Having Multiple Protagonists In Your Novel

Can your novel have more than one protagonist? If so, can they be enemies? Is doing that a no-no, a may-be, or a why-not?

Adam posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I noticed that a lot of your advice seems to center on a novel having a single protagonist (such as when creating summaries and other parts of the snowflake method).In my WIP, however, I have two characters who are having disparate experiences and I view both of them as protagonists (who will eventually end up on opposite sides of a conflict).

How do I reconcile that with techniques such as the 5 sentence summary? Or am I setting myself up for failure and should just choose one to be the protagonist and slightly tip the scales in their favor in number of scenes showing their POV?

Randy sez: You can do anything you want in a novel. However, you can’t make a publisher buy your book and you can’t make readers care. Those pesky publishers will buy what they think the public will buy. And the public will only buy books they like.

Here’s the thing: Readers want to know who to root for. When you give them two people to root for, you cut the emotional impact in half.

This is a case where 1 + 1 = 1/2.

When you give your reader two people to root for, and they’re enemies, then things are even worse. Now your reader is confused. Is it good that the bomb blew up Reginald’s helicopter, or is it bad? Is it bad that Reginald wasn’t in it, or is it good?

This is a case where 1 – 1 = 0.

It’s like trying to drive with your foot jammed down hard on both the gas and the brakes.

If you’re reading a novel or watching a movie, you want to root for one character or at least one group of characters who are all on the same side. Treat your reader like you want to be treated. Choose one protagonist. Choose one antagonist. Make them duke it out. Make them keep duking until there’s a clear winner.

The alternative is to have no readers and get no publishing contracts.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Some links that may be of interest to use:

My friend Carla Williams asked me to let my Loyal Blog Readers know about a cruise she’s organizing for Christian writers. The cruise is February 27 to March 6 and will be mostly in Mexican waters. Sounds nice and warm during the chilly winter. If you’re interested, check out Carla’s cruise here.

One of my Loyal Blog Readers, Basil Munroe Godevenos, has started a blog on which he’s writing a fantasy novel in public, using my well-known Snowflake method. He calls this blog TheSnowflakeProject and you might be interested in following him on his writing adventures.


  1. Adam Heine December 2, 2010 at 8:11 pm #

    I’m not so sure. One of the things I loved about the movie HEAT, for example, was that I really liked both of the main characters. I wanted both of them to win (even though one was an anti-hero), so the ending had a huge emotional impact for me.

    So I think you CAN do two protagonists, but it’s probably hard to do it right.

    • Alanna March 6, 2016 at 8:50 am #

      is there a “right” way to do anything? Everyone has an opinion about how to do something, maybe success and fame isnt why one is writing, but to simply tell a story that someone will enjoy, even if they don’t bcome widely recognized. If you’re writing as a profession.. perhaps there is a right way. if you are trying to create a literary piece of art, then success is in the eye of the artist

    • James October 16, 2016 at 9:00 am #

      Well, I am about to start writing a story where there are five protagonists so…

      • Chris October 16, 2016 at 12:48 pm #

        Same here, James! Lol

        I have five protagonists, with three arguably being the main focus, and one arguably being the foremost ‘main character,’ even though all five are heavily focused on and at the heart of the conflict. These five go through most of their experiences as a group, but also have separate story arcs for development.

      • Emily January 16, 2017 at 8:07 am #

        I’m writing a story with six characters, is that good or bad. Five of them are quintuplets, and the sixth is their guardian. What I wanted to do is show the guardians perspective then show the quintuplets, the get separated, but at the age of 15 they meet their (secret) guardian. Do you have any advice, because I will gladly appreciate it.

  2. Adam Leigh December 2, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    Harsh! Though probably what I needed to hear. The story I’m working has two friends who get split up early in the story and inadvertently end up on opposite sides of a conflict despite never actually holding any malice towards one another.

    I’m a seat of the pants sort of writer and hadn’t originally intended the second character to play much of a role but his story started to get more interesting as I wrote it and ended up making a political drama where two strangers see opposite sides of a conflict they originally had no stake in and are forced (simply by virtue of geography) to fight to protect themselves.

    But in reading it back, I sort of realized that I was muddying the waters somewhat because their stories don’t seem to relate until the end. I think I’ve accidentally acquired some bad habits from those Star Wars novels I read in High School.

