Static vs dynamic character development: How to write fictional characters (Last of Us backstory example)

Static vs dynamic character development: How to write fictional characters (Last of Us backstory example)

As a quick definition, static characters remain unchanged through the course of a story, and dynamic characters grow and change. Most book novels are about a series of crises that force the protagonist to change – the protagonist is the character who changes the most.

People also ask about how to create well-rounded characters with depth, instead of flat, predictable characters, and I’ll deal with that a little bit below and share some extra resources. But this article will be an in-depth breakdown of The Last of Us: Season 1, Episode 7. It’s a little rough, because I wrote most of it while watching, but if you’ve seen the whole season you should be able to follow along.

Why this episode? Because the whole thing is a big flashback, and figuring out where to put backstory without creating infodumps too early, is also a huge skill that many authors struggle with. The backstory (in the right place) allows us to show the dynamic character change in a way that’s believable.

If the choice was easy to make, it would be *in character* – and actually static, because they haven’t really changed or learned. A story needs to show enough context so that the character motivations for choosing something new and different makes sense. This can be done with a before/after backstory, like it’s done in the Last of Us, with a backstory episode right at the point of the big decision.

The Last of Us basically has two main protagonists, Joel and Ellie.

We start with Joel’s flashback/prequel – 20 years ago.

Not the main stories, happening in the story’s “now”.

Not the full developed, everything.

Just one event, and just a sketch (we don’t want to focus too much on detail or characterization of slow paced action. It starts and ends in one day of climatic action). It’s important to know Joel’s backstory before he meets Ellie, so we get it.

Then, we have six episodes of action.

But they are mostly OTHER people’s problems; the protagonists are just trying to survive. Not making difficult moral choices (choices that test their identity). They see a lot of consequences of their actions, and start having some responsibility, but it mostly unfolds in a direct linear fashion.

In episode six, JOEL makes the choice; first he’s going to leave Ellie because he can’t hack it. He’s having fear and doubts. But he decides to stay. Then gets stabbed.

Eli gets him to a house, and he tells her to leave him.

She reaches for the door handle. Going through the door or not represents the choice.

This time it will be a real choice, with personal autonomy and responsibility. So far she’s mostly followed along or done as she’s told by adults. Joel tells her to leave, but she’s in control – without him, she needs to call her own shots. What choice is SHE going to make, when no adult is telling her what to do, for the first time EVER.

And right there – before she walks through that door andn makes that decision, when the rest of the plot hinges on her personal choice right here…

NOW is when we get Eli’s flashback.

Now we are invested, now we care, we are at peak drama.

This is a big decision. To understand why she makes this decision…. we need to see what brought her here, her history, insecurities. Probably, the flashback will reveal a similar but different choice she had to make earlier, one where she chose the opposite and had consequences. One where she chose to leave, to cut her losses, not to get invested, not to risk herself.

She’s been detached, not caring for anything.

The flash back shows us, she’s already made the other choice, maybe she always has, and she regrets it.

The flashback is necessary to show the context, how in this important decision that she’s facing now (whether to leave Joel) she decides to do something different, out of character, riskier.

Smart characters don’t make bad, risky decisions.

If it was in character, is she was the type of person who always stays, then this wouldn’t be a crucial decision. (A decision is not difficult if it’s easy, if it’s natural, if it’s habit or conscience or just who that person is. That’s not a real decision. A real decision is something a protagonist struggles with and can’t resolve easily, and is forced to make a very difficult, wounding choice). If it’s an easy decision, it’s not drama. All the conflict is internal.

But how do you show internal conflict?
If it was contained in the scene, it would be something like: “she opened the door, thinking back about how much she didn’t want to leave Joel, afraid of her future but knowing how important she could be for the human race, she needs to choose between loyalty to Joel or saving everyone. She grit her teeth, closed her eyes, slammed her fist into the wall, took a breath… and walked out the door.”

But that’s a missed opportunity, you just gave it all away, you didn’t show the gravitas of the decision. Internal conflict isn’t just the character’s thoughts, thinking to themselves, that’s not enough. Trying to make a scene or chapter out of that, wouldn’t work well, because there’s nothing to show.

(Whenever possible, try to avoid stuff where nothing is happening that can be seen).

