Great Characters–The Beating Heart of Great Fiction

Today we are going to talk about character, but I want you guys to breathe and relax. Give yourselves permission to not know everything. Art is not one of those things that we take a few lessons and “graduate” as experts. True artists never stop learning.

We read, take classes, and always push ourselves to the next level. Most new writers do not sufficiently understand plot, but I will say that the key to creating better plots rests in a deeper understanding of character.

But How Do We Come Up with Plot?

Some people naturally think in terms of plot. They are the kind of people who think of a story problem, but then need to cast characters appropriate to the story. Other people think in terms of character, a person who they want to cast, but they need to find the right story. Both ways of thinking are fine, but both require an in depth study of character.

Story/Plot Comes from Characters—Characters Create the Problem

Take a handful of flawed humans with agendas, put them together, shake, slowly turn up the heat and watch the drama ignite. Great fiction is fueled by bad decisions and human weakness. All good stories are biblical. They are all birthed by inherent human flaws—the desire for power, control, recognition, jealousy, rage, cowardice, lust, vengeance, etc. This is why perfect characters are super boring. We can’t relate.

Failure/Weakness is the Hinge Point of Connection and Story

Character flaws help us connect. In good stories, we should be able to connect with both the protagonist and the antagonist. If our antagonist is a pure evil mustache-twirler, that generally leads to a literary snooze fest. In fact, the more we connect with the antagonist, the better the story.

For instance, the movie Law Abiding Citizen is an excellent example. The antagonist, Clyve Shelton, is a husband/father whose wife and young daughter are brutally raped, tortured, then slaughtered by two repeat offenders.

Clyve is beaten, bound and left for dead, yet survives to testify. In the end, the justice system fails to serve appropriate justice and one of the bad guys cops a plea and walks free. Clyve Shelton is a father/husband out to avenge his murdered family and to punish a lax justice system.

Vengeance is definitely biblical.

It is really hard not to root for the antagonist in this movie, which is what makes Law Abiding Citizen a superior example of story-telling.

We see easily how story/plot is birthed from character. When we look at Shelton’s background, we see that he is a tinkerer of the deadliest sort. He has used his skills on all kinds of black bag operations. NOT a guy to screw with.

Thus, we see how, if the murderers picked on the family of an ice cream truck driver, we could have never had the construction materials for the plot of Law Abiding Citizen. Story is birthed from the fact that the justice system failed the wrong citizen. They failed a guy who has the skills to take them out….literally. We find ourselves rooting for him because we connected emotionally. What would we do for our own children?

Dig Down to the Uncomfortable Stuff

We cannot bear when our children are hurt…

This is a photo of my son after he’d been terribly injured. I struggled with whether or not to post it, but this image (captured on my cell phone) was just so haunting, and it spoke volumes with its quiet pain. All of us react viscerally to injustice and pain, especially when an innocent is involved.

There are times, like with my son, that the injury is a result of an accident. Yet, doesn’t this terrible yet beautiful picture speak an untold story? What if this injury was the result of an abuser? A kidnapper? What acts would we “forgive” in the pursuit of “justice”? How easily could the lines of hero and villain blur? This is when things get sticky.

Sticky = Interesting

Law Abiding Citizen connects us on the same emotional fault lines. We are willing to forgive the antagonist, but how far? That is the question the screenwriters explore. The story is one that will leave audiences talking and taking sides. The premise isn’t neat and clean. It is an ugly jagged gash with no clean edges, which makes excellent fiction.

And, just so you guys know, my son is just fine.

All better!

Plot is birthed from character. Characters are vital to plot, and that is one of the reasons that attendees of my old critique group were required to write very detailed character backgrounds before plotting. We needed the character’s history to understand her story.

What were her inner demons? What world-view did the character have? What need is not yet fulfilled? What is she afraid of? What are the character’s strengths? What does the character believe she needs to be happy? What does she need to prove? How is the character used to getting her way? Is this tool effective?

This is Especially True for Literary Fiction

Despite what anyone tells you, literary fiction must also have a plot. The only difference between commercial fiction and literary fiction is that the character arc takes precedence and plot is of lesser importance (lesser importance, not NO importance).

