Book Done Yet? Nita’s Likable Enough . . .

Nita Blog

Anybody else remember eight years ago when Obama said, “You’re likable enough, Hillary”? It’s one of the few times I’ve been annoyed with him, but I’m finding myself looking at Nita and thinking the same thing. “You’re likable enough, Nita. But that doesn’t win voters readers.”

Likability is usually a big deal in discussing protagonists, but I’m not a fan. I don’t care if you like my protagonist or not, I just want you to be fascinated by her, can’t-look-away captivated. If you like her enough to root for her, that’s a plus, but a protagonist who’s merely likable is also merely there. There needs to be sharp edges and sparkly places and a smudge on the cheek. There needs to be volume there, she needs to take up space in the story, fill the page when she walks in. As much as I want readers saying, “Can’t wait to see what happens next,” even more I want readers saying, “Can’t wait to see what SHE does next.”

Nita’s not there yet.

She’s closer because I know so much more about her now, like why she’s always cold and why she can drink like a fish and not get drunk and why she’s such a good cop. None of which makes her Her, the one all eyes turn to. Those are just character notes, they’re not character.

So the question I’m asking myself now as I look at that first scene again is, “Why do I love Nita?” Because I do. I love her because she loves her brother and sister even if she’s too repressed to tell them so. I love her because she’s so upset about Joey’s death and she’s not going to let it rest because he was a good guy and this is her island. I love her because she keeps going even when her world starts fragmenting around her because what else is she going to do? I love her because she loves food and dogs and the Nature Preserve. I love her because she’s about to become unrepressed, and she’s so frantic while she’s trying to understand her New Normal, but she still does her job. She’s just fierce and determined and passionate and expansive and good-hearted.

Now all I have to do is get that on the page in the first scene . . .

Edited to add:
You know who’s a great protagonist?


49 thoughts on “Book Done Yet? Nita’s Likable Enough . . .

  1. Question: Is Nita sexy?

    She’s had a string of boyfriends and Nick fancies her on sight, which makes me think yes, but then she’s physically cold and mentally repressed, which makes me think no. So this is a point that’s confusing me.

  2. I don’t think any of my heroines are sexy. They’re normally attractive and they’re smart, but none of them are hot. If I ever write the Nadine book, she’ll be my first beautiful, sexually provocative heroine.

    Nick doesn’t fancy her on sight. He sees that she has really black eyes and Vinnie calls her “Spooky” and explains why, and he realizes she’s not completely human, and he wants to know more about that, but it’s more of a professional thing, the Devil wondering what she is and if it’s something he needs to deal with. Nick doesn’t actually have the emotions to fancy anybody in the beginning: he’s dead. He’s basically a brain/spirit and a skeleton; it’s very hard to fancy somebody if you don’t have flesh.

    I love that “fancy her;” always makes me think of that Comic Relief skit with Catherine Tate as a schoolgirl asking David Tennant as the new teacher if he fancies Billie Piper.

    “Bite me, Alien Boy.”

    1. LOVE Catherine Tate, and love that skit. It always makes me want to go watch them in Much Ado About Nothing again. Also worth watching is the Royal Variety Show skit where she talks to the Queen. That woman is pure gold.

    2. Innit, tho.

      I work in a team of mostly Chinese people and I’m always calling them “dove” or “sweetheart”, some of them have picked that up and now they’re calling our clients & partners those words… Bit of a bad influence, me.

      Thanks for the explanation and the video!

    3. That was fun. I love everything those two do together. Sometimes I go to YouTube and watch/listen to their joint interviews because it’s always hilarious.

    4. Hey. I just reread your “discovery” chapters of Nita…I LOVE Nita! She’s smart and unintentionally funny, and even though she says she’s unemotional, she’s deeply emotional!! As you said, she just isn’t very good at saying how she feels. So I can hardly wait to read the finished product. When?!

      1. Who knows? It takes as long as it takes . . . but I’m hoping not long. Argh.
        Thank you!

  3. For the central protagonist, the key seems to be in contrast. What’s the thing that seems to be out of place, the contradiction that people want to see explained?

