Sympathy for the Hero

Many books establish reader sympathy for the tortured hero early in the book. Reader sympathy allows a secret and somewhat omniscient understanding of what appears to other characters to be aloof, arrogant or even cruel behavior. If the reader didn’t know the hero has a tortured, miserable past, or a turning point in his life that changed his character, he’d seem more like a shit and less like a hero.

In Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta Chase establishes from the earliest pages Dain’s miserable childhood, and his feelings of distrust, abandonment, and shame. He does not fit, he does not look like any of his peers, and he’s picked on – until he grows up a little taller and tougher than everyone, and those same bullies turn to seek his admiration and approval. Dain is baffled, but because he’s not stupid, he uses this turnabout to his advantage. Yet when he meets Jessica and has the sense that someone has shoved his head in a privy, the reader knows why and how that recollection is so powerful, painful and alienating for him.

Book CoverSimilarly, in The Duke and I, Quinn also establishes Simon’s misery as a child so that the reader carries that memory forward into the present time of the story, aware along with Simon of how isolating and miserable he often feels in social situations, and most notably when confronted by his father in public.

…no one had the ability to crush his confidence like his father, and as he stared at the duke, who might as well have been a mirror image, albeit slightly older version, of himself, he couldn’t move, couldn’t even try to speak.

His tongue felt thick, his mouth felt odd, and it almost seemed as if his stutters had spread from his mouth to his body, for he suddenly didn’t even feel right in his own skin.

Simon also has Dain’s experience of being outside the fold of popular children, though not as harassed as Dain was, and then finding himself admired and the subject of attention for rather positive reasons.

In both cases, the reader is aware that the hero possesses a core of some hurt innocence that might, and could (and will because He’s the Hero), translate to honor and a desire to do the right thing, even if the right thing was not done by him in his past. Quinn particularly often allows the reader into the secret of the hero’s backstory, establishing him as a sympathetic character early on.

Whether it’s paternal or maternal cruelty, and both abound in romance, or a terrible event that still hurts, the technique of damaging the hero early on works in small doses, too, but I have to say, I prefer that the hero’s drama and damage are revealed early instead of later. Revealing at the end the hurt that lurks in the hero’s past and influences his action through the story can damage my impression of the story overall. I lose sight of the happily-ever-after because I finally understand what was torturing the hero at the end, and the negative too often overshadows the positive.

Book CoverFor example, and I won’t get into details because of the spoiler-y nature of the reveal, I don’t look back on “The Secret Passion of Simon Blackwell” with happiness. I see the book or think about it and am more sad than happy. I don’t even remember the heroine, to be honest – I remember the heartbreak the hero reveals toward the end, and it overshadowed the happy part of the ending to the point where I barely recall it. (I had a similar problem with the heroine of Victoria Dahl’s historical A Rake’s Guide to Pleasure, in which the heroine’s drama was revealed towards the end and fractured the story for me at that point).

Anna Campbell played with the drama and damage of the hero in her controversial novel “Claiming the Courtesan.” The hero had some major damage in his psyche, and the role of that drama in influencing his actions toward the heroine has been tricky for readers. Was he lacking in self control and a weak hero, or did his past serve as enough reason to understand and forgive his actions toward the heroine?

While revealing the emotional hurt that haunts and influences the hero in the early part of the story can easily be over-served with too big of a spoon and way too much pathos, I love the early and initial peek into the hero’s backstory, particularly when at the end, only the heroine and I know why the hero is the way he is. Revealing the drama and enduring hurt that influences the hero’s actions too late into the story means that I as the reader have to grapple with my knowledge and feelings about the event in question and get over them as the hero does in time for the happy ending to be believable.

What about you: do you like the early insight into the hero’s tortured past, or do you prefer a mystery to be revealed later? What stories of heroic hurt still haunt you?



Random Musings

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  1. 1

    I think you’ve pinpointed why some tortured heroes work for me and others don’t. Both LoS and TD&I work for me really, really well, as in OMGlovemustrereadsoonest! Other tortured hero stories leave me depressed. And as I read for the warm fuzzies of the happy ending, depression is not a good thing to associate with a book.