    Anyway, thanks for answering my question!

    • Kimberleigh January 2, 2016 at 11:40 am #

      I actually like the idea you had originally. I know my opinion probably doesn’t count, but I think that idea will keep your readers at the edge of the seat and because it will leave them constantly wondering who is the more upstanding character and such, who is the person they will eventually root for. Its like with love triangles, which are actually very popular in most stories because of the effect they have on the reader or viewer. They leave you hating the character, then empathising with the character, then loving the character, then feeling pity for them or hating them all over again. In all this the reader or view is going through an emotional rollercoaster and this thus keeps them hooked onto the book, as they sit waiting to get to the end so that they can finally make a decision on how to feel about both characters and at last, who to feel attached and connected to. Because is that not in the end a reason for creating a background for your book characters, trying to get the reader to connect and empathise with them.

  3. kinjalkishor December 3, 2010 at 2:53 am #

    @Adam, (whichever Adam, Heine or Leigh), I t can be done. The main focus should be on “Unavoidable Circumstances”. Like in David Gemell’s Drenai, both hero and the villain could not avoid what they were doing, both were right in their own places, both were at opposites t each other, both were bound by “Situation”. “Situation” is the villain here and both are doing what a hero will do try to make things right and thus they could not agree with each other. It is important to show this quality and have good dialogue to make things interesting in this kind of story. Remember both are right(On one side according to Randy”) both fight common enemy(“Unavoidable Circumstance”), reader will care for both and can see that their interests conflict(happens all the time to people) so it will work. Be clear that given free choice if hero does good, villain does bad, then it is extremely difficult for reader to concile with opposing views and root for either character. That will be a direc case of “Cognitive Dissonance”(presented with conflicting views at once, see wikipedia) (like you are young to do this but you are old enough to do that 🙂 ). That is the main reason why such stories fail. But the “Situational necessity: things like in movie “Heat” works. Still one of them will definitely be more right or the story cannot come to resolution. Get one hero right doing, leave the villain with sympathy(but ultimately villain is more wrong).

  4. DiscoveredJoys December 3, 2010 at 2:58 am #

    I’m convinced that this is true (yet another edit for my NaNoWriMo first draft :-)).

    Yet I can think of exceptions – by far better writers than I am. ‘The Stand’ by Stephen King is a huge novel with many characters, and several of them are ‘main’ characters. King handles this by writing whole chunks around one character before switching to another. Eventually they all end up in the good camp and the bad camp, and right to the end there are still a few characters being heroes. In the end though only the ‘opening hero’ returns. I still wonder how King managed to get it to hang together.

  5. Carrie Neuman December 3, 2010 at 4:59 am #

    I’ve got to go with Randy. I love a really complex, sympathetic villan sometimes, and I think I’d rather get that than two friends fighting.

  6. sep December 3, 2010 at 8:41 am #

    You could create two novels. In one novel you focus on character one as the protagonist and character two as the antagonist having the POV in character one’s court. In the second novel you focus on the second character as the protagonist and have character one as the antagonist — the POV with character two. This way you have two novels that are similar, yet completely different from one another — even the ending could be very different because it focuses on a different character’s view point of the same situation. At least you could do this as two first drafts and see which draft looks better, or write both to completion and see which one gets published — maybe both of them will.

  7. Bruce H. Johnson December 3, 2010 at 9:59 am #

    Someone has to play first violin (the concertmaster or orchestra leader). There can be only one.

    That’s not to say the lady sitting next to the concertmaster sharing the music stand isn’t great and talented and doesn’t contribute. She’s simply not the boss.

    Someone has to make the final decision on just about anything. In a family, there is the Decision Maker who may not be the one in all the action but is the one who finally says yay or nay and makes it stick.

    In fiction writing, there can be only one. Other characters may get equal face time, but The One takes the responsibility for the big decisions.

    Yes, The One might make an incorrect decision; he doesn’t always have all the information. To be a sucessful leader, The One has to make decisions and be correct almost all the time.

    You don’t get progress with rule by committee — you get the US Congress.

    In my novel series, I ended up with 4 main characters. However, there is only one who is the real leader.