    Buffy: obvious
    Mal Reynolds: seemingly mercenary, yet spots of heroism shine through, sometimes screwing over others for his crew, sometimes throwing his crew into the deep end to save others. First scene of original pilot is his bright spirit getting broken by being abandoned. First scene of broadcast pilot is his getting into a barfight over ideals, but still getting the smuggling job.
    Nate: In that first scene of the pilot, he’s so broken, but via Dubenich’s exposition, we learn that he’s super competent (so we wonder how), and then there’s that hint at the end of seething rage underneath, when Dubenich offers him the chance to screw over the company that killed his son (what’s that story??).
    For the rejected first pilot scene, we see Nate drunken at a retail interview (broken). He demonstrates his competence when a fire breaks out, and is blase about it, showing he’s used to higher stakes than this. But there isn’t that hint of darkness at the end, that insight into what his downfall will be, even more than the alcohol. And it doesn’t set up his relationship with the others. You can see why they went with a different opener.
    John Reese: a hobo that beats up entitled rich kids with spec ops skills.

    Burn Notice introduces that hook in their monologue that opens every episode. “My name is Michael Westen, and I used to be a spy.”

    Judy is a bunny cop in a precinct full of predators.

    So what’s the first-page contrast for Nita that will make readers go “Whoa, what’s the story behind that? Where’s that going to lead?”
    She feels cold, she’s cold to her siblings, and then she sees the corpse, and that deep passion starts showing through the cracks?

    1. There’s another way to interpret all of those: They’re all somebody in trouble. There may not be conflict yet–I like conflict right away–but these are all people who don’t deserve what’s happening to them.

      I think trying to hook with contrast is too intellectual, if you will. Contrast evokes curiosity (“Where is this going to lead?”), but trouble evokes strong emotion (“THAT’S NOT FAIR.”) Obviously, the best approach is a combination of both, but if I can only make on work, I want the emotional connection.

      Put another way, I’m delighted by the montage of the team that Nate Ford is going to have to work with (“Where is this going to lead? I want to watch these mismatched people team up”), but the reason I’ll follow this surly alcoholic is because he accepts the job because the guy hiring him says, “This is the chance for payback against the people who killed your son.” And instantly his alcoholism is understandable and I’m worried for him. I’d probably have continued watching if only one of those things had been present–that’s a really good pilot–but it’s the one-two punch that pulls me in, and even more important it’s the emotional attachment that keeps me going.

      1. A caveat would be that the trouble has to be very personal. Simply conflict risks us not caring about the trouble/conflict because we don’t care about the person yet.

        Mal’s beef with the Alliance is very personal, indicative of a core part of his personality.
        Nate’s beef with IYS is the most personal.
        Judy’s personal dream is threatened by Chief Bogo’s dismissal of her potential.
        The demons in Buffy are also metaphors for intensely personal teenage insecurities. For the pilot, it’s about her wanting to return to a normal life.
        Abby has to confront what she did to her sister, and also what she did to herself by doing that.

        It’s nice when the conflict and/or contrast hinted at in the first scene is either:
        a) their major character flaw/emotional obstacle, the thing that will undo them unless they get over it
        b) the thing that will make the climax matter, the thing they need closure on

        c) Rather than likable, how about enjoyable? What’s the thing that will become the sure-fire fanservice you can return to in any situation to melt the fans’ hearts? Buffy making a valley-girl quip at inappropriate times. Spike’s attitude-ful introduction. A Firefly crew member awkwardly failing their attempt to quip. Parker appearing out of nowhere. Eliot and Hardison bickering. Carter showing empathy and insight to John Reese.
        It’s not simply “likable,” it’s memorably likable. In hypothetical future seasons/sequels, for the reintroduction/entrance of the character each time, what do you always want to reestablish? What will keep readers coming back to reread that first page, instead of skipping ahead to the first favorite moment?

        (Although, there’s something to be said for how writing changes when writers are prioritizing the unspoiled first watch vs. trying to make media that’s very rewatchable, like with your observations on RAM. That episode seems to be universally considered great the first time, and for certain paradigms like broadcast TV, is that enough? How many people actually anticipate rewatching that first Darla subversion in the Buffy pilot?)

        1. I don’t understand this need for likable. The best books I’ve ever read have main characters who aren’t. But they’re compelling. I’m trying to “get” this thing about readers wanting likable. Why? I don’t read to become BFF’s with the main character. I want someone who’s thrown into an awkward situation who has some skills to get out of it. But those skills aren’t easily accessible, and then they’re not enough. The character needs to dig for more, not rest on laurels. I’m fascinated by that, even if the character is a jerk in some ways.