    What works best for me is torment at the beginning (and I like to know what the torment is), befuddlement in the middle (I love it when something about the heroine—her magic hoo ha or whatever—hits the hero over the head and makes his brain hiccup) and a satisfactory HEA in the end (I don’t even mind the baby epilogues).

    What doesn’t work for me is too much torment, a ridiculous reason for the torment, and—as mentioned—a too-late-in-the-book reveal of the cause of the torment. Even if I feel that the cause is headdesk-worthy, I find it easier to swallow if it’s revealed early. If there’s all kinds of buildup and I end up going SRSLY?!!! right before the HEA, my incredulity will overshadow the HEA, maybe even make me question it.

    Anyway, what I tried to state is that I vote for early insight.

  2. 2
    Karin says:

    Liz Carlyle has some great tortured heroes-Gareth Lloyd in Never Deceive a Duke and Bentley “Hellbent” Rutledge in The Devil You Know. In both books, the hero’s past is not laid out right at the beginning like in LoS. We find out gradually what’s torturing him, but it happens early enough for me that it doesn’t spoil the HEA.
    Although I have to say that I also love it when the hero has a tortured past but does NOT let it affect his treatment of the heroine; he is wonderful to her from the get-go. The Madness of Lord Ian McKenzie and The Soldier(Grace Burrowes) are great examples of this.

  3. 3
    LG says:

    “Although I have to say that I also love it when the hero has a tortured past but does NOT let it affect his treatment of the heroine; he is wonderful to her from the get-go.”

    @Karin – YES. That was my main problem with Julia Quinn’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever. I’m pretty sure the reason Turner was so awful to Miranda was revealed early on, but it didn’t matter to me, because he was such a jerk to her. She kept taking it, because she remembered how wonderful he used to be (that early scene was really wonderful), but he was such a jerk to someone who did not deserve it. And yet I still gobbled up the book. That’s not to say I’d ever want to reread it.

  4. 4

    …the technique of damaging the hero early on works in small doses, too, but I have to say, I prefer that the hero’s drama and damage are revealed early instead of later.

    Great point, Sarah.  I think that readers must believe that the hero can be “fixed.”  We can tolerate a lot of his attitude, flaws and foibles if we have an inside peek at what caused them.  In some ways, perhaps, we see the damaged hero as someone that we – the readers- believe we could fix.  Women are nurturers by nature.

    I also think that “inside peeks” generally – a/k/a mind trips or head hopping – are too much maligned.  I can watch a love story on TV. I read romance because I want to be a part of the story.  The reader becomes part of the story via thee glimpses into the character’s head, heart and soul.

    The bad traits of the hero only work in romance if we understand them.

  5. 5
    LizW65 says:

    Anything can work if done well, but in general I prefer a gradual reveal rather than an info-dump at the front or back of the story.  I enjoy little hints given by a writer who respects her readers enough to give them a puzzle to solve and let them figure some things out on their own, rather than have it all laid out on the table at once.

  6. 6
    Elizabeth Smith says:

    I don’t know—even still, I have a hard time getting into books written about jerks. I understand that there may be a tortured history there, but after a point it doesn’t matter what’s deep down inside someone if they act like a pill on the outside all the time. Also, if your automatic response to stress is to be a monumental dirtbag, even if you grow and change as a person that automatic reaction is going to rear its head every time you run into hardship. Who wants that kind of a relationship?

  7. 7
    Josie says:

    One advantage of having the hero’s suffering/torment/hang-up shown early is that it eases the danger that when it is finally revealed, the reader will think, “WHAT? THAT’S what he’s been fussing about? What an idiot.”

    When a hero has been tormenting himself for 300 pages and it turns out that the cause was something trivial like his mother threw away his favorite tee shirt just because it was torn—well, it’s hard to maintain much sympathy for him. If it’s revealed early on, then he can grow up over the course of the book. Or at least come to realize that his reaction is way out of proportion.

  8. 8
    Kim says:

    I just read Putney’s No Where Near Respectable and the hero’s nightmarish past is built-up and then revealed later in the book.  I was definitely knocked over by it.  It was so extreme and so late in the book that it my horror overshadowed the HEA.  If I had known earlier, I would have had more time to get over his past and would have enjoyed the HEA more.