    I’ve kept a spreadsheet with all the characters so I don’t get lost. Each gets a character level. The One gets 1.0. The next ally gets 1.1. The other two get 1.2 or 1.3. This way, I can sort by character level (ascending) and keep them sorted out. The first one is The One.

    Yes, The One can delegate a lot of responsibility — and should. But, in the end, he is the one to make the decisions on the big issues and those decisions must be correct enough most of the time (80%?).

    No rule by committee and no protagonist by committee, either. There can be only one.

  8. Dre December 3, 2010 at 11:56 am #

    I think it should be perfectly possible to use two enemies as your protagonists.
    Normally the bad guy is not simply evil for the sake of evilness. Most bad guys are bad because they fail to see the difference between good and bad, or because they don’t see the advantages of doing the right things.
    If one of your protagonists is such a bad guy, I think a reader should be able to identify with him, but still hope the good guy wins.
    In this kind of story, I guess the reader would feel sympathy for the good guy, and a kind of compassion for the bad guy. If reader and writer have very different values of their own, the reader might even see the intended “evil” protagonist as the good guy and vice versa.

  9. Tami Meyers December 4, 2010 at 1:08 pm #

    Think Team Edward / Team Jacob. Stephenie Meyer made it work very well in her vampire vs werewolf saga.

    You can do it, but you probably need to have the conflict from the start instead of having them as friends who become enemies. If both are good in their own way your reader will root for the one they like best, which means you better have a good resolution for both characters or you’re going to disappoint half of your readers.

    It would be helpful to know in the beginning which one is going to win or you’re going to have a hard time creating the second place “win” that’s satisfactory.

    • Noisy Flippers May 1, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

      Edward and Jacob are not protagonists, they’re supporting characters. Bella is the one and only protagonist in the Twilight novels.

  10. Aaron December 6, 2010 at 2:51 am #

    This appears the be a story to be told once you feel you have the clout to write. Randy is generally trying to help people write good stories that have a chance of being published. Once published a few times, I imagine your freedom to write outside of the Snowflake expands immeasurably both by permission and by your own skill 🙂

  11. Wayne December 7, 2010 at 11:50 am #

    One protagonist only please.

    There can be a secondary character (think buddy cop movie) that chooses the opposite choice or a different end of the moral spectrum to highlight the “true” choice of the protagonist.

    Also, the antagonist doesnt need to be the villian. Think ‘Officer and a Gentleman’ or ‘The Fugitive’. In both those cases the other character provided the pressure the protagonist needed to change.(and also set a timetable and way to boost the story pace)

    In terms of Edward/Jacob – Bella is the main character(she is suppose to be at least,talk about a passive protagonist!) But yes, creating a third character and pushing the two others back to create a Twilight structure may be an option.

  12. Al December 9, 2010 at 9:15 am #

    Many, many popular novels have multiple protagonists, especially in genre fiction. Randy’s argument for having a single protagonist is oversimplifying the matter, to an extreme degree.

    However, I agree that for new authors, starting with a single protagonist may make things easier and get your novel finished more quickly. It undeniably takes more skill to balance the focus and reader affection among multiple protagonists in a satisfying way.

    Randy sez: I’m not sure what you mean by that. Many, many popular novels have multiple viewpoint characters, and that’s fine. But a viewpoint character is not the same thing as a protagonist. The protagonist is the person whose story the book is. It’s a rare novel that has more than one protagonist, and the novel needs to be big enough to bear the weight of multiple protagonists. THE LORD OF THE RINGS is a big story with numerous viewpoint characters. There are at least three major “good guys” who could have been the protagonist — Gandalf, Aragorn, Frodo. But the fact is that only one of them, Frodo, actually is the protagonist. In a long novel that covers a lot of time, you can switch protagonists, as Ken Follett does in THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH — the protagonist at the beginning is Tom Builder, but decades later at the end of the novel, the protagonist is his step-son Jack.

  13. Cissy July 23, 2011 at 9:03 pm #

    Could you have two main characters who barely have anything to do with each other even though they pass each other? If different things are happening to them?