Real decisions aren’t rational thoughts, they are emotions – tearing you apart from the inside, your core identity threatened, feeling like you’re going insane, coming apart.

To show that, you need to establish who the character is. But not earlier! Not at the beginning, not as a casual infodump or history… none of it matters until right now facing THIS decision. That’s the place to show backstory.

Episode Seven is one big flashback. It’s also a great way to keep the narrative moving, it’s the same plot, the same story, but we get context, to justify the character motivation and make us understand what this decision means to her, how she came to it. The action is motivated given her history; it also sympathizes the character.

This particular flashback is about when she lost her roommate. She gets bullied, the bully says “she never fights, her friend fights” she’s never had to fight her own battles before.

Her guidance counselor asks her who she wants to become, who she wants to be.

Shows her two paths, grunt or officer. Neither is attractive.

Her best friend comes back and shows her another path. She joined the fireflies.

She sneaks out for “best night of her life.”

This scene is also done really well, because the heavier conversations are broken up by fun action and stunning scenes. It keeps moving. Flashbacks work if they are good, self-contained stories. If this flashback was just Ellie and her friend, talking about stuff in their room, it wouldn’t be good enough: there needs to be a story goal and real external threats.

On the way, they start talking.

Why’d you join the fireflies. But really, why?

This shows a side-character, a former friend, revealing information about a huge decision SHE made in the past. Advice that will influence HER first really big decision. This was a pivotal, critical moment. Not just some random day and random conversation This was a whole event, sneaking out, bonding, danger.

That easy to give up everything huh?

I don’t know if it’s that simple.

She questions her friend’s choice; revealing her own thoughts and feelings. She was raised to be on one side her whole life, she doesn’t love it but isn’t ready to change sides.

In a way Fedra kind of holds everything together (she says, voicing the same thoughts as the commander who just offered her that choice). Showing that she believes this. You want to show beliefs in conversation, not as thoughts. You *really* want to avoid interjecting a protagonists silent thoughts to everything, just quietly chiming in, inside their own heads, that’s distracting.

As much as I love arguing with your stubborn ass, we’re on a mission here – don’t let arguments about ideology and identity be the only thing happening! Conversations happen around action, and events. To fill the spaces on the journey.

Don’t just have a chapter of people sitting and talking to each other with no aim, goal, conflict. But also, don’t allow characters to finish conversations or arguments. If they talked at eacch other long enough, sombody would “win” and someone would “give up” if you do that, it’s usually just the author proselytizing their opinion against a straw man opponent so they can always win. It’s boring and transparent.

Deflect, distract. The point of the conversation is not who is right. It’s to show who the protagonist was, what they used to believe, how they talk and open up about those beliefs with a best friend (something they probably aren’t doing in the current moment, surrounded by dangers and strangers.)

The scene continues with more coolness. Rock music. Jumping across rooftops. Laughing. World worth saving. Levity. The conversation and the ending is the important part, but it won’t be nearly as impactful if it wasn’t also an amazing scene, so choose a setting carefully.

They argue a little more, terrorism vs. freedom fighters. It’s not just politics, this is about identity, purpose, meaning… the kind of future they want. But underlying it all is this beautiful surprise, a show of friendship.

Remember, the dialogue doesn’t matter at all, it’s about what they can see, the pictures you’re putting in their heads. They’ll forget the words but remember the pictures.

If you want a cool, wondrous scene, then you need it to be a surprise, to at least one character – probably the protagonist. Something new and unexpected.

Tonight I’m going to show you the full wonders of the mall.

You planned stuff?

Escalator! 80’s pop funk music!

Check me out this is so cool!

It only works if there’s genuine coolness and surprise. Have characters react authentically to cool stuff. Don’t just have the author say this is cool. And it can be cringe to have characters say it too (unless it’s actually amazing).

Note: all the cool fun stuff doesn’t work if that’s ALL it is, if it’s not meaningful. It’s given meaning BECAUSE it’s a flashback and foil to the current episode.

The scene still has to build to the point of change. It’s not enough to have deep conversations AND beautiful wonder. The fun levity needs to contrast with loss and horror, a surprise, conflict, danger, drama.

Even though it’s a flashback and resolved action. There’s no real tension in the current scene… for the protagonist, who knows what happened. But readers don’t know how this has played out yet or what’s going to happen. So the intrigue and suspense is there. That’s why you need to be careful about explaining what happened too early.