    I really wanted to like this book, since the heroine was half Indian and a duke’s daughter.  I had an issue with her too.  She has almost a super power by which she has perfect scent, kind of like perfect pitch.  It is referred to as her bloodhound nose.  Maybe this is too sensitive of me, but I just kept thinking it was a bit dehumanizing for a English/Indian heroine in a regency romance to have this kind of ability especially when we see so few half-Anglo or non-Anglo regency heroines.

  9. 9
    Chelsea S. says:

    I’m a sucker for the tortured hero thing. I agree that it’s best to know the score up front, though. It’s all about first impressions. If you start out the book with the hero acting all emo and being an asshat but don’t say why he’s like that, I probably won’t ever connect to him no matter what you say later on in the book. Same goes with heroines, actually. I want to know pretty early on what her deal is, and what kind of emotional drama I should expect from her.

  10. 10
    Asia M says:

    For me, the problem with revealing it all at the end isn’t so much the sadness it brings along, but the possibility that I might be “disappointed” with whatever reason the author picked. I sort of second Ms. Bookjunkie and Josie in that. The author has to create a momentum, some suspense, so your imagination runs wild trying to guess what the problem is… Until you realize it was… *that*. Oh. Really? Meh.

    There’s also the fact, you know, that when the hero’s problem is clear from the start, his “therapy”, by which I mean his evolution, can begin early and span the whole book, which makes it that much more realistic. In Madeline Hunter’s “The Sinner”, in which the heroine is actually the tortured one, not the hero, not only was I a little disappointed with the way her past trauma was revealed, but even more by the way it was dealt with afterwards. One, two little psychoanalytical conversations, tell me about your childhood, and done! She was healed and happy again. Just like that, in perhaps the last 50 pages of the book. It feels rushed more than sad. It actually even takes the sadness/emotion out of the equation by being unbelievable and obvious. (I don’t mind a little sadness. I consider romance authors who can make me cry to be really good.)

    From reading the other comments, I also think we should distinguish heroes who are jerks from those who are damaged. Some can be both, but I don’t think when we talk about his past explaining the hero’s behaviour, we necessarily think of him ill-treating the heroine. That’s not the case in “The Duke and I”, for instance (haven’t read “Lord of Scoundrels”). The hero will usually have trust issues, or complexes that make him touchy, or unwilling to get truly involved with the heroine. Which always seems hurtful to the heroine who loves him, but is still far from being an all-out a**hole.

  11. 11

    Interesting discussion. I don’t do either of the things mentioned here (when either my hero or heroine is tortured)—I agree that at the end is too little, too late, but I also feel like at the beginning doesn’t work for me as an author.

    Quinn does it well, Chase does it well, but I just can’t do that and give it any sort of emotional impact. I don’t know why. For me, it has always worked best to do the reveal at a point when the hero and heroine have built up enough trust that he can tell her. (Or she can tell him.) Otherwise, it feels too much like me the author telling the reader.

  12. 12
    Diana Peterfreund says:

    I like the slow reveal over the course of the book. My favorite is THE COMPANION by Susan Squires, where you slowly realize the extent to which the hero has been damaged by his torture and the way in which the love of the heroine redeems him.

  13. 13
    Cass says:

    Suzanne Enoch’s England’s Perfect Hero is my favourite tortured-hero story ever. And the whole hurt/comfort thing isn’t usually one that gets to me, but man alive, poor Robert Carroway just tugs at my heartstrings. I also like that his story is sort-of-known, sort-of-secret—everyone knows that something happened to him during the Napoleonic Wars when he was fighting on the Continent, but the full extent of how awful it was doesn’t get revealed until later.

  14. 14
    Sasha says:

    Yes, like you—and many others in the comments feed thus far—I prefer that what pain our hero suffered is revealed early on. We’ll witness the damage that the damage wreaks anyway, with the heroine’s feelings as usual collateral, so why not come clean about it from the get-go? Better if the author can refer to how that past reverberates, not only in the hero, but with his dealings with the people around him. Or how he loves, or does not want to. Otherwise, it’s nothing but an excuse for his behavior, even a cop-out.