For instance, in The Road by Cormac McCarthy, there is a plot. Man and Boy must make it to the sea. But it is more important HOW they make it than IF they make it. If the Man and Boy resort to cannibalism, that is an epic fail. They must make it to the sea, but without sacrificing their humanity. Yet, if you read The Road there is a three-act structure, turning points, rising stakes, etc.

There is an end goal—make it to the sea. No journey, no crucible. If the story is Man and Boy sitting in a cave reminiscing about the good old days and being bummed about having no food, we have a bad situation. Bad situations are not conflict.

But again, story is birthed from character. There is a Man and a Boy who are obviously father and son. Much of the plot and decisions stem from this being a father and son. The story would be very different if the characters were different. The Man might have laid down and died if he had nothing to live for, to fight for.

It makes the conflict far more interesting. As parents, would we watch our child starve to death, or would we serve up some hobo BBQ with extra ketchup and tell the kid it’s chicken? The child would live, but at what cost? This story probes the really hard questions. What would we do to survive? What is “living” if we forfeit humanity? Again, the questions are not easily answered because the problems aren’t black and white.

Go Deeper

Whether we are plotters or pantsers, we still need to ask the tough questions. We need to play armchair psychologist and get to the heart of the character, to go beyond hair and eye color. It is the weaknesses, demons, and skeletons in the closet that make the best stories. This is an especially important for step plotters, otherwise, it is easy for all your characters to become “talking heads.”

To help, I highly recommend Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, Fire in the Fiction by Donald Maass, and The Successful Novelist by David Morrell.

What are your thoughts? Who are your favorite characters? What do you think adds dimension to fiction? What are some exercises you recommend?

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of August, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of August I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.

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  1. #1 by JennInAustin on August 27, 2012 - 12:35 pm

    I will absolutely be using the tool of writing a detailed history of my character tonight. When I was on stage years ago and having trouble connecting to a character, I did that for her and it all came together for me. Can’t believe I hadn’t thought about doing that for this novel. Thanks!

  2. #2 by Scott on August 27, 2012 - 12:45 pm

    I think it helps to reference zodiac signs when designing a character. That, or I just pick n’pull from people I know.

  3. #3 by Samuel Solomon on August 27, 2012 - 12:45 pm

    I think I will be doing more exploring of my antagonists. I understand them, but I want to make sure my readers get a bigger slice of their inner workings. I think it certainly could make for a richer story than just “will the protagonists overcome?”, especially if you aren’t sure which side you would want to see prevail.

  4. #4 by Jae on August 27, 2012 - 12:48 pm

    I really like the image you created of being a psychiatrist of sorts to your character. Perfect imagery. But it is so hard to give our little babies flaws, yet flaw them we must. Thanks for this post, definitely some direction I needed reminding of.

  5. #5 by Al Chaput on August 27, 2012 - 12:48 pm

    This article should be required reading for all beginning writers.

  6. #6 by amandalewisab on August 27, 2012 - 12:52 pm

    As always your blogs are especially helpful to get us thinking. I am a plotter. But you’re right if the characters aren’t fully fleshed then there is no story. Would Darth Vader have been as awesome in any other story? I don’t think so. He is a prime example of character being crucial to the story. As for my own story I am having trouble finding that fine line between flawed and pathetic. The more I flesh out her flaws and weaknesses the more it seems that the reader won’t believe her strength when it comes time for it. Which brings me back to what you said about “the road” by making them father and son it gives the man an inheirent reason to fight. Not that he has to if that were one of his flaws. But it’s not the son is his strength. So I think in the end it is the combination of flaws and stengths of people that make for great fiction.

  7. #7 by Tracy (A2Z Mommy) on August 27, 2012 - 1:31 pm

    I was a little freaked out by that first picture. Beautiful, but as a mom, scary. So glad your son is ok! I love a back story that’s woven throughout a novel and slowly reveals why a character behaves one way or another. We all have demons, it’s what we choose to do with them that makes us the protagonist or antagonist in our own lives and therefore whatever we write.