          Did you ever watch Breaking Bad? I’m binge watching and am in the last season. It’s a great show. I’d love your take on it.

          1. I, on the other hand, do read to become BFF’s with the characters. I would rather spend time with characters who make me smile, characters I care about. The way I look at it, why would I want to spend time with someone I don’t like? Best of all, of course, is both likeable and compelling, but for me, likeable comes first.

          2. Well, House. Macbeth. Becky Sharp. Walter White. Tony Soprano.

            I’m like you, I like protagonists I can like, but likability is way down my list. Skilled is essential for me, which as Krissie has pointed out, is just part of my pathology. So I think the stickiness of a protagonist depends entirely on how that protagonist fulfills the needs of the reader. I need smart, you need nice, somebody else needs strong, etc. The more buttons you can hit, the greater the chances of connecting with more readers, but it’s always a crapshoot.

            Which pretty much sums up storytelling.

          3. I agree that “likable” is not necessary, but it’s rife in writing advice.
            I have a list somewhere of traits that help make your protagonist stickier in the first scene (as in the reader gets stuck to her), and “nice” is one of the choices, but there’s also “in trouble” which is pretty much surefire, and my personal fave “skilled.”
            I should find that list, except then people try to tick off the boxes and that often goes badly.

            The jerk protagonist I always cite is Daniel Kaffee in a “A Few Good Men.” The lawyer trying to help the defendants is stuck with Kaffee as a defense attorney, and she chases him down to softball diamond where he’s hitting practice balls to harangue him about his laziness and his inexperience, all of which is justified. And then while he’s hitting balls, he explains to her exactly what he’s going to do, and it’s very smart and it will work. (It turns out to be the wrong thing to do, but Daniel’s the protagonist so he has some arcing to do.) And the entire time he’s explaining it to her, he’s hitting balls perfectly. You don’t like Daniel, he’s a cocky prick (is that redundant?), but you admire him just the same and you want to see what he does next.

          4. I’m with Carol. I have to empathise with the protagonist, and want to spend time with them. Otherwise, reading their story just winds me up – I feel separate and depressed, which is the opposite of what I go to stories for.

            I do understand that this is not how I’m supposed to react, and it’s one of the reasons I dislike literary fiction, for example.

          5. I don’t usually see the protagonist as my friend. I need to be able to see myself as the protagonist. And I don’t know that I need to see myself as nice. Likable is good. Not being a jerk is good. But I can pass on those if the story line is more fun without them. Smart and skilled is better.

          6. The end goal is to make the reader care about the protagonist, so that we care about what happens to them.

            You don’t have to like a person to care about them, but it’s the easiest path.

            Traditionally unlikable characters like Nate or House or a myriad of anti-heroes nonetheless have at least one redeeming trait, usually that they have passion for their loved ones, or that very human desire to have loved ones.
            Something that the reader can respect/admire/like, and would want exhibited in their own ideal companions.

            That’s where the “likable” description comes from. There needs to be at least one thing we can connect with.

            Fascination is often rooted in viewing some trait we somewhat want to have in ourselves, as well, and thus competence can fall under the likable category.

          7. You know, I never saw Nate as unlikable. Flawed, yes, but he was funny and kind and smart and tough. And occasionally drunk and arrogant but still.
            House was just a bastard.

          8. I guess I admire skilled people who really *know* themselves or think they do and have more to learn–the learning of which I anticipate more than anything in any story–more than I seek out friendly sorts (of which I am one). Maybe the Scarlett O’Haras of fiction are the ying to my yang.

          9. I’m in the doesn’t have to be likeable camp. Does anyone here watch Orphan Black?

            This is how the show opens: A dark haired tough looking woman is waiting on an above-ground subway platform, she’s wearing a leather jacket and jeans. Another woman walks onto the platform, sets down her bag and waits. The first woman pays her very little attention until she jumps in front of the subway train. Sarah, the first woman, is horrified but she still rifles through the other woman, Beth’s, wallet and discovers that they are identical. She then tries to take over Beth’s life. Problem is that Sarah is an English drug dealing grifter and Beth is a Canadian cop.