  • This is why you have to be very careful to withhold information. This is a big formative event. If you’ve already mentioned it or what happens, then this whole scene is ruined/dead, empty, without purpose. It only works if readers haven’t been told the conclusion.

Authors often know all the information and refer to things. It helps with consistency. But then they leave in the notes to themselves. Often it’s a little summary like “one time we were in the mall and got attacked by zombies and my friend died” because they think that’s important backstory info for readers. But then they try to write the scene.

“Oh really? What happened?” Jump cut to scene. But that whole scene won’t work anymore. One: because we aren’t really in the scene; we are hearing it summarized later. Two: you’ve spoiled the ending, so none of the details that led there are interesting.

Delete your introductions or summaries. Don’t tell them what happened, why the scene is important. Just show the scene without narrative commentary or setup or explanation. Don’t give it context.

There’s also some budding romance in the last of us episode 7 flashback. Ellie checks out her reflection in the window. She wants to impress this girl (that’s why the conversation/event is so meaningful.)

Do you trust me? then give me your hand.

When you want to show romantic attraction, zoom in. People notice things when they are paying attention. Start with a vague summary. But when attraction builds, zoom way way in. Notice details. Show the noticing. Ellie staring, gazing, longingly, adoringly (don’t write that though). Make it subtle. If she notices how long her eyelashes are, the way she double knots her shoelaces, then she’s paying attention.

Ferris wheel in abandoned mall… music. Theme song.

But then… back to fighting. They’re about to confess their feelings for each other, but that would be too easy. They have to fight first. Increase conflict first.

Did you leave because you actually thought you could liberate this place?

Don’t say it like it’s some type of fantasy.

Set things right, the way things used to be.

If you come back, we can do that too, we can make things better, we are the future. Come back. Join me. we could be in charge.

You can. I can’t.

Her friend is a little older. She got her assignment: sewage detail.

Ellie could be in charge; she still has choices. Her friend doesn’t. That’s why she ran.

Ellie isn’t FORCED to make a choice, yet. She could have been a static character forever, without an opportunity to choose anything different. A third option outside the system. But her best friend/love interest was forced to take a risk because she had no options.

Ellie cares enough about her friend to see the world from her point of view; an alternate point of view, so she’s not in the echo chamber. To properly show how it’s possible that some day she will make a real, authentic choice, a moment of change. This is the point of all real good books; a story worth telling is one that leads up to a real authentic decision – these are very rare and it takes a great deal of motivation and conflict… plus it’s all about the setup. One simple decision with low stakes wouldn’t matter, it wouldn’t be a story. If you want to show a real decision, you need to show a lot of context that led up to that point.)

A real, developed character, doesn’t just happen. It’s not who they are or their personality. It’s the slow flood of conflict and new information and then a brutal forced decision where they are finally brave enough to risk everything, including their identity, to let go of everything.

2 wonders down, 3 to go.

It’s not just “go to the mall and have a conversation.”

This conversation is in small pieces. Each small piece is punctuated with a new wonder (event/action). Break tasks into a list of things to do. The conversation unfolds, without conclusion. It’s all a setup, to generate the kinds of questions (and how the protagonist previously answered or thought about these questions).

Who they WERE vs. who they might be, who they can be. The belief that things could be better, different. The hope and longing for that idealized future and its potential. All that weight, all that desire, is now motivating her current actions and explaining her decision.

Photobooth! Fun memories, intimacy (forced proximity trope). Making memories. (Totems! Physical reminders of these memories, something she can keep, a token.)

Arcade games. This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

“I spent an hour yesterday breaking this open” (shows preparedness, time invested, which makes the gift/experience more special).

Here we get a little looming danger, ominous. Fadeout…. movement in other room. A zombie wakes up…

But then, character conflict (I can’t get in trouble again, I should go… but we haven’t finished the list, we still have a few hours). Internal conflict emotion. Not just fun and games. Complexity. depth.

Reluctance. Doubt, fear.

I got you a gift.

This is a big reveal: her friend gives her the book on puns, volume two. This is the book she’s kept, her token, her memory. She’s been reading puns to Joel, it’s been a recurring thing. All tied to this formative event but we don’t know that yet, until here – it connects with the familiar narrative in a powerful way.