    The mid-point [or nearly-over] reveal of Great Reasons for Asshattery is particularly problematic for authors who have no idea what to do with their heroines. What, does she go, “Ah, okay, I understand, I forgive you. I’m sorry for ever doubting you!”? Or, “Dude, I’m really sorry that happened to you, and I am angry as hell that you had to go through all that. But, you know, that isn’t an excuse. I have the hots for you, so can we talk about this and deal with this in whatever way we can, so you can stop acting like a slimy fuck who, because of this horror, clutches at my petticoats one moment then gives me the cut direct the next?”

    And, yes, since it kind of rankles when the HEA gasps beneath the weight of all the Heroic Hurt, why not choose the alternative: having the reconciliation [and the overcoming] of the Heroic Hurt make the HEA all the more deserved and celebration-worthy?

    Matthew, the hero of Anna Campbell’s Untouched, remains one of the best tortured heroes I’ve read in recent months. (Oh, Campbell, I’m crazy for your books.) This guy has undergone some serious torture, okay? He’s been deprived of his rightful title, has basically lived as a prisoner by his Evil Uncle, and what strength and resolve still left in him is periodically smashed down by torture sessions. As in, strap-him-down torture, with very sharp instruments.

    Although the tortured past seems to be the go-to background for shitty behavior (that, naturally, cover up longing and extreme marshmallow-sensitivities), Matt’s past—and, actually, the ongoing cruelty heaped upon him—doesn’t turn him into an Asshat. (SPOILER-ISH: Sure, he acts like one when we first meet him, but it’s a flimsy facade. He really is doing it to protect the heroine (for what will a jailer do to a prisoner who’s fascinated by a new trinket, to that trinket?). :END MINOR SPOILER) only serves to highlight what an amazing guy he is. He’s faced dragons, he’s faces them every day—and will continue to face them once our heroine comes into the picture. The heroine’s entrance in his life makes him more intent, actually, to win over them dragons. He has a reason to now.

    And the heroine isn’t some two-dimensional pansy, either. Because this hurt is shared with the heroine, together, they can do something about it. They move around the hurt, the prod it with sticks, but dammit, you know that when they reach their HEA, they’re going to be stronger then. They’ll know—and the reader does too—that they’re better persons, more whole now, because they shared the conquering of some evil so deeply entrenched.

    Okay. Wow. Verbal diarrhea. I obviously feel very very strongly about tortured heroes. [I’m stopping myself from launching into another long-winded comment about another Ongoing-Torture Hero, the Duke of Jervaulx from Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm.] I’m going back to my cave now.

  15. 15

    I’d say the earlier the better.  You don’t have to tell every last detail of the hero’s sick, sad life.  There can be some capping detail in that confession to the heroine.  But if the guy is so messed up, then some of the events that shaped him are going to turn up in his early POV scenes, referenced in his reactions to the heroine and the other characters.

    If his life was so damn awful, then he’s probably thinking of it while doing other things.  If not, then IMHO he’s over it, and shouldn’t be using it as an excuse to make everyone else miserable.

    And this is not a romance, but I want to recommend The Sword Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe.  Eddie LaCrosse is one of the best tortured heroes I’ve read in a long time.

  16. 16
    Kathleen O says:

    I think it depends on the story line where the tortured hero’s past should be reveled. But I think somewhere near the end of the book. I like a build up and I like to guess where the writer is going with the story. Keeps it more interesting that way. But sometimes it can be frustrating waiting for that “AH” moment where everything falls together…

  17. 17
    Kathleen Hart says:

    I was thinking about this exact subject as I was reading Laura Kinsale’s,  Shadow and the Star, in which they establish early on everything that has damaged the hero, and honestly I feel like a lot of his behavior would be otherwise unpardonable if they hadn’t made that clear from the beginning.  However, they also continue to reveal more throughout the story as the heroine begins to learn it, which I like as well.  I think there is only a certain amount of torture I can handle in my heroes anyway.  I always thought Julia Quinn could strike the exact right note with that particular issue.

  18. 18
    Leslie says:

    I agree with @Asia M about distinguishing between jerks and damaged heroes.
    I think Elizabeth Hoyt did a great job with damaged/tortured heroes in her Four Soldiers Series – four very different men coping in a variety of ways with physical injuries and varying manifestations of a broad range of PTSD symptoms. Readers know the men’s backgrounds, but the ways in which each man has dealt with the legacies of war are sometimes hidden from the heroine, sometime obvious. Because the backstory is clear, there is no info-dumping.