            Sarah is a train wreck. She’s selfish and lazy and a less than half assed mother and more than willing to cut and run when things get serious. She is one of those people who talks the talk but has a very hard time with the walking part. She’s also a clone. Sarah is supposed to be Our Girl and we follow her down the rabbit hole into Clone Club.

            The other main season one clones are Allison Hendrix, Cosima Niehaus and Helena.

            Martha Stewart wants to be Allison when she grows up. She’s a tightly wound suburban soccer mom who very casually watches her best friend be choked to death when all she had to do was flick off the garbage disposal switch right beside her. She has her reasons.

            Cosima is a microbiology grad student who is trying to sort out the science of Clone Club, and, while she is not a bad person, she bugs the crap outta me. I loathe virtually every second she’s on screen. In a lot of ways she is naive and easily manipulated.

            Helena was raised by nuns in Ukraine and, for spoiler reasons, is basically a killing machine. Helena is damaged beyond belief and exists to do nothing but spoiler stuff. She is amazing.

            None of them are likeable but they are compelling and they all do what they have to do, no matter what. I’m being stared at by an Allison and a Helena FunkoPop! toys right now, they are my favourites.

            The show also has a really compressed time frame, season 4 ends next week and we’ve moved six months in Clone time. I wouldn’t want to have coffee with any of these women but I’m completely entranced by them.

          10. I know this show is really good because EVERYBODY says so, but I watched the pilot and never went back. It was a good pilot, but it was so cold, and since I didn’t care what happened to her, I just dropped it and went on.
            On the other hand, I don’t watch that much TV, so maybe if I was better viewer, I’d have stuck with it because it was really well done.

          11. I think people often conflate “compelling” with “likable.” So they end up saying they want the protagonist to be likable, when they actually just want someone they are interested in reading about.

            Also, I think readers often attribute the likability of strong secondary characters to the protagonist, by proxy. To use your example, Walter White is never particularly likeable (and by the end of the series, he’s just flat out awful). But Jesse, on the other hand, is incredibly likeable, even when he’s a hot mess.

            In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that the best stories (IMHO) have one or more likable supporting characters. That allows the protagonist to be prickly/arrogant/morally iffy …all the things that create conflict and make the story interesting. But thanks to the foil of the likable supporting character(s) the story as a whole has a warm-and-fuzzy feeling – or at least not a terribly bleak “all is chaos, darkness, and despair” feeling.

  4. I always love your protagonists because they’re interesting, and beautiful in their own way, and I can relate to them. I’m sure Nita is all of these things. Love seeing what makes your characters tick.

  5. Could Nita be more attached to Joey (I don’t know, she babysat him years ago)? Of course, how do you convey that without backstory slowing down the first scene?

    I think part of the problem with Nita in the first scene is that we don’t know why Joey’s death would affect her strongly. A cop showing up on the scene of a murder on the first page makes it sound like a big city,’ ho hum, look, it’s another body they dragged me out of bed to look at.’ Either making it obvious that this is a small place and every murder is shocking (which I didn’t especially notice until later), or making Joey an old friend would help make his death more meaningful (that sounds so shallow, but he starts the book as a corpse. We’re not emotionally vested in him). Making it someplace other than a bar would reduce the ‘just another body’ effect, too(apologies for any stereotyping. I know lots of people go to bars without dying). A Friends of the Library meeting, now. Historical society meeting? That might even tie in with the demonic history of the area.

    I’m not a writer. No idea if any of that is helpful. If any of it even triggers a useful idea, it’s probably accidental. 🙂

    1. My response to Jenny’s question is kind of along the lines of your comment. Nita is so competent and interior that I don’t have connection with her. I do have instant connections with Crusie
      heroines. (I’m trying to think of an exception. Can’t.) The foodie stuff doesn’t help me see her. The relationship with Button doesn’t enlarge my sense of Nita either. I think there’s a challenge in introducing a take charge woman and an emotionless, skin-clothed skeleton. I’m looking forward to seeing Jenny pull it off. Oops. Just remembered Don’t Look Down. I had trouble getting into the heroine and hero. That leaves about ten books where the heroine worked for me immediately.

  6. I think all Crusie protagonists have been likable; women you would want to go for coffee with and bitch about life and politics. If you don’t want a likeable heroine, you need a different genre.
    I am very impressed at the amount of background work being put into the characters. I don’t think many authors do this, from what I can tell by reading. Most put more effort into plot, whereas for me as a reader, the character is what keeps me coming back.