  8. #8 by Meet the Buttrams on August 27, 2012 - 1:43 pm

    The first character that came to my mind is the portrayal of Jesus in Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord books. It seems like such a huge task, but her writing from his point of view was stunning.

  9. #9 by Becki Ulmer on August 27, 2012 - 2:08 pm

    Thanks for the insight! My background (20 plus years) is in writing print materials and scripts for the corporate world. In my last job I was sent to Los Angeles and attended the Scriptwriters Expo to learn how to write a film, so I understand their “rules” for plot points. What are the plot points for a novel? Do you start with the first problem at a certain page (or percentage of total), then make it worse at another set page?

  10. #10 by Charley Pearson on August 27, 2012 - 2:15 pm

    Stories that claim resorting to cannibalism makes survivors intrinsically evil are insulting to those who have been forced to do this, like members of the Donner Party, or the survivors of the whaling ship Essex (sunk in 1820 by a sperm whale – the inspiration for Moby Dick). Careful how you paint your moral dilemmas. I’ve also seen stories that imply cooperating with captors vs. other prisoners, doing essentially what Jews had to do to survive concentration camps, made those characters evil people — which is insulting to every Jew who survived. Again, be careful!

    • #11 by Author Kristen Lamb on August 27, 2012 - 2:18 pm

      I don’t think McCarthy was implying those who resorted to cannibalism were evil, rather that they had been forced down to an animal state. The difference between humans and animals is one of morals and taboo. And any time we ask the tough questions we need to be careful. I don’t think the issue was clean cut in The Road of good or bad. I believe the story merely asked the uncomfortable questions that all of us hope we are not forced to answer for real.

  11. #12 by ageofanxiety on August 27, 2012 - 2:38 pm

    During the process of writing my first novel, I’m struggling with the plot arc and the characters. My bad guy is so incredibly bad. I’m going to have to think of something to put in that is good and makes him vulnerable.

    ________________________________

    • #13 by Author Kristen Lamb on August 27, 2012 - 2:55 pm

      You just need something that makes us be able to relate to him. In “Silence of the Lambs” the serial killer Buffalo Bill had a poofy while little dog that he loved. He is a monster, but we relate to him via the love for his pet and that is why he is so disturbing to us psychologically.

  12. #14 by danijace on August 27, 2012 - 2:38 pm

    I need to develop charactors in my head like actors in a movie and come to know them as I pants out the plot. An author friend of mine, who writes historicals, says that she starts her novels with a setting and then builds charactors and plot around the time and place.

    But no matter what the plot, a villian without have any redeeming quailites can turn a reader or TV viewer away. I couldn’t get passed the evil queen in Game of Thrones and stopped watching.

  13. #15 by Overwhelmed By Joy on August 27, 2012 - 3:06 pm

    Great suggestions!

  14. #16 by The Hook on August 27, 2012 - 3:10 pm

    Posting that image of your son required great courage, an act I find most admirable – and inspiring.
    Thank you for the wealth of knoweldge your site has already imparted upon my 42-year-old bellman brain…

    • #17 by Author Kristen Lamb on August 27, 2012 - 3:13 pm

      Thanks for all the lovely comment! VERY appreciated :D.

      • #18 by The Hook on August 27, 2012 - 3:33 pm

        You’re most certainly welcome, dear lady! I have August McLaughlin to thank for pointing your work out to me and that is a debt I can never repay.
        Your work has been most helpful to a newbie who feels he’s drowning already! It has only been two months since my book was released on Amazon, but I feel overwhelmed by failure; foolish I know, but I’m only human…
        Yours is a brain – a best-selling one at that – that I would truly love to pick.

  15. #19 by David Brickey on August 27, 2012 - 3:19 pm

    Powerful article. I couldn’t agree more. A great protagonist can only climb as high as the mountain before them. A great antagonist or obstacle is needed to make the protagonist praiseworthy. Speaking of Cormac McCarthy, my stomach still churns for the Judge from Blood Meridian. Praeternatural Intellegence coupled with charm and a penchant for annihilation is an intoxicating blend.