  14. Mimi July 24, 2012 at 10:09 pm #

    How about John Jakes’ North and South? I count 2 protagonists there, and it has made a world of difference (story would be less if it had taken a bias to either one of the 2 main characters)

  15. Paul November 7, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    Ridiculous! There are so many stories with multiple prots: too many to mention. ‘The Stand’ is not the only SK novel to adopt this tactic. Some stories cannot easily be told with a single prot. Anything complex that has multiple events in different places at certain times–events that are required in detail and cannot be told in retrospect-—may well require multiple prots. This is supposed to be art for God’s sake! Why try to be so formulaic? What about Brave New World, it is arguable that the main prot changes three times during the book.

    • Jennifer Perez October 17, 2015 at 12:17 pm #

      Two protagonists? Some of the BEST stories offer more than one protagonist and do it well:

      The Yacoubian Building – Best Seller
      Do the Right Thing

      Who didn’t love all of those full bodied characters in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn? They added a certain realness to the story.

      The Joy Luck Club – Best Seller
      44 Scottland Street – Best Seller

      These books have been highly popular.

      A mult-diimensional story requires strong character-driven plots. The fascination with a group of people’s lives telling the story of an apartment complex, story, barber shop can be far more interesting than a one-dimensional story of a single protagonist. It provides additional background to the story and various points of view.s

  16. Carla July 11, 2013 at 4:21 pm #

    Ahahahahah yeah, because, you know, A Song of Ice and Fire has “no readers and no publishing contracts”. Is this article a joke? I hope so.

    • Juneauz October 16, 2013 at 9:44 am #

      I was about to say the same thing…. “A Song of Ice and Fire” has tons of characters and none of them is a true protagonist.
      How does the writer of this article justify that?

  17. Nils October 21, 2014 at 2:33 am #

    An arrogant and stupid answer. Multiple perspective novels are common and many of them best sellers. Ever heard about The Lord Of The Rings? Quite popular…
    Luckily, the public isn’t as narrow minded as the person answering your very sound question.
    However, you will have to work hard to make your principal characters equally interesting. But who said it was easy?

    • Randy as Admin January 27, 2015 at 10:48 am #

      Nils, you are confused about what a “protagonist” is.

      You are using the term “perspective” here, which is what most writers call a “viewpoint character.” But that is not what a “protagonist” is, which explains why you’re confused.

      The “protagonist” is defined to be the main character of the story. This is usually a viewpoint character (although not always–for example Sherlock Holmes is the protagonist in the Holmes stories, but in most cases, Watson is the only viewpoint character).

      A novel can contain many viewpoint characters, although some novels only have one, and it’s possible to not have any if you use Third Person Objective as your viewpoint.

      It’s rare for a novel to have more than one protagonist. The protagonist is the main character of the story, it’s just very unusual to try to make more than one character “the main character.” It can be done. For example, in Ken Follett’s book THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH, the protagonist early on is Tom Builder, but later on, his step-son Jack becomes the protagonist. But this book covers about 50 years of history and it really wasn’t possible to have a single protagonist for the whole book.

      You mention The Lord of the Rings. This book has many viewpoint characters, but there is only one protagonist–Frodo.

      • Jonathan July 1, 2015 at 10:21 pm #

        What about Game of Thrones? Doesn’t it have many protagonists?

        • Randy as Admin July 19, 2015 at 6:05 pm #

          I haven’t read Game of Thrones, so this is hard for me to answer. I started reading it, but I didn’t get very far before realizing that I’m just not in the target audience for this series, so I stopped.

          The series certainly has multiple point-of-view characters. However, as I have explained several times already, a POV character is not the same as a protagonist. So if you want to argue that the series has multiple protagonists, you need to say who they are and why you think each one is a protagonist, in the usual sense that writers use the term “protagonist”–the one person whom the story is about.

          It is possible to have a story with multiple protagonists, but it’s quite rare and it’s hard to do successfully. You could argue that THE GODFATHER has multiple protagonists–beginning with Vito Corleone as protagonist and ending with his son Michael as protagonist.

          • KS February 15, 2016 at 4:24 pm #

            I honestly think that Dany is the protagonist but hasn’t quite come into her role. The antagonist is the winter/white walkers. Everyone else is POV, supporting characters but ultimately it’s a song of fire (Dany&dragons) vs ice (winter/walkers).