    1. It’s one of the reasons that the unofficial motto of the McDaniel Romance Writing Program was “It’s a process.”

      I started Nita’s book because I was annoyed by the Lucifer TV show. Then I got into the story and thought, “This is so thin, there’s no there there,” and forgot, AS I ALWAYS DO, that it’s a process. Now four months later, I’m looking at this story that’s huge, maybe too huge, at a protagonist who is suddenly a whole lot more than I thought she’d be, at a cast that’s growing by leaps and bounds (seventeen important characters is usually what I end up with), and I’m panicking in the other direction–where in the hell did all this story come from?–and it bears no resemblance at all to that post where I said, “Well, here’s how I’D rewrite Lucifer . . .

      It’s not really effort for the characters as much as it is time. You just have to live with them and watch what they do, and then they reveal themselves. While you rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite . . .

  7. Turns out I read for character, which I know mostly from reading here. Nearly all the characters I love most collect people. Even if they start out alone, by the end of their story they have people. Not even all friends or family, good enemies say so much about a person.
    There have been characters where who did like her and why were riveting even when I didn’t. Real life people, for that matter, who have such great friends that I know they must have redeming qualities even though I’m not seeing them.

    1. This does bring up a good point: a character can be made more likeable by showing that other characters like them. We wonder why these people put up with the jerk protagonist, which can serve as both character and relationship hooks. (like how “replacement” characters on TV should be approved by the original, for the audience to accept them)

  8. Wait, wait, wait. I think we’re meaning different things when we say ‘likeable’. Likeable does not have to mean nice. It can be strong, or smart, or honorable – or dozens of other traits. What is likeable is different for everyone. I didn’t care for Moist because strong and smart and not whining was not enough for me. Once he began to care about others, then I could care about him, and by the end of the book I wanted him to succeed. Obviously, there are lots of people who loved Moist from the beginning, so their definition of likeable is different from mine. Nothing wrong with that.

    I already love Nita and I found her appealing from the moment she hit the page. Even sick and cranky she was likeable. You could say she was cold or reserved, but she was also strong, smart, skilled, kind to her partner, angry at Joey’s death, and loved her brother. Likeable doesn’t have to be bland and compelling doesn’t have to be unlikeable.

  9. I don’t think I really understand what is meant by “likeable.” I like all your heroines, and even many of the villains. I wouldn’t want to be in a long-term friendship with Clea, but I wouldn’t mind having a cup of tea with her. (She would probably mind — very much.) I like Bertie Wooster and Becky Bloomwood (Kinsella’s Shopaholic series), even though they are both goofballs. I like Meg Ryan’s Sally Albright, neurotic as she is. I like Miss Elizabeth Bennet, even though I never warmed up to Jane Eyre.

    Perhaps it’s the sense of humor and sense of ridiculousness that attracts me.

    If writers try to get me to like a character because she’s an orphan, or because she saves a kitten in the first scene . . . well, I don’t like having my heart-strings tugged unless it’s done very, very well. Most often, they make it harder for me to like the character, because I’m suspicious of the author.

    What is likable? I mean, it’s obvious that it isn’t universal, but since so many people mention this, there must be some set of standards that work for 50 percent of the people . . . .

    1. Honestly, I think it just means that you like the character, which is, of course, subjective and completely different liking to read about the character.

      Office Wench upthread brought up Orphan Black, which is very well done with great performances, but I didn’t like the protagonist, so I didn’t go back. But it’s not a deal-breaker because I watched the first season of House when it first aired a zillion years ago.

      I’ve dropped books I was reading because the protagonist did something I didn’t like, but the author thought it was admirable or at least okay; there was a worldview conflict there I couldn’t get past, and I could like or respect (two different things) the character because of it. I know that’s happened with my books, too: there are readers who could never get past Nell sleeping with Riley in Fast Women because it violated their ideas of what romance heroine would do, which is fine, they get that call.

      1. OK, then likeability is not a deal breaker for me, in fiction, or in real life actually. I have several friends who are kind of abrasive, but they are funny and smart and a little fragile, and I value them so much. They are good people, underneath that porcupine armor.