  16. #20 by KM Huber on August 27, 2012 - 3:44 pm

    There’s so much information in this essay–concrete examples, thoughtful discourse–that any writer of fiction, commercial or literary, can compare their characters to each point you make. Really Kristen, this is just stellar. I have all of your “how to” write a novel posts in a file; they just could not be clearer.

    Thank you, Kristen.
    Karen

  17. #21 by colonialist on August 27, 2012 - 3:54 pm

    Added to an excellent article, that picture of your injured son brought the point across with tremendous strength.
    Actually, my back-to-front system of writing bears out what you say about characters. If they are strong enough, they will take over and dictate the action, and the plot evolves from that. I always smile at praise for my meticulous plotting, because with me it is never pre-planned. Somehow the characters lead to the events, which then dovetail in neatly to form the plot.

  18. #22 by caseyvoight on August 27, 2012 - 4:32 pm

    Loved the post, there is a ton of logic in the break down. Sticky = interesting I totally agree. Thanks for the insight, much appreciated.

  19. #23 by caseyvoight on August 27, 2012 - 4:39 pm

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    I love finding blogs where the advice is so specific and to the point that it brings ah ha! moments. I just loved reading this blog post called “Great Characters – The Beating Heart of Great Fiction” by Kristen Lamb. If anyone is stuck in character development give this a read I know I will reference again. You can also check out her book We Are Not Alone. Now its time for a glass of wine, my notebook and and some character development – perfect end to the day:)

  20. #24 by JoAnne Potter on August 27, 2012 - 4:42 pm

    This is a great reminder. It’s just like life…the people matter more than the motion.

  21. #25 by Jacqueline Hopkins on August 27, 2012 - 4:50 pm

    I have a 7 page characterization I received after attending a screenplay writing class in Hawaii I use for my main characters, fleshing them out first before I begin to write. I also use a one page characterization sheet for my secondary characters. It really helps to get to know them first, how they would handle tough situations, what they like and dislike, what they believe in and not. Great information

  22. #26 by carrielynn33 on August 27, 2012 - 5:41 pm

    Interesting post! My husband, a screenwriter and I always go back and forth between character driven and plot driven stories and which is best. I’ve always written in a way so that the characters determine the things that happen in my novels but he always created the plot first and the characters conformed to it. Funny how writers can be so different but not everything works for everyone. :)

  23. #27 by Daphne Shadows on August 27, 2012 - 7:27 pm

    I was pissed when he died in the end of that movie. I wanted him to get away with it!

    Just to let you know, that picture of your son had me stuck staring at it for a few minutes. Seeing children hurt really upsets me in that primal, deep down way. Haunting is a very good description. But I’m glad I react that way.

    I was having a problem with my writing in this area. The world isn’t black and white, humanity isn’t something everyone has and people can be down right cruel. I was having a problem putting this into my writing for a while because I didn’t want to turn potential readers off by ‘the ugly’. So often I see people around me who WANT to see the world as black and white and ignore the ugliness, so they do. How would I get them to read my novel if it wasn’t all shiny and pretty?
    But then I realized that was stupid of me. I’m me, I know there is balance. There’s the good and the bad. But the good doesn’t look all that great or feel all that amazing if you aren’t aware/haven’t suffered the really bad.

    So now I’m exploiting all my characters’ weaknesses. ;) Thanks for the specific posts towards writing lately – they’ve been a really good help. Especially since I’m in the plotting faze right now.

  24. #28 by TraceyLynnTobin on August 27, 2012 - 8:13 pm

    Another excellent post, Kristen. Your information is so spot-on, I genuinely feel like I’m becoming a better writer just by reading your blog. :)

    I’m a character-minded person myself, but as I’ve been working more and more at really FINISHING my manuscript I’ve been considering the fact that my characters aren’t well-thought-out enough. I think they’re easy to relate to, and I’m really proud of my “human” moments, but I tend not to think about how my characters will react in certain situations until that situation arises, and so then I don’t always get it RIGHT, you know?