            Dany and her dragons will obviously be the only ones able to ultimately deal with the winter/walkers situation, we just haven’t gotten there. It’s a lot of build up to a big finale.

            We have to look at the story line objectively without emotions involved or biased opinions.

  18. Simon S January 27, 2015 at 3:20 am #

    The snowflake method can be adapted for your needs. In the novel I am currently writing I use the perspective of two characters. These two characters start off with two different story whiare eventually are intwined.

    I use the snowflake method but I do a summary for each character perspective of thread.

    “After witnessing the brutal murder of their parents, two brother are forced to flee their home with the killer in pursuit.”

    “The Princess heir is kidnapped by a charming dance instructor only to be rescued by the two young brothers”

    I’ve literally just come to this conclusion myself and decided to Google if anyone else had the same conclusion to the multiple perspective issue with the snowflake method.

    I think Randy answered this too matter of factl. Writing is not an exact science and is about creatively, just be aware of the pitfalls.

    • Randy as Admin January 27, 2015 at 10:52 am #

      Simon, just a quick note to point out that the Snowflake method assumes you’ll write a storyline for each major character.

      So I’m not sure what you mean by a multiple perspective issue. The Snowflake method asks you to define all your major characters, which would include your protagonist, any viewpoint characters, and any other characters who are important enough to play a major role in the story. Each of these should have his or her own storyline, which you can summarize first in one sentence and then in one paragraph.

  19. allan February 24, 2015 at 9:47 am #

    Interesting debate. I am currently working on a novel with two main characters. One female that has been abducted by a serial killer and one male detective. Both characters are trying to figure out who the serial killer is, using different sets of clues that are dripped in. But there are two journeys, both written in first person, and both storylines drop clues into the other. Both characters know the killer.

    Surely this counts as two protagonists.

  20. mike March 24, 2015 at 2:32 pm #

    I guess Philip K. Dick never got the memo that you’re only allowed one protagonist per novel.

    • Brownin329 April 8, 2015 at 2:57 pm #

      There’s no memo. You CAN have more than one protagonist per novel. This guy is just too lazy to write them in.

    • Randy as Admin April 18, 2015 at 2:18 pm #

      Mike, it would be helpful if you were to give an example of one of Philip K. Dick’s novels with more than one protagonist. Then I could tell whether you’re unclear on the meaning of the word “protagonist” or on the meaning of the sentence “You can do anything you want in a novel.”

      Brownin, you seem unclear on the difference between “lazy” and “interested in writing what readers want.” Most readers most of the time want to know who to root for.

  21. Jean September 9, 2015 at 6:56 am #

    I’m surprised no one has yet mentioned David Weber’s “Honor Harrington” novels. There are over twenty now, and while Honor Harrington is the only protagonist of the very first novel (using Randy’s definition of protagonist), as time went on the “Honorverse” got so rich that some characters who started out as secondary characters eventually became the protagonists of their own storylines to the point where sometimes an entire novel can start and end without them even being on the same planet as Honor. Think of it as reading two interleaved novels.

    While it might seem like a bad idea, it’s actually got two big advantages for the reader : you’re only paying for one novel, and you get double the emotional payoff in the end. It even allows Weber to let the bad guys win sometimes. Very, very powerful stuff.

    I’m guessing David Weber fans, much like Game of Thrones fans, enjoy delayed gratification, since sometimes the greater payoff from a character’s storyline can happen in a later novel.

    For those unfamiliar with the “Honorverse”, it is a science fiction series where humans have a life expectancy measured in centuries, which is one way for the author to keep many characters around for a long time. In a way, this profusion of characters does convey the feeling of what it would be like to live in a civilization where you can live to be 1,000 years old : in one word, crowded.

    I used to read Randy’s e-zine and there’s definitely wisdom there, but let’s all remember we’re talking about writing novels, not religion. Randy’s methods are one way to write a novel, one among many. Some of the commenters here seem to assume Randy is preaching his way as the only way.

    Since it seems common practice : my own WIP is a YA novel simply because I’ve been dismayed at the incredibly poor writing of the Maze Runner and me and my girlfriend want to know if just anyone can write a half-baked dystopian story and have it made into a movie.

  22. Jonathan September 19, 2015 at 8:35 pm #

    This is what I’ve taken away from other great works.

