choice and take some kind of action (preferably, a difficult choice and an unpleasant action) in order to affect the outcome of the situation.

Early on in Princess Leia’s introduction—it’s not her first scene, but it’s close—she is faced with a no-win choice: give up the location of the rebel base, or see her home planet of Alderaan destroyed. We can see how difficult a choice it is for her, through her visceral, bodily reactions. She’s heartbroken to betray the rebellion, but she can’t let an entire planet’s population be eradicated either. It’s an impossible choice, but she makes a choice anyway, and we see the pain of it in the down-turn of her face, the slump of her shoulders.

What does it tell us about her? It tells us that she’s an important person within the world of the movie. It tells us that she is fundamentally a protective, nurturing person, in as much as she tries to protect the people of Alderaan even though she must make a huge sacrifice in the attempt. The scene portrays her as a deeply sympathetic character. But note—and this is important—the sympathy comes not from the choice itself but from how she feels about it, which we viewers read through her body language. Had she treated the choice differently, in a casual or cavalier manner ("Well, Tarkin, I can’t have you blowing up a whole planet, so hey, the rebels are on Dantooine. Go get ‘em, big guy!") we’d have had an entirely different feeling about her.

Show them in conflict

One of Luke Skywalker’s first scenes is a minor conflict between him and his Uncle Owen. We meet Luke in the scene where the Jawas sell R2-D2 and C-3PO to Luke’s family. Having made their purchases, Uncle Owen tells Luke to get the new droids cleaned up. Luke replies with:

But I was going into Toshi Station to pick up some power converters...

Epic whine. A whine that will go down in history. But, he obeys his Uncle. What’s going on here from a character perspective? We’re being shown that Luke is a relatively powerless figure. He has no authority, and little control over his life. Physically, we can see that he’s a very young man, so this makes sense and is something most viewers can empathize with. We’ve all felt that way from time to time. That’s the sympathetic hook of Luke’s character. But it also shows us that he’s not satisfied with the life he lives. He rankles at the limitations of both the life he lives and the place he lives it. As he remarks to C-3PO:

Well, if there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.

Conflict is a wonderful way to bring a character’s deeper motivations up to the surface where we can see them. Whether those motivations come out through dialogue (as they do here), through choices made as the conflict progresses, conflict is a great way to let us know what really drives your characters.

Show them using key skills, attitudes, hobbies, et cetera

We first meet “Old Ben” Kenobi, the “crazy old wizard” after Luke gets his butt kicked by the Tusken Raiders. (Side note: Luke clearly loses that conflict, which greatly re-enforces his powerlessness.) Kenobi comes breezing into the canyon, his brown robes flowing in the breeze, and the raiders all take off. Young, strong, able-bodied Luke was child’s play for the raiders, but creaky old Ben Kenobi scares them off without so much as breaking a sweat.

It’s not difficult to understand that this Kenobi guy must have something going for him. He’s got some kind of mystic juju going on in that scene which is nothing to sneeze at. At that point in the movie, we have no idea what his deal is, not yet, but we get it: he’s a powerful figure. His subsequent dialogue with Luke further reveals him to be both kindly and wise.

In hero’s journey terms (and Star Wars is definitely a hero’s journey story), even in this short introductory scene Kenobi is an obvious fit to be the story’s mentor character.

Use vivid imagery

Don’t discount a vivid set of visuals to introduce a character, either. Like Darth Vader. Even without John William’s unforgettable musical theme for Vader, we know he’s a total badass from the moment he steps into the smoke-filled corridor of Princess Leia’s spacecraft. His imposing physical stature, jet black outfit, and billowing cape all speak of power. The symbology is not subtle at all, but it is pulled off with such panache that the overall impression is powerfully striking.

Show other characters’ reactions

Speaking of Vader, he’s also a great example of how other characters’ reactions can show the viewer (or reader) a more complete picture. He shows his face—well, his mask anyway—and storm-troopers snap to attention along the corridor’s walls. They make room for him to pass. Rebel soldiers avert their eyes and clasp their hands behind their heads. Those reactions, even though they come from nameless (and for the stormtroopers, literally faceless) extras, tell us everything we need to know about Vader. When Vader steps into that corridor, he’s the man. He’s in complete control of the situation, and no one is about to defy him.