    Anyway, thanks again for an awesome post! :D

  25. #29 by Warren turner on August 27, 2012 - 8:22 pm

    While painful to look at u have to put yourself in the person head to figure out what started such an act and reveal the story inside the story.The beganing could be better than the conclusion

  26. #30 by Gilliad Stern on August 27, 2012 - 9:12 pm

    I love that movie. I like it for the reasons that you just pointed out. You can’t help but feel for the antagonist and hope that he wins in the end.

    Myself, I try to build characters up in my story because I like the connection that people can make with the character. I know in the books that I read I like to connect with the characters in the story. It is a major part of why I read the books I read.

    Great post!

  27. #31 by sharonhughson on August 27, 2012 - 9:31 pm

    I used a character interview from K.M. Weiland’s “Crafting Unforgettable Characters” for the three main characters in my current WIP. I’m still not sure I know all of their foibles (but since I’m a panster I’m sure they will shock me eventually). When I wrote a journal entry from one of the character’s viewpoints to “get inside her head” I learned much more about her. I recommend this activity for everyone (and intend to do it for my other two main characters and maybe even my antagonist).

    Thanks for an informative and useful post (per usual).

  28. #32 by Larry on August 28, 2012 - 12:46 am

    I’ve used the 9 enneagrams to jump start the process when I’m stuck. http://www.amazon.com/Believable-Characters-Enneagrams-Laurie-Schnebly/dp/0930831039

  29. #33 by rainb0wbubbles on August 28, 2012 - 1:24 am

    I love this post. When I think great character I automatically think of House – the doctor on the series, played by Hugh Laurie. What an armchair physcologist the writer must have been!

  30. #34 by Maria Cisneros Toth on August 28, 2012 - 1:40 am

    Thank you for such an insightful post! I’ll definitely be reading this over and again! Shaing with my critique peeps! Thanks again!

  31. #35 by P. C. Zick on August 28, 2012 - 8:04 am

    I believe that everything I write is story. I once had an editor tell me that columns didn’t need a point. I still disagree. I think in stories and I tell my life events as stories. The trick is always to keep people interested no matter the venue!

  32. #36 by David Todd on August 28, 2012 - 8:07 am

    “Who are your favorite characters?”

    My favorite character is Alexander McKeag from James A. Michener’s Centenntial. He spent over 30 years on the prairies, trapping beaver. Sometimes he went to St. Louis every other year to sell the pelts; sometimes he sent them with a trusted friend. After this time he finally felt loneliness, and cried out to an empty land. Later, he interacted again with society.

  33. #37 by richardhowk on August 28, 2012 - 8:19 am

    I will definitely recommend this article to any new author who is having trouble with plot/character development. I took your contest entry a little further than you asked for in my latest blog post. You are featured! http://richardhowk.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/not-to-be-out-blogged/

  34. #38 by Tamara LeBlanc on August 28, 2012 - 9:14 am

    I’m late in commenting…had some really bad news to deal with over this past week and I’m only now trying to get myself back into a regimental groove. So, sorry about the delay. But this post is fantastic and I plan on bookmarking it.
    The questions you wrote to ask your character are ones I’d never thought of before. I plan on using them from now on.
    Thank you for your wisdom, Kristen.
    Have a great day,
    Tamara

    • #39 by Author Kristen Lamb on August 28, 2012 - 9:20 am

      You are such a doll, Tamara, and a bright spot in my comments section *hugs*. Sorry about your bad news and let us know if we can do anything.

  35. #40 by Heather Marsten on August 28, 2012 - 9:21 am

    Excellent details about character development. Your book We Are Not Alone sounds like an excellent resource for social media.

  36. #41 by Kim on August 28, 2012 - 12:43 pm

    I think this is where a lot of YA fiction has gone astray lately. The bad guys are just plain evil, with no nuance. If you have a bad guy like that the entire story needs to be mythic and there are rules to that formula too. Too many YA writers want to rewrite Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings with the pure evil bad guys. Unfortunately, they’ve forgotten to include other, more subtle antagonists along the way, like Gollum, or Professor Snape. They are the antagonists we love because we don’t know which way they’ll turn. We know Voldemort and Sauron are evil, but Snape and Gollum intrigue us.