        So, maybe that’s why I forgive a fictional character for not being strictly likeable at first. I give them a chance if they show some spark of . . . something. Humor, probably.

  10. I think your readers have to like your protagonists enough so they don’t root for the evil guy.

    I remember being forced to watch a horror movie and the only thing that got me to the end was the hope the annoying boyfriend would get eaten. I was practically cheering the demon on, feeling only a little bit sorry for the possessed girlfriend as she actually dated the idiot. Pretty sure that wasn’t what the writers intended.

    True there are anti heroes and fascinating characters that demand my attention, but if they don’t have at least one thing that redeems them a little, maybe a line they won’t cross or someone they love so much that if they get hurt, you know they will rain down hellfire on the wrongdoers and not because it is right, but because the people they love are precious to them as there are so few of them.

    1. The Alan Rickman Robin Hood it like that: The star of the movie was Robin Hood and he was boring as hell with a strong undercurrent of entitlement disguised as nobility. And then there was the rat bastard Sheriff of Nottingham, played by Rickman, who was wonderfully evil. I think Krissie wrote a novella with that character as a hero because he was so much fun.

      1. For that movie, I was totally in love with Christian Slater and I was not alone, but Alan Rickman really threw himself into the role, I haven’t watched it for years and I can still remember his best one liners.

      2. I fell in love with Alan Rickman in that movie because of that seriously like able bad guy……..And thank you for Judy Hopps, I am presently in love with that movie.

  11. I think fiction likeable is different from real life likeable. I like season two Blane in izombie. I would not like him in real life (Kills children, turns them into zombies, etc.)

    But on the screen, I find him likeable.

    I’m with CarolC – likable means different things to different people. It can even mean different things to the same person, depending on what they’re looking for.

    I don’t need to like the protagonist, but I that means other parts of the story need to pick up the slack, whether it’s the world, or another character, or the team as a whole.

    Otherwise I will appreciate the story, but I won’t like it.

    1. ine killed a child? The teenagers, right? He didn’t kill any little kids.
      Which is an odd line to draw in the sand, I will admit. Maybe because all the teenagers are played by people in their twenties?

      Blaine is an interesting example because he really is an evil son of a bitch, but he’s so wonderfully played by David Anders that you cheer up whenever he comes on the screen. Plus he’s funny as all hell. I don’t think he’d work as a hero–I find him not nearly as interesting in his current state–but as an antagonist, I like him, not just because he’s great at creating conflict for Liv but because I actually LIKE him. He has killed a lot of people, though.

      I think Liv is interesting for likability in the beginning of the pilot: She’s a beautiful Type A doctor who does everything right and has a perfect boyfriend named Major Lilywhite (the names on this show crack me up: Blane’s butcher shop is Meat Cute and his funeral home is Shady Plots). The only thing that kept me watching is that the actress is likable, the plot moved fast, and the opening credits are a cartoon that told me she was going to end up a zombie. And then very shortly she went to that rave and ended up a zombie (thanks to Blaine, that bastard). At that point, she somebody who had everything and now has nothing; she resigned from her position at the hospital, broke off her engagement to Major, avoids her family, and is working in a morgue, a place where she can get plenty of brains to eat without hurting anybody. She’s doing the best she can in a terrible situation, plus all that glossy bouncy Breck Girl hair is now white and choppy and that lovely California tan is so pale she’s practically green. It’s a brilliant way to create vulnerability and likability: she’s given up everything to protect people (if she scratches anybody, they become zombies).

      We really have to do an iZombie binge watch. It does so many things well.

      ETA: I think I would like Blaine if I didn’t know he was a murderous vampire. He’s funny and quick-thinking and charming as all hell. There’s no oiliness to Blaine: he’s clean and sharp, and I can see why Jackie went home with that night and why Peyton fell for him. He’s not a player, he’s just Blaine.

      Whereas I would hate that bastard Vaughn on sight (Steven Weber is brilliant in this).

      Hmmm, iZombie binge watch. That might be a nice cool show to do later this summer. It’s so fast and even the emotional parts are light in comparison to PoI. It might be the iced lemonade our heads need come July and August.

  12. I loved Nell’s line about, “Oh, hey, let’s drink to me; I’ve slept with everyone at this table. Except Witney of course.” That whole scene was excellent (in my opinion).


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