Except, getting back to her for a moment, Princess Leia. And what does that tell us about her? That she’s strong, oh so strong, and indomitable.

Make use of setting

Where we meet characters says a lot about them too. We meet Luke out in the ass-end of nowhere on his Uncle’s moisture farm. He could scarcely be in a less influential setting. It’s a great setup for Luke, because for him Star Wars: A New Hope is a fish-out-of-water story. He’s the backwater nobody who finds himself suddenly thrust into the middle of hugely important, high stakes events. That we meet him in such an inauspicious location, and particularly since the previous scenes involved spaceships and Very Important People, shows us exactly the degree to which Luke is going to be an unlikely hero, bumbling through very much out of his depth.

Han Solo’s introduction is also rich with setting. We meet him in the practically the sleaziest dive bar in the galaxy. That alone sets him up as an unsavory rogue character. We then see him shoot his way out of an encounter with a bounty hunter, and with more than his share of casual bravado, establish that he is as much in control within this environment as Vader was back on Leia’s spaceship. We’re also left with no uncertainty that this Han Solo guy is likely the worst of possible choices Luke and Ben have at their disposal for getting off Tattooine, except that he’s their only choice. His roguishness, established as much by the setting as his actions, works to sell the desperate circumstances Luke and Ben are in.

Note, too, that this is a perfect introduction for Han Solo in terms of setting up his overall character arc. He flips from being an indifferent mercenary figure to being an active ally to the rebellion. And in later movies, he shows his softer side, his willingness to take risks for those he cares about, and so forth. His arc is all about that shift from being a self-centered opportunist, to a more idealistic supporter of a cause that is larger than himself. For that to work, we have to meet him while he’s still a pompous jackass, and the Mos Eisly cantina scene is a great setting to establish that as a starting point for him.

Drop some hints about backstory

The opportunity of meeting a new character is not an excuse to tell us their life’s story. It is not an occasion to indulge in a massive backstory infodump. Don’t go there. Just don’t.

It is, however, an opportunity to create some mystery by hinting at interesting elements of backstory. The opportunity of meeting a new character is to raise some compelling questions in the reader’s mind which you can then explore more fully as the story moves on.

Darth Vader’s physical form hints at significant backstory. From the first second we see him, he is obviously a physically powerful character. And yet, there’s that mechanical, raspy breathing that hints at an underlying frailty. He’s got machines and blinking lights all over his chest. You cannot help but look at him and wonder What’s under the mask? And how did he get to be that way?

When we meet Luke Skywalker, it’s in the context of his aunt and uncle. The dialogue takes particular care to give us their names, Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen. Shortly thereafter, we see that he doesn’t simply work on their farm, he lives with them. The subtext of the conversation where his Uncle refuses to let Luke send in his application to the Academy tells us that they are his caregivers and surrogate parents. So we wonder Why is he living with them? What happened to his real parents? We’re not given some kind of heavy-handed flashback montage showing us what happened to Luke’s parents (we had to wait 20+ years and five more movies to really understand that), but we are given hints that there is a compelling backstory there.

When we meet Obi Wan and come to understand that he isn’t just a crazy old man like Uncle Owen told Luke, that he does have some kind of power, we’re forced to wonder What the heck he’s doing living out in the middle of a nowhere desert?

We’re forced to wonder. And because of that curiosity, we’re compelled to keep watching. It works in books, too.

The number-one job of a character introduction

If I can sum all this up, my advice would be this: Craft your character introductions to tell us what’s most important about that person. You don’t get much space before the reader’s first impression is set, so make it count. Concentrate on conveying the one thing you most want us to believe about that character.

And make it something good, because above all, we need a reason to be interested. Give us some reason to love, to hate, to admire, or to pity the character. As long as we feel something about the person, we’ll read on. As long as we’re interested in who they are, we’ll be interested in what happens to them. The second we realize there’s nothing about a character that interests us (usually because the writer has left them too opaque), we lose interest in the story itself.