    Great post as usual! I’ve just started writing again and boning up on the craft side of things!

  37. #42 by katmagendie on August 29, 2012 - 9:17 am

    YAYY! I have come to the blog post where I can say: This is my strong point! Yes . . . character development! I’m a panster who always starts with A Character or Characters. My previous novels are character-driven and more “literary” but this next one will be a bit more “plotty” and even then, I still started with Character, because that’s how I “see” things and am able to move the story forward.

    I always hope that even when readers say,”I HATED so and so character” that they also feel some sympathy, even in the characters who may not seem to “deserve” such sympathy.

  38. #43 by Kat on August 29, 2012 - 10:33 am

    I awarded your blog the Sunshine Award for being an inspiration! Check it out on my blog: http://kat-collins.com/2012/08/29/i-got-an-award-oh-goodie/

  39. #44 by EstherEsther on August 29, 2012 - 1:22 pm

    I think this is great advice, but one note. As I learned it —

    Protagonist: main character
    Antihero: bad protagonist (doing crappy things, like in Clyve’s case)

    Antagonist: whoever or whatever works against the protagonist. In Clyve’s case, it’s the system, personified by the bad guys.

    • #45 by Author Kristen Lamb on August 29, 2012 - 1:41 pm

      No. Anti-heroes are just a form of protagonist. For instance, Riddick in “Chronicles of Riddick.” Antagonist is whoever stands in the way of the hero’s agenda. Hero wants to protect Lady Justice and Antagonist wants to burn her to the ground.

      Nick Rice (protagonist) believes that justice might be flawed but overall it works. Any other system leads to anarchy and chaos.

      Clyve Shelton has been wronged by the justice system and believes it needs to burn.

      Their goals are in conflict. One wants to protect a flawed justice system, and the other believes that these flaws are grounds for termination. Just because we greatly sympathize with the antagonist doesn’t make them an anti-hero (though they can feel that way).

      Antagonists are responsible for creating the story problem the protagonist needs to resolve by Act III. If Clyve hadn’t started a war on the justice system, there is no story. Antagonists are not always villains, and that is a common misunderstanding.

  40. #46 by Marti Parham on August 29, 2012 - 4:50 pm

    Nice!!! Going to repost this article on my blog Marti Ink (www.martiink.wordpress.com) this Sunday in my “Head-turning Headlines” Post. Look for it under the “Creativity” section.

  41. #47 by Vicki Orians on August 30, 2012 - 4:51 am

    Characters are super important. The best books, for me, are not about how well the author can use vocabulary or the imagery. It’s about how I connect to the characters. Thanks for a great post!

  42. #48 by 1 Story A Week on August 30, 2012 - 12:21 pm

    For once, can you just post about something I do well already? ;) Great stuff again!

  43. #49 by Writerlious on September 5, 2012 - 9:51 am

    Great advice! I’ve already saved your book suggestions on Goodreads. (I’ve already read The Fire in Fiction and it was amazing). :)

  44. #50 by Jamie Raintree on September 8, 2012 - 12:17 am

    I’ve been struggling for a long time with digging deeper with my characters because I’m one of those people who think of a plot or conflict first. Yet, somehow, I write character driven novels. I don’t understand it. But as I’ve gotten better at developing my characters, my stories have become more better, like you said.

    Thanks for another great post!

  45. #51 by Jamie Raintree on September 8, 2012 - 12:21 am

    I’ve been working hard over the past couple of years to improve my character building because I’m a plot/conflict person first. But I agree, the stronger my characters are, the better my story.

    Thanks for another great post!

  46. #52 by rinkoo wadhera on October 3, 2012 - 1:42 am

    Kristen, amazing post as usual. Your answer to one of the comments(#44) clarified my own misunderstanding about antagonists.You share the most practical tips in your posts and this is certainly magnanimous of you! People charge money for these!! All the very best to you.

  47. #53 by Jesse Lozada on October 16, 2012 - 11:05 am

    Good article – but I wish you would go deeper and show specifically how to tie character development/character arcs to the beats of a plot.

  48. #54 by Lukas on July 10, 2014 - 5:37 pm

    Thank you!

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