    The best tool you will have when writing two opposing “protagnoists” (although, when all’s said and done, one will probably be labeled “antagonist”) is to take a good portion of the beginning of the story developing both characters, and, most importantly, their relationship. It requires professional-grade character development (each character has to be likeable in a way), as well as creating motives that realistically drive the characters ultimately apart. If you do it right, you can have readers sympathize with both “protagonists” and ultimately make the final showdown ultra-dramatic.

    You’ll also have to be careful and conscious of balancing it out just enough. If you juggle back and forth too quickly, your readers will feel torn from the book and won’t care. If you spend too much time on each character, they’ll attach too much to one character and will not care about any time you spend building the other. And I don’t mean this by chapters, I mean this by emotional impact. If you do it right, readers will feel conflicted enough to build tension for them, and therefore drive them to continue reading. And, I can’t emphasize this enough, if done expertly, the final outcome will usually be tragic. Remember, the biggest goal you have is to elicit emotions from your readers. That shows first-off that they care, and it will mean they want to continue reading.

    For example, if you have a story where two brothers end up fighting over some goal or motive (remember, it has to have enough “weight” (meaning to the characters and readers) to be appropriate for the story), the readers may shift their biases from one brother to the other , but on a higher level they most likely will hope above all hopes that the two brothers can settle their differences. If the two brothers can’t resolve their differences, the showdown has massive weight to it, because both the characters in the book and the readers don’t want to kill or defeat the other character.

    And that doesn’t mean both “protagonists” have to be perfect and faultless. Rather, they can both be equally imperfect. In fact, you can use some of these imperfections to gain sympathy for certain characters, depending on the situation.

    • Jonathan September 19, 2015 at 8:37 pm #

      For example, take a look at the movie “The Prestige” as an example of my post above.

  23. Rupert January 3, 2016 at 2:16 am #

    Read game of thrones.
    That works.

  24. Pianodog February 13, 2016 at 6:42 am #

    I do not think this is accurate at all. Having a pair of main characters is not inherently going to make a story bad, it’ll be a bit harder to write but saying it’ll split reader’s emotional investment seems silly, that’s not how our brains work.

    My story has two main characters and it wouldn’t even work without both of them as the focus, the both are required to make it work. There is alot of push pull between their relationship.

    Yes it’s probably a bit tricky to pull it off but to say you won’t get published and no readers is ridiculous.

  25. Jane May 7, 2016 at 11:19 am #

    I think this subject is as complicated as the plot of your novel. I have just finished one which appears to have a bad but strong protagonist (who provides some black humour), a good but weak antagonist (who provides the sympathy factor), and a hero figure (the one who the reader will most warm to) who finds himself rather stuck between the two of them.

  26. Jane May 7, 2016 at 11:26 am #

    To add to my last post, I’m having a problem persuading people that the hero is not the protagonist, just because they like him better. And this is also making it more difficult to write a query letter.

  27. Donna May 11, 2016 at 9:43 pm #

    Well, you can have two significant characters in a story with opposite agendas. Yes, this example might not work out everywhere, but the X-men comics show how Professor Xavier and Magneto end up on the opposite sides based on perspective. They start out as friends but turn enemies because their agendas are at opposite to each other. Since they are also major characters in the whole series, this method can actually work. Their different ideologies and perspectives are very important pertaining the whole understanding of the X-men franchise.

  28. Alice Gubler May 21, 2016 at 4:12 pm #

    But what about a story like. The Avengers? I understand it’s a movie but if it was a book, wouldn’t the author jump around each character in each chapter. It’s a group of heros that everyone’s rooting for. There’s no MAIN character. All the hero’s are the main characters. There are lots of books like, Divergent, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Books by Christopher Paolini, that jump between characters/heros’s. It’s like writing about each team member on a soccer team, each person getting their own chapters throughout the story, their point of view their background. You can write a story with multiple Protagonists and still have a spectacular novel/book/series etc.
    But the thing I don’t really agree with is writing a chapter from the “Good-Guy protagonist” and then write a chapter about the “Bad-Guy” from his/her point of view. You need to chose which side you’re on. But overall I think multiple protagonists are ok just as long as you commit to writing about them and having them on the good side or the bad side not both.
    What do you think?

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