The story starts tying future and now together, mingling the narratives. The last of use theme song kicks up here, reminding us that’s it’s connected.

And then… Ellie finds the pipe bombs.

Did you make these, to kill soldiers?

You didn’t find this mall, you were stationed.

We would never use them to hurt you, I’d never let them use them against you.

None of this shit was even about me.

Fight, she’s about to storm off, angry.

Eli I’m leaving, they’re sending me away.

I asked if you could join. I tried. they said no. Tonight’s my last night in boston.

Why did you bring me here?
I wanted to see you. And?
I wanted to see you and say goodbye. This isn’t easy.

It actually is you just did it. Goodbye.

She storms off, angry. So the whole episode takes a dark turn, all this closeness and fun, but it was all a goodbye. Ellie isn’t paying attention (before any attack, have them distracted) but decides to go back.

Her friend Riley screams…

but it was a toy (false conflict, not there yet!) “jump scare.” A fakeout before the real thing.

The 5th wonder, I thought you’d like this the best so I saved it for last.

Postponing the inevitable.
You’re leaving to join some cause you don’t understand.

You don’t know everything. You don’t know what it was like to have a family, to belong. I want that again.

Showing RILEY’s motivation and how she’s different from the protagonist; different way of thinking; expanded awareness. She keep saying “you don’t know everything” – awareness that there are limits to her knowledge; must be pointed out to her, shown to her, what she doesn’t know. This creates doubts, insecurity. A character can’t change and become dynamic without this).

They chose me. I matter to them.
You mattered to me first.

Tender goodbyes.

Not just simple goodbye, add conflict, add fight, add scream and perceived danger.

One last thing… night’s not over yet.

Monster mask.
Dance party. Music. Peak levity, to contrast with maximum danger. Peak visuals.

Not just dance party in mall. Dance party with clown and werwolf masks, on the counter. Unique and visually stunning. Fun, laughter.

Don’t just go from deep conversation straight to zombie attack.

Singing, dancing, having fun!

Defenses and awareness way down.

Most intimate, vulnerable moment.
“don’t go” she begs.

I’m sorry.
For what?

She took a huge risk, risked it all for love. But got confirmation of love.

She’s NOT going, because she asked her to STAY.

Elation, joy – and now zombie attack. Just when it can hurt the most.

The gun goes away (this happens first in any good fight scene). Fights have to be closeup and brutal and difficult.

Stabs zombie with knife.

Friend is knocked out.

Friend saves her, she saves friend.
Knife to head.

This is where she got the BITE. Just went future is brightest.

Her friend got the bite too.

Tragic. And that’s it. We don’t need to see more.

We have enough information to see what happened; she lived, her friend didn’t. There’s more information to be had sure, but it’s details – information, not emotion. If we kept going, we’d probably have a few more days of tragic goodbyes and everything (and we don’t really get the ending). But this is a flashback.

ONE scene, one time. Not multiple chapters of history. Which scene do you choose? The one with the most emotion: the most surprises, the most emotional valiancy (positive/negative), the best looking scenes.

One perfect night: she asked her friend to stay, she said OK.

Then they both got bit.

That’s it. That’s enough. That’s all we need.

Then jump back to current scene. Joel dying.

The next person she cares about.

Asking her to leave him.

A foil of that night, her romantic interest leaving, losing her one way; then losing her another way for good. so, she decides to stay. She can’t risk losing another. She can’t (but only because of what she’s been through). She has to do everything to save him.

Back to flashback, anger, breaking shit.

We got two options (choice). We take the easy way out. Quick, painless.

Option two. We just keep going. What are you talking about it’s over. It will be. But not yet.

We don’t quit. whether it’s two minutes or two days. We don’t give that up. I don’t want to give that up.

I’m sorry I’m sorry – her friend dealing with guilt. She was responsible, this was her idea. She’s the one who has to wrestle with that, face that. Eli witnessed it, but she didn’t go through it.

Not until now. This time it’s on her. Joel didn’t want to come, but did, for her.

This whole episode was about this critical decision. But the “action” is only a few minutes. If you skip the flashback, it would be short. Showing the whole backstory give context and emotion to that decision (and shows a fun action scene… the point is it fits best and works best right here – in the middle of the highest tension, when she has to choose whether to leave Joel or try to save him).