July 30, 2010 19:00 UTC

Tags: character, introductions, action, reaction, conflict, skills, imagery, setting, backstory, mystery, curiosity

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Character Corner: The Last Universe by William Sleator

It has been so long since I posted a Character Corner review that most of my new readers have probably never even seen one. If not, it’s a book review wherein I discuss the good, bad, and ugly about a book’s characters. Part of the reason I haven’t done one in a while is because of the question of spoilers. It is quite difficult to provide a meaningful discussion of a book’s characters without spoiling important plot points.

I have no spoiler concerns with The Last Universe because, well, let me put it this way: When I finished the book the other night, I turned to my wife and said “What a disappointingly stupid book.” Honestly, you’ll be better off spending your reading time on something better. May I suggest Newberry winner When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead? It has a similar teen girl protagonist and mystery/adventure plot, but is a totally kick-ass book.

I have to say I was surprised at this book’s many flaws. Sleator is a well known author, with a whole bunch of books to his name. My wife read some of his stuff when she was in library school and said she enjoyed them. The “other books by” list opposite the title page in this one lists twenty-one other titles. So I was expecting better. Maybe after a certain point an author’s agents and editors stop paying attention? I don’t know.

The story, in a nutshell

The rest of this will be easier if I at least give you a capsule summary. First off, you’d have to classify this as a paranormal book. There are three notable characters in this book. Teenager and first-person narrator Susan, her sickly brother Gary, and the family’s gardener Luke. The basic premise is that the kids’ great uncle was a physicist who studied quantum mechanics, and built this freaky hedge maze out in the family’s wooded back property where, if you go in, you come out in a different universe. Parallel world stuff. The they discover this when the maze starts making strange things happen elsewhere in the gardens.

Susan’s job in the book is to push her brother in his wheelchair through the gardens, because he’s so sick and being outside is what he wants to do, and how can you say no to your dying brother? Susan is fairly realistic in this, so far as really she just wants to hang out with her friends and not be coerced by her parents and her brother into being his summertime caretaker.

Gary’s job is to be the cryptic cipher. He, so we are told, just knows there’s something weird going on in the garden—or more specifically, at the spooky old pond where a little girl drowned several decades prior—and so he wants to be there when it happens. This, ostensibly, is why he continually demands that Susan take him out to the pond and why he has gotten a bunch of quantum mechanics books from the library. Gary is the book’s stakes, too. He also claims that whatever is going on in the garden is making him better, helping him recover from the illness that put him in a wheelchair.

Luke’s job is to maintain the family’s gardens, but also to take care of a cat that had once belonged to the great uncle from way back (it’s a cat, in a story about macroscopic quantum effects. Get it? Nyuk-nyuk! ), and to deliver a critical piece of information later on in the plot. Luke is Cambodian, a refugee from the Khmer Rouge. He sends money back to his family in Cambodia whenever he can, and longs for the day he can rejoin them.

Be smart. Fact check your book

Here’s a tiny little thing that would have been no work at all for Sleater to have gotten right, but which he didn’t, and which sabotaged his protagonist and my suspension of disbelief alike: sloppy use of the word “quantum.” As Susan experiences the weird happenings in the garden, she becomes naturally curious as to what’s going on. This provides Gary with an opportunity to explain, a little bit at a time, some of the fundamentals of quantum mechanics. This, in theory, is great: with the sorry state of science education in our public schools, I’m all for slipping a little science into YA literature, especially when it serves the story.

Only, Susan consistently misuses the word “quantum” in her dialogue and her narration. She treats it like a noun, rather than an adjective. She asks Gary questions like “Tell me about quantum” which, leaving aside the obvious “Here be exposition!” red-flag, is just wrong. She could ask about “quantum physics,” “quantum mechanics,” or “quantum effects.” Those would all be fine. But bare “quantum"? No. It’s wrong.