  19. 19
    JanLo says:

    I love the whole tortured-hero trope. I guess my not-so-hidden Florence Nightingale syndrome is to blame. Love to see the healing that takes place in the relationship and understand it with the inner thoughts of the changing hero. Love the battle of inner worthiness. Often it is the outward show of compassion by the heroine who may not know completely what is wrong with the hero, but her kindness melts the ice within him. Without knowing the trauma, it is more difficult to understand the healing and often seems like a plot device when thrown in at the end.

  20. 20
    JamiSings says:

    Frankly, revealed early or late I’m sick and tired of tortured heroes. I think the majority of my burn out is Sherilyn Kenyon’s books. If I read one more book where the hero was the one who was abused, raped, etc I’m going to scream. Heroines have those problems too. Yet they always seem to be the ones who had a great childhood. Heck, at this point I’d just be happy to read a heroine who’s major problem is her mom never lets her finish a sentence then the mom yells when the heroine interrupts the interruption. Just something different from “beaten abused hero fixed by the love of a woman who had a fairy tale perfect childhood.”

    I’m all for reading a hero who had a great or even a “meh” childhood – some bullying from peers, but loving if boring parents. Yet still goes on to do great things.

    And even if the hero or heroine were abused when young doesn’t mean they have to be jerks as adults. Over my adulthood I’ve known several women who were raped by their own fathers who are the most loving, caring people. And I known men who were brutally beaten by their parents who don’t have a jerk bone in their body and wouldn’t think about being a jerk.

    Maybe it’s because I’m so fond of paranormals that I keep getting the horrifically tortured hero. I just know I am totally and completely burnt out and it’s starting to ruin my enjoyment of other books, even non-romances. I don’t know if anyone else feels this way. I just know that’s how I feel.

  21. 21
    SonomaLass says:

    I think there’s a different quality to a love story when the reader doesn’t know about a character’s secret until he or she reveals it to the other main character. If I already know what’s going to be revealed, my emotional investment is different than if I’m experiencing revelation myself. I wouldn’t say it’s better, because a talented author can make almost any arc work for me. LoS and D&I are both wonderful, but Dahl’s Rake’s Guide was just as good, in my mind, as was Courtney Milan’s Trial by Desire.

    I liked how Grace Burrowes handled the heroine’s secret damage in The Soldier. I can’t describe it without spoiling it, but I thought it was a really interesting use of the tension between what the heroine has experienced, when/how that is revealed to the hero, and where the reader fits in.

    Really interesting post, SB Sarah! Food for thought; it makes me want to ruffle through favorites to make comparisons.

  22. 22

    I like the “Tortured Hero” trope when it’s believable that whatever’s affecting this guy will warp his perspective.  I enjoyed The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley because the 19th c. hero’s difficulty was real.  Having Asperger’s Syndrome and ending up in an insane asylum?  Very real torture.

    Too often the hero’s whining about his bad childhood and his mommy issues just make me want to slap him upside his head.

  23. 23
    kkw says:

    @JamiSings I’m totally with you.  I can still handle a tortured hero in other contexts, but paranormals have just gone overboard on it.  Or I’ve gone overboard on them.
    @Courtney Milan I think you may be selling yourself short, but what you say works for you as an author sure works for me as a fan.
    In general I prefer to know what’s going on earlier, but I’m adaptable.  And I’m pretty forgiving of bad behavior, even if it’s inadequately justified (as long as we’re talking strictly fictional). Case in point, I just read Love’s Tender Fury, which was a HaBO a while ago.  The hero, who is as promised a total schmuck at every turn plus unreasonably tortured by every little thing, still did not bother me at all.  It takes a full on Scoundrel’s Captive hero to squick me out, and as Red-Headed Girl pointed out in her review of that winner, it wasn’t even so much his horrible behavior as everyone else’s laughing encouragement of it. Maybe if there was some justification for his behavior (can’t imagine what it would be) or even acknowledgement that his behavior was unacceptable…you know what it is, I like a good grovel. Kincaid never had to grovel. Hawke groveled a couple of times, so even though there was shameful backsliding, it just meant repeated groveling.

  24. 24
    Diva says:

    I need the early-reveal on psychic torment otherwise I put the guy down as a real jerk and when his poor-me story pops up I boo loudly at the excuses.

    See, I loved Master of Blacktower by Barbara Michaels but I have to say that keeping his “secret” about the scar and the dead wife made him seem merely misanthropic and grouchy rather than truly as troubled as the situation made him. An earlier insight might have made him seem less of a hostile asshole.

  25. 25
    Kim says:

    @Darlene I just ordered The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie!

    I love heroes with disabilities. 

    Which makes me think…a couple days ago I was chatting with a co-worker at lunch about books and I said, “I’m a sucker for widows/ers.  If there is a dead spouse I get all excited.”

    Yeah.  That was when my boss walked-in.

  26. 26


    If there is a dead spouse I get all excited.

    Writers understand that.  We spend all day figuring out ways to put our characters through the wringer.  I love talking with MDs in my research groups about how to best maim people.[g]

  27. 27

    There is only one really tortured hero who has ever worked for me and that is Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond, who is tortured by experience, and then discovers a serious family secret that haunts him. The only reason he works for me as a tortured hero is because he is complex, his sense of torment arises out of a complex series of events and discoveries that amass as the books progress and the whole arc is carefully structured and the revelations and moments of realization for the reader are constantly counterpointed by other aspects of his character.

    Apart from DD’s work, I think Eva Ibbotson depicts men who are shaped by their lives and who have often experienced difficulties and setbacks that affect their ability to trust or believe in the evolving emotional attachment they feel for the heroines, but that do not render them anything less than gentlemanly. I think there lies the rub: for me the romantic hero has to be a real gentleman, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, all stiff-upper lip and insouciant, and too many of the Danes and Savages and so forth seem to me to be whining pantywaists even if they are riotous rakes.

    I personally loathe modern, recently identified conditions e.g. asperger’s, being deployed in historical settings because to me it feels gimmicky and as the mother of children with special needs, cheap and tacky, not to mention historically anachronistic.

  28. 28
    Sally says:

    I think either method can be effective – the ‘all upfront’ or the ‘slow reveal’ – the key thing is, as others have said, that the traumatised character doesn’t treat everyone around him/her like dirt. Some authors have their hero treat the heroine appallingly, not occasionally, but pretty much unrelentingly, but it’s all OK because ‘his ex was mean to him/ he had a terrible childhood’. Nope, won’t wash, however handsome, toned and good in bed he is, any sensible woman would dump him, so I end up thinking he’s a douche and she’s as wet as a haddock’s bathing suit and therefore have no sympathy with either of them.

    Like Sasha, I think Jervaulx in Laura Kinsale’s Flowers in the Storm is very well drawn – and also think Julia Quinn generally does a good line in believably tortured heroes. I also like Mary Balogh’s Sydnam Butler – he appears as a side character in a number of books, where we learn that he’s a terribly disfigured war hero, but he’s always described by the protagonists of those books. When he gets his own story in Simply Love we see how he sees things – he’s sympathetic, but not helpless, so I felt sorry for him and admired him at the same time. I like the story a lot, not least because the heroine has some demons of her own.

  29. 29
    cleo says:

    Both the hero and heroine are damaged in All Night Long by JAK.  She witnessed her parents’ death as a teen and he’s an ex-marine with issues (I don’t remember the specifics but his family’s worried about him).  They bond over both being diagnosed with PTSD, and solve the mystery of her parents’ death and help each other heal, but not in a cheesy, pat way.

  30. 30

    I don’t like the end-reveal, for many reasons listed above.  I like a middle reveal.  When I know at the beginning, it takes some of the mystery away.  I like to try and figure out his deal along with the heroine, who is the one I most often relate to, being an ovary-bearer myself.

    Sometimes I feel with dual POV books (as most romances are) that there is too little mystery because I know so much about both hero and heroine.  They wonder about each other, but I don’t.  He thinks about how much he wants to bone her, she wonders if he’s interested, but I already know.  I think that’s why I loved Seven Secrets of Seduction by Anne Mallory so much.  We didn’t get the hero POV until 100 pages in and at that point I was salivating for it and dying to get to the bottom (heh) of the hero.  And then she gave us only three pages of him!  Well, that was a sort-of tangent.  I guess the point was I do like trying to figure something out.

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