Then, heroic, stitching him up, one stitch at a time. doing the work.

That’s the END!

Last of us Season Finale…

I’ll skip episode 8. It’s a bunch of resolution. She gets in trouble, trying to find food and medicine for Joel. She gets taken. She frees herself (physically) but he saves her emotionally – he’s able to open up finally and let her in. It’s good, powerful, but nothing tricky is going on, mostly action.

At the final episode, near the end of the journey, we get the giraffes. Because we need something light, fun, cool, new – just after that last battle scene. That they win. Now they’re almost at their final actual goal, but that would just be the resolution (if you only had one final battle scene: that’s why you need two, like in my story plotting templates).

They *barely* win the last one and realize how close they came. The fight they aren’t expecting, the *real* final battle, will be coming soon. We don’t want to go super tense into super tense. We need to add in a Beautiful Thing. They talk about the future. Joel offers to teach her the guitar. He’s finally fully committed, just when she’s starting to consider her mortality. They feed a giraffe. Magic, fun. Laughter. This is so fucking cool.

That’s necessasy, because we’re going to get the highest, peak emotion at the finale, and it’s got to contrast with the highest, peak emotions on the other side. Comedy tragedy. You get both masks.

The OPTION to give up:
You don’t have to do this.
After everything we’ve been through. Everything I’ve done.
It can’t be for nothing (commitment to the cause).

Now that they’re actually here. Do they still care about this goal, is it going to motivate them through the final battle episode?

When it’s over we’ll go anywhere you want. But there’s no halfway with this, we finish what we started. Get motivations out of the way. Get them close enough to the goal to think about the future.

Quick backstory: Joel talks about the time he almost killed himself, after his daughter died.

This is *different* backstory. Before we got the full-feature episidic backstory. It needed to be a scene, there was a lot happening. Relationships, dangers, events and actions, cool scenery descriptions. The important thing was the whole experience that motivates her decision.

But with Joel – why would that be a scene? Just him, not even wrestling with himself – because he was ready, he just flinched. No action, no scene description. It doesn’t need a full scene, and it would be boring anyway. The important thing is him telling her now, this conversation, so close to the end. Opening up right before they risk everything for eachother.

Omitted details (LOVE this): Authors sometimes say too much, or explain things, to make sure readers get them. These last conversations, they know each other well enough that they don’t *have* to spell everything out, and it works really well.

The reason I’m telling you all this is because…

I know why you’re telling me all this.

Yeah I reckon you do.

So time heals all wounds I guess

It wasn’t time that did it.

Meaningful looks. But they don’t parse the meaning in between! They said the emotional stuff without actually saying it, it’s poignant and powerful. Then they switch to light stuff.

You know what I’m in the mood for? shitty puns.

Jokes, banter, distracted while attacked.

Sudden shift. Levity to battle.

The big finale surprise (not actually a surprise if you know anything about story craft) is that Ellie actually needs to die to save the human race. It’s the only way, because cordyceps lives in the brain. Their allies turn on them, in that they all think saving the human race is more important than her life. Joel is the only one who doesn’t think so.

Minirant: the “villains” are always the guys thinking about everyone, the bigger picture, regardless of what it costs, they do what’s necessary. I usually side with the villains. But they don’t make good stories, because it’s too distant and impersonal. We need characters who struggle and wrestle with hard questions. The hero is usually someone who loves enough to fight; who loses enough to hurt.

Joel is going to save Ellie and doom the human race. But he’s the hero because we care more about those two characters than anyone else.

We get the hero at the mercy of the villain scene (a phrase I learned from Story Grid).

It’s over, they’ve lost, nothing they can do, etc.

Joel kills a bunch of guys who wanted to save the world instead of a girl…

And their main ally/villain (mother’s friend from birth).

Kills all the resistance, even unnarmed men.

Switches to pistol for the close up personal stuff.

(Final battle starts by removing weapons).

He carries Ellie out of operating room. Close up shot on bloody dead doctor. Probably the last person.

It’s about love. He loves her MORE than the entire human race.

Is that super selfish? Yes, and most people would have made a rational decision.

He is the ONE person in the world, who lost a daughter of a similar age, who’d already decided to forgo his own life without her, that he can fall in love SO hard he’s ready to let the human race die. The story only works with him in it, exactly as he is, because any other character would have had their own stuff to look forward to, their own goals, lives, hopes. They’d trade her life for their future.