I wouldn’t mind if she did it once. That would be a fine way to show that she doesn’t, as she admits, know the first thing about it. Gary could correct her, and thenceforth she could get it right. But that’s not what happened. She made that same mistake many times, and Gary never called her on it. He should know, he’s the one reading all the physics books. He uses it correctly in his dialogue, so I know he knows, and therefore, I also know that William Sleator knows that “quantum” is an adjective.

So why does Susan keep getting it wrong? There’s no excuse other than sloppiness. Because analyzing the relationship between surface-level writing and the portrayal of characters is what I do, I can’t help but step back and conclude the fault lies with Sleator, his agent, and his editor. Sleator should have gotten it right, but somehow didn’t, and nobody upstream in the publication process bothered to pay much attention, probably because he’s got a history of 21 other titles under his belt already.

But that’s me, trying my hardest to look favorably on Susan, and even I couldn’t fully escape the feeling that Susan was kind of a dope. Other readers may be less likely to be so charitable towards her. Still, in the balance I’m left with a protagonist I can’t really respect and a writer I can’t really trust to get the details right. Ask yourself, are those your wishes for how readers will experience your book?

This error falls under the larger category of fact checking. So be smart. Take the time to fact check your book on stuff like this, especially when elements of your premise, plot, et cetera fall outside of your own personal areas of expertise. And don’t try to tell me that it doesn’t matter because YA readers wouldn’t know enough physics to spot the mistake. If I ever catch you disrespecting your readers like that, I’ll personally come over to your house and steal all the vowels off your keyboard.

Keep your characters’ priorities straight

Sleater also did a poor job, in my estimation, of correctly maintaining his characters’ differing priorities. The only one he really gets right here is Gary, whose overriding priority is to overcome his illness. Everything Gary does is in line with that, until that proves to be impossible. After he loses hope for himself, his main priority shifts to Susan’s welfare. That was great. But Sleater didn’t do so well with Susan’s and Luke’s priorities.

Susan’s original motivations to assist Gary on his expeditions into the “quantum garden” are fine. She really does want to see him get better. But later in the book when the figure out that the hedge maze sends you to different universes where things are different (e.g. in some universes, Gary isn’t sick), her priorities don’t track. At that moment, when Susan comes to understand what the maze really does, she ought to be faced with a rather thorny set of questions. Are they still the same people, if they go to a different universe? Can they ever get back? Even if they do find a universe where Gary is just fine, will that even matter since they won’t be in their home universe with their real parents?

If I’m Susan in that situation, my reaction is going to be to want nothing more than to figure out how to get back home. It’s at heart a denial reaction: Gary understood what was going on, but didn’t tell her. So from her perspective, she has just learned not only that she has been duped, but that she has just had her whole life—her friends, her family, her home, literally her entire world—stolen from her. Yes, maybe these parallel worlds are eerily similar to her home world, but now she understands that they are not the same. Remember why stakes work? Remember how the endowment effect shows that characters will work much, much harder to avoid a loss than they will to gain something of ostensibly identical value? For Susan, the endowment effect and her natural denial should work together to create a powerful new priority: get home.

Alas, there’s no inkling towards any of that. There’s no examination of any of those thorny questions that sure popped right int my mind. There’s no heated argument between Susan and Gary where she rails at him for tricking her out of her rightful universe. There is no re-evaluation of priorities. Nothing.

Instead, Susan continues on helping Gary visit yet more new universes looking for the one that will satisfy his priority. Emotionally, it rings false. It would be one thing had Sleater recognized the emotions that this revelation should have had on Susan, and confronted them head on. But he didn’t. He skipped over it entirely and moved on with the plot he wanted to tell. He traded his plot problem for a characterization problem, which in my view is always a losing trade.

Sleater did something similar with Luke. Luke, we are given to understand, knows something about the dangers of the hedge maze. We learn, later on in the story when he delivers that critical clue to Susan, that he probably understands the maze sends you to a different universe. Yet, given that, there’s still a point where he chases Susan and Gary into the maze, supposedly out of fear for their safety. That would be very noble, except for not making any sense. On the one hand, if he understands what the maze does, then he would know that the instant they set foot in it, they were already lost. So what’s the point of chasing them in there? On the other hand, he would also understand that if he sets foot in the maze, he will be forever separated from his real family, the one he sends money to all the time, and that he wants to be reunited with. So again, why would he go in? He wouldn’t. Except, he did. Sleater made him go into the maze anyway, despite what Luke knew and understood, and despite acting against his knowledge and his priorities alike.

