How well do you know your characters? Can you anticipate how a person would act in a variety of situations?
In art, if you're drawing a person, you have to understand how bone structure works to be able to draw the figure accurately, but you're not going to actually see the bones necessarily in the finished product. The same is true for character development.
The benefits of knowing each character well will help you to write and/or direct more confidently. Tune into this episode to learn some practical techniques that you can use today to create rich, relatable characters.
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Hi, welcome to the podcast today. we've, we're going to start by talking about creating character. And what that means. So Kent and I had a discussion as we were on a walk with the family today about. How do you develop a character? And that there are so many things that come into play with characters. There's their history. Their reactions to the things around them. Their occupations, their passions, their relationships. There's so many ways that you can develop a character. but we want to talk about. What that really is because in a way, all of those things are. Kind of external and character might be something deeper than that. Just like. In art, if you're drawing. person, you have to understand how bone structure works. To be able to draw the figure accurately, but you're not going to actually see the bones necessarily. In the finished product. And so there's something to that with character development as well that we want to get into. Yeah. so welcome to Huddleston pond. It's a little pond, a little ways from our house. And if you close your eyes, you'll join us on our conversation. As we wrangled children and walk around, Uh, cloudy day. And there are ducks and. A lot of. Bird poop on the on ground. And Anna and I are troubleshooting a script that Anna is currently writing and talking about character. And why do certain characters decide to do something? And how do you motivate them and what makes a character change? And these are sort of the things we were talking about. And so. We've had some thoughts about that. and like Anna talked about. This, this sort of. I don't know, a metaphorical way of. Of thinking about it. We talked about. There's all these ways that we can reveal character. But. What is character? You know, and so that's the, the bones, there's like this idea that there's bones underneath. Flesh, you know, But, but we never really see that like a movie's in capable of showing. That you know, for what it truly, truly is. but it can show all sorts of things to suggest to the audience. To give them an idea of what that is. And, and so I guess I'll start by asking. what Ana. Would you say his character? I was just going to ask you that. I beat you to it. You have ideas already. no. If you asked me, I would, my brain would immediately start searching for it, but I'm going to make you do the work first. I mean, I think character is. Largely determined by our reactions to the circumstances around us, how we choose to react internally with our thoughts. Feelings. And then eventually the actions that are manifest on screen. And so it's something that. It's not so black and white or simple as to say, oh, well, You know, in all of these types of situations, this character reacts. Angrily. And in these other situations, the characteristics. Happily. I think that it's, A very hard thing to put your finger on, but essentially it's, the patterns. In the ways that we respond to. The things around Hm. So there's patterns, Malik. That's an interesting idea. You know, it makes me think of Robert. a key. Who wrote a book called story. And I remember one thing that stuck with me from when I read that years ago, I was in high school actually. I grabbed a copy of it. Off of like a Barnes and noble bookshelf, He, he said that a lot of novice writers. Or not novice writers for that matter will, will be like trying to create more character in a character, you know? And he says that what they'll do is they'll say, oh, he was in prison and he's, dashingly handsome. But now he's out of prison and he's reformed his ways and he plays the saxophone and he, you know, and they just keep like throwing stuff. You know, information. on, on this person as if that's going to like somehow flesh out the character, you know, and he said, This is characterization, and we need to understand the delineation. Between character. And characterization. And so characterization or like attributes. Talents or skills or information about a character. And maybe I need to go back and reread story, but I don't remember him ever actually like clearly defining what character itself is. And I think most people. In like casual conversation, but say something similar to what you were alluding to Anna, which is. Character is like, What we do, you know, even Robert McKee actually, that's basically what he said is he said, we define character by showing what someone does in a high stress situation. And so he talks about why we have stories that put a lot of pressure on a character because what they choose to do when the pressure's really high. Reveals who they are. And, you know, that's, that's, that's reminds me of CS Lewis who said. Circumstances do not make the man. They reveal him to himself. Hmm. so there's a lot there. I think these are different people trying to express what his character, which is such an a theorial, it's almost a concept. Yeah. I like where you're going with that. Like, That in a high stress situation, how do you respond? But I also think character is. How do you respond when you're really happy? Like, how do you respond? In all sorts of situations. When you're getting to know someone when you're dating, for example, You want to see that person could argue that that's high stress. Well, sometimes. Do you want to see that person in a variety of circumstances? And I remember my mom telling me this, like, what is, you know, see what that person is like when they're angry, see what they're like when they're stressed, see what they're like when they're happy and kind of, or when they're with their family or with kids. Yeah, exactly. And that gives you. A well-rounded. View of that person's