HE will not. It makes the story tragic but it all only fits together because of those things (the backstory!)
Joel’s backstory is a prequel, the thing 20 years ago that doesn’t fit neatly into the time sequence.

And then a minireveal (in scene, through conversation).

Ellie’s flashback is a whole episode, that comes just before her personal difficult decision.

The final action scene is just Joel shooting people and saving her with sad music. It would have felt flat and boring, without breaking it up into nice pieces that heighten contrast.

She was ready to complete the mission. He was ok skipping it. But they didn’t tell her she was going to die, so she doesn’t get to make the selfless choice, which she might have.

Joel rescues her anyway. Not for her, for him.

I played the 2nd game but honestly can’t remember the details. I feel like some of the next episodes, Joel didn’t tell her the truth about what happened, just took her away to live somewhere else, and lies to her so she won’t go looking for trouble. That would be great conflict for another chapter.

Final final battle. Two people who care, allies, but driven differently.

You can’t keep her safe forever, no matter how hard you try she’s going to grow up Joel. You’ll die, she’ll leave, and get torn apart by a broken world you could have saved.
Maybe, but it’s not up to you to decide.
Or you.

What would she decide. I think she’d want to do what’s right, and you know it. It’s not too late. It’s not too late, even after what you’ve done, we can still find a way (real choice, ignore the obvious facts – dead doctor).

He’s given one last chance, but confirms his choice by shooting Marlene. (But we don’t know this yet… cleverly, it shows him driving away first… we don’t know what he did, what choice he made.)

Give the choice but allow the uncertainty to linger, at least a little while.

Ellie wakes up, and he lies to her.

More people are immune, dozens of them. The doctors couldn’t make it work. They’ve stopped looking for a cure. Raiders attacked the hospital. I got you out of there.

Are people hurt?


Is Marlene ok?

No answer.
I’m taking us home.

Bleeding out, Marlene begs.

Please, let me go.
You’d just come after her.

Shoots her.
So Joel’s a selfish prick who ruins everything. Another Villain.

Later, they ditch the car and hike. Talking about Sarah, his daughter.

Ellie confesses, first time she killed someone. Tells her story, of her best friend.

Connects her backstory with his. Her name was Riley. She was the first to die. Then Tess, then Sam.

Listing what we’ve lost, how far we’ve come. (All the guilt that Ellie will hold on to, for her mission; and she’s still suffer with, now that Joel has removed her purpose).

Sometimes things don’t work out like you’d hoped, and you come to and end, and you don’t know what to do next. but if you just keep going… you find something new to fight for.

Swear to me, that everything you said about the fireflies is true.

I swear.


She thinks he’s lying, but accepts it. So all the future happiness, years of it, is predicated on this one, huge, big lie between them. Great way to end, because there’s no *outer* conflict in terms of the story, but a ton of inner conflict between the surviving characters

Static vs Dynamic Characters – who is the hero?

This part gets confusing. Often the hero is the one who can change. The villain usually doesn’t even if it means his own death, he’s absolutely committed to the cause, inflexible, regardless of destruction. The hero *probably* avoids the personal in favor of the big picture. But sometimes it’s reversed. Sometimes a villain is motivated by loss or revenge (maybe the point is, a villain cannot actually get what he wants, what he’s lost, he just wants to make people suffer).

Is saw this meme recently:

I’m not sure that’s always true. I’m tempted to argue the opposite. In this case, Joel would literally be the villain, instead of just an anti-hero… which maybe he is! But he’s also a main character/protagonist. Marlene is the one giving up love to save the world. Traditionally a hero gives up themselves, their wants and needs, in favor of everyone else’s. Ellie *could* have been that, if she’d had the choice.

So it can be messy. But all the characters should have some of these big decisions to make. If they make the choice easily, out of principle or character – then they are static characters and not super interesting. They are necessary forces of conflict and opposition, but the story isn’t about them. The story is focused on the dynamic characters, who are forced to become, to change, to choose differently – and we need to understand why THIS choice or situation is so difficult for THIS character. That’s the purpose of backstory.

Read more about Characterization in fiction.

You can also read this breakdown of Lock and Key… or this big breakdown of satisfying fight scenes.

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