Don’t get sloppy.

Don’t forget: little details of language use can be just as problematic for your characters and your overall story as can outright plot holes. And never forget, too, that your characters ought to be real people with their own unique, motivating priorities which govern much of how they feel and act. Always keep your characters behavior consistent with their priorities, lest you break the reader’s faith in your character, lest you break the reader’s suspension of disbelief, and lest you undermine the reader’s trust in you to tell them a believable story.

If you do ever find yourself in William Sleator’s enviable position of having 21 prior published books to your name, don’t let yourself get sloppy and don’t let your agent and editor stop holding you to the highest standards either. You owe your readers better than that.

July 06, 2010 04:01 UTC

Tags: character corner, book review, William Sleator, The Last Universe, priorities, fact checking

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How to part a fool from his money

Money, the root of all evil, plays a large role in more books than probably anyone can name. It’s so ubiquitous, in fact, that I’m hard pressed to think of any book at all which doesn’t involve money at all. At the very least, practically every book involves someone buying or selling something. Maybe it’s only a pack of gum, but still, money plays a role. Did William Golding’s Lord of the Flies involve money anywhere? Maybe that’s one example, but it has been so long since I read it I wouldn’t swear to that. Somebody refresh my memory.

Why you might take your protagonist’s money away

Anyway, money is everywhere in our stories, which is great for writers because of two things. One, as the saying goes, “when in doubt, make things worse.” That is, when your book feels like it’s starting to sag and you’re not sure how to raise the drama back up, you can do no better than to dump some new problems on your protagonist. Ask yourself, “what’s the worst thing that could plausibly happen to him right now?” and do that. A great option might just be to part your protagonist from his cash. If he needs the money for something later (and who doesn’t?), that becomes a great obstacle.

Two, consider de-funding your protagonist for something I blogged about a long time ago, why you should steal your character’s shoes. The idea there is a bit different than merely creating an obstacle. You can read the whole article, but in brief, the strategy isn’t so much to create actual problems for your protagonist as it is to create what the character thinks are problems but really aren’t. The goal is to strip away everything the character thinks she needs but which are really just conveniences, leaving her with only what she actually needs: a willingness to pursue the goal no matter what. Viewed in that light, stripping your character of all her money might seem like an enormous problem for her at first, but upon later reflection, she can realize that money isn’t actually necessary for getting the job done. Useful, maybe, but not necessary. There’s lots of great drama in that.

How to take your protagonist’s money away

You could be blunt about it: simply rob the character at gunpoint, or burn down the house in which all his money is stashed. That would work, but in my view it’s kind of bland. I think the drama and opportunities for character development are ever so much better if you let it be at least partly the character’s fault that he loses all his money. Here, then, are three common mistakes in thinking, perception, and judgment which relate to people and their money. Perhaps one of these money-loss reasons would fit well with your plot.

The denomination effect. This relates to poor money management skills. The idea here is that people tend to spend more money in total if presented with many opportunities to spend small amounts of money than they will if presented with just a few opportunities to make larger purchases. This makes intuitive sense; most of us would think long and hard before choosing to spend a thousand dollars on a sweet new digital camera with all the bells and whistles. Yet few people think anything at all about spending two or three dollars a day on their morning latte, which over the course of a year, adds up to about the same. And over the course of the lifetime of the camera (which for a thousand bucks had better be more than a year!), the camera comes out way ahead versus the lattes. So one option is simply to let your character be the sort of person who makes a lot of small, impulse purchases that lead to an unfortunate shortage of cash at some point when they really need it.

The gambler’s fallacy. Like the name says, this relates directly to gambling, whether through casino-style games of chance or playing the stock market or even investing in real estate. Any time you have a character putting up money against the hope that a future event will break their way, the gambler’s fallacy can come into play. The fallacy itself is when a person gets the feeling or comes to believe that a fundamentally unlikely event is more likely to happen at a particular time simply because it hasn’t happened for a while. Note, too, there’s usually some selection bias involved as well: we only think this way about unlikely events that would be beneficial to us.

In gambling, what happens is that players will keep putting quarters into that slot machine, losing on every pull, but with every loss becoming more confident that surely the next pull will have to come up triple-cherries because “it’s bound to happen eventually.” Or in craps, making bet after bet in the face of continual losses because double-sixes “are due” to happen any time now. Well, no. They’re not. Unless the dice are loaded, double-sixes aren’t “due” at all. Each throw is independent of the last, and no amount of data about past throws tells you a darned thing about what might happen on the next throw.

You can see the pattern. In your novels, to bring the gambler’s fallacy into play you must first subject the character to a sequence of losses leading them to believe that they’re “due to win one.” Maybe they’ve made a series of bad real estate investments, each of which may have made sense at the time, but which turned out badly for one reason or another. “Just bad luck,” your character might think. But knowing that real estate prices do tend to rise over the long run, the character might fall into the trap of thinking that they’ve been playing the market long enough that “prices have got to start going back up soon,” and so might go all-in with their remaining money on one last deal.

Extraordinarity bias: This one relates to people’s tendency to over-value anything which is perceived to have something special about it, however intangible that special quality may be. How do you get a kid to trade a cow for a handful of beans? Convince him they’re special, extraordinary, magic beans. Of course, being a fairy tale the beans really were magic, but the point remains: Jack would never have made the trade except for his belief in the extraordinarity of the beans.

More prosaically, show a sports memorabilia collector two basically identical baseballs, but tell him “the one on the left once belonged to Joe DiMaggio’s cousin. Who knows, Joe may once have held this very ball! The one on the right I bought at Walmart this morning.” If you ask the person which baseball is more valuable, it’s not hard to guess which one he’ll pick.

Similarly, those home shopping channels on cable TV make relentless use of extraordinarity bias in everything they sell: the reason the announcers fill the air time telling you that the diamond chips in these fabulous 12-karat gold plated earrings came all the way from South Africa is to create the perception that there’s something special—something extraordinary—about these particular earrings versus ones you might find at any mass market jewelry store. Never mind that South Africa is where an enormous fraction of the world’s diamonds come from anyway, and as such aren’t any more or less remarkable than any other diamonds in the world.

For fleecing characters of their money, this one has got to be my favorite error in judgment because it is the basis on which a lot of confidence schemes work. The con artist gets someone to believe that a perfectly ordinary, relatively valueless item is in fact somehow very special, and as such, worth a lot of money. Think about your character’s background and interests, and figure out what kind of cheap garbage a con artist could use to dupe him. What’s the baseball, as it were, to your character’s equivalent of collecting sports memorabilia? I love this one because the character ends up broke, with nothing to show for it but a worthless trinket, because he let himself get duped.

How embarassing! The great thing for the novelist, though, is that not only does the con itself create a great moment in your novel, but you can very easily use it as an excellent turning point for the character. If you’re still early in the book when it’s appropriate for things to be getting worse and worse, maybe the act of getting duped undermines the character’s confidence, and leads to a series of poor choices based on not trusting himself anymore and second-guessing himself at every turn. Or, if it’s late in the book, the act of getting duped might have the opposite effect of steeling the character’s resolve to win through anyway.

Money is everywhere

I suspect most of us have something of a love/hate relationship with money. We love what it can do for us, but we hate how hard we have to work to get it. Your characters may well feel the same way, at least initially, but I guarantee if you cause the character to lose all of his or her money, you’ll make that character’s feelings about money suddenly much more complex and interesting. In any event, money is everywhere, in real life and in our novels. Rather than trying to fight it or gloss over it in your story, I hope these tips give you some ideas for how to work with it to improve the depth and layered complexity of your novel.

July 02, 2010 05:21 UTC

Tags: character, money, obstacles, denomination effect, gambler's fallacy, extraordinarity bias

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