character. And so maybe. That could be useful and character development for me to say, how does this character. Act around these kinds of people or in these kinds of situations and just take. Some common ones, you know, like for sure. You want to know how they act when they're, when they're tired, when they're stressed, when they're angry, those are common. You know, and something that you were making me think of. What does that word? It starts with an L that's when you're falling in love with someone. Limerence limerence yeah, you were reading about how like limerence is the word that describes the. The state that we're in, when we're falling in love with someone. So. It's that state where we only see the good. And so even when you do put them in all those circumstances, it's like, of course we're going to be on our best behavior when we're like dating someone. And we're around kids. We're going to be like the sweetest. We can be around kids, or when we first meet their mom, we're going to try and make the best impression we can. And even if we don't do a great job of it, the other person's probably going to be like, you know, you just see past it. Anyway, I bring that up because I feel like there's sort of an anti limerence. I'm sure there's a word That audience's experience and films. When they're watching a movie and I feel like it's actually interesting because I feel like. We were talking about this earlier this week. And I'm where we feel like when we're honest, when we say, though, this is kind of realistic, what we think that maybe even this is what I would do in these circumstances when I would get frustrated with my kids I do this thing. We've, we've done this in a lot of scripts where we're like, well, but this is, this is a realistic. Behavior. And then people read it and they say, we hate this character. And we're like, that hurts my feelings because I feel like this is a really a reflection of myself and it feels very realistic. And I think most of us have. Lost our tempers horribly with, with our own And. Behaved in ways that we would feel so embarrassed about if we could see that. Played back for the same way we would feel is if we could see our childhood tantrums, you know, and then that's not a justification, but I do think that it's common in the sense that we're all trying. And yet. I'll show this to I'll show, you know, we'll show scripts to people. And what we realized was that even if we're being honest or realistic, Is it going to auntie limerence, you know, like it's like a high amount of judgment towards characters. We really want people who are going to be a little more heroic. But, I mean, maybe that's tangential, but like what makes someone root for a character? Because ironically, I remember on the page, when you read the script for, for example, toy story, the first one from 95. would he just, he reads like an all out jerk. and no one cares when they watch that movie, man, the beginning of that movie, he's sabotaging he's selfish, he's insecure. He's judgmental. He's, he's scared that buzz is going to take his spot as like the big cheese. And he's. You know, he's really. He's kind of awful and yet. He has some charisma and he is a good leader and Buzz's kind of a dope anyway. For rooting for him to get rid of this weird space toy. And yet. Like, he kind of deserves everything he gets. He, he, he does a lot of things. Pretty selfishly. And so. What is it that makes. Woody someone we root for. And what is it that make some characters? Maybe not as well written by people. Like, I don't know me. Hard to root for, even if they're quote unquote realistic. You know, and. And what does that have to say about this discussion we're having about the definition of character? And not just the definition, but the podcast I hope is, you know, leads to, how do we create character or how do we communicate character? Yeah. I mean, what comes to my mind is the simple definition of a story that it's someone who's trying to do something and having a hard time. But what is it trying to. Who wants something badly and is having a hard time getting it. Like I said it wrong and then mess it Just keep trying. It's hard, but you'll get it. and I think that that basic premise is so relatable. To me, everyone knows what it's like to want something badly and have a hard time getting And so I think that characters where it's very clear that they have an objective. They really want to win over the girl or they really want. You know, too. Figure out their career. I don't know, whatever. They really want something and. And I think if we can lock into that, that helps me relate to characters. I think that it's hard to relate to them when they feel passive and they feel like they're just kind of. Reacting. Hmm. Well, that's true. And you know, if a character isn't. Wanting and taking action toward something. It's true that we sort of. How can we root for them? What are we rooting for? Yeah. And, and so, and it's, I. I mean, I pushed back on myself. Right? I'm talking about this from the place of like audience engagement, you know, to help them. Participate in the story. But ultimately like, It's not like the objective has to be that we root for the protagonist. I am leaving space open for that because I don't, that's not the ends. That's usually a means. It's a means for engaging in. Helping encourage audience participation, but it's true. how are they going to. Care. About a character. If the character doesn't care about anything, you know, Someone might be able to answer that, you know, maybe if I give it enough thought I could think of an exception, but. but for the most part, it's a question that I think leads us to a decently. universal conclusion in the writing world, which is It's hard. You it's easier to. Push a character, not push a character, Right. A character that wants something deeply and. And usually that requires some vulnerability on the part of the writer. I think we usually have to think about like, It doesn't have to be personal. Like what. Do I want, but. And that often works well, you know? Coming from a place of, of desire. But I think that the character also needs to have an arc. Right. So they have to change somehow in the end. It really doesn't matter if they get what they want or not. As long as they become who they need to be. And so we need to get a sense of. Where they're falling short. How they overcome that or change? And I think that makes for characters that are. I don't know that feel good. Feel good. You know, for some reason what's coming to my mind and mean, and you can plug in whatever movie you want. You can do this all day, right? But for some reason, I think a beautiful example of this is the protagonist in the films, the sound of metal. He's such an. Exquisite. Example of a characters wants. Which are desperately intense. Versus a character. Which are significant, right. And so he's experiencing these wants. A lot. Basically, he loses his hearing and he's a drummer and, his world is gone. It's like falling apart. And it feels like his whole world is ripped away from him, which is a standard first act in traditional Western three-act structure. Screenwriting. Storytelling for that matter. and so now it's, it's evident that when his girlfriend. Leaves him to be in this. Home for the deaf where he's basically going to go through. some sort of a rehabilitation of, of some kind. Because you don't learn. ASL and form relationships and whatever. His whole mission is to get his hearing back. So that he can get his life back. That's it. That is the bottom line. And the only way he can see to do that is like scrape enough money together to. Get this operation, which is really expensive to restore some sense of hearing. So that he doesn't have to. Communicate with people through ASL. And the end of that movie kind of. I don't Without spoiling. And I really want to encourage people to watch that film. It's really wonderful. But there's, there's this sort of like total loss and there's a sense of, his needing What he wants is his hearing back. He wants his old life back, but what he needs is to basically look forward to a new life and find some sense of peace. Like let go of this yearning desire. And. Embrace the silence, literal silence in this case. And, It's actually a significantly spiritual film in my opinion, by the end. That character feels well To me. And he's, he's pretty simple. You imagine a musician. Who loses his hearing and how. You know, Earth shattering. That is, and this is often the case, right? We think about. What's the worst possible thing that could happen to this character. Do that to them, you know? we talk about that. I feel like a lot in screenwriting, right? It's not, I, it's not like I'm the first person to say this. but why is that? Because that will plunge them into a fit of wanting something badly. You know, it's like, that will put them in a situation of deep strain and desire and it's gonna. Review that's going to cause their character to kind of spill out. Through all these. Reactions and actions and words and deeds and, and the paths they choose to take. And. All the changes that ensue in their life are going to kind of reveal that, not just to themselves as CS Lewis said, but to the audience. Well in a way that's true for everyone. I think we all have to change through a series of rebirths, you know, where you have to let go of who you were to become someone new. And so that entails a loss of some sort or a sacrifice or. A letting go. In order to become something new. And so. It makes sense that that would be a catalyst. Hm. For change. That's really thoughtful. I wonder about, How Christ talks about needing to become like a little child and why children have such an ability to let go of things and forgive people. And. Change and adapt right there. So malleable and fluid. And I think part of that is because they don't have much to hold on to. First of all, they're not in much. They don't have much power right. Over their own lives. Adults, mostly direct their lives for them. And second of all, they don't have much history, so they haven't, they haven't built up like hardened preferences and. You know, a list of pretty big decisions for the most For most children, life is. It's just constantly fluid. And so like that act of letting go of something and moving forward and making it personal change. And. Kind of going with the flow and even growing. It's very natural to a child. Well, and I also think that what that refers to cause there's also scriptures about, when I was a child. I did things as a child and now I've put away childish things, right? Like, He's not telling us to be childish. Right. And I think that being like a child, the thing that most defines someone who is childlike is their dependence. Dependence on an adult figure to provide for them and to guide And I think. For me, it's, it's more relational. Being like a child. Is relying on Christ. And realizing that we depend on him, which sometimes comes from. Trying to do things ourselves, failing miserably. Being humbled to the dust and recognizing We can't do it without him. And. And so we enter that childlike state of dependence. In our relationship to him. So, what does that have to do with character? I'm not, I'm not getting, I'm not getting I'm not getting after you. I think, well, I don't, I, it's not a tangent. I think it's all relevant. I ask it because I think that there might be some Realizations, you know, that could come from pulling these things together because for example, in. That that's not just our own personal religious worldview. But I think that understanding how human beings actually work and what is the nature. Of human beings. Is a good way to, you know, the more knowledge we gain about that, the more we can accurately. Build. And interpret and anticipate actions of characters. It makes us better writers, you know, I think what you're getting at is, I think some people might have the worldview it's opposite. They might believe no. We need to take control of our lives. We need to. And there might be some validity to that, right? It's this balance between, Sort of grace and agency, right? This ability and, and responsibility to act and make decisions versus this trusting. That no matter what happens, we'll be okay. Kind of a thing, you know, it's like Just difficult almost at odds. something that we've listened to, a guy named Jared Halverson, talk about polarities, right? Yeah. Haydel's dialectical thinking kind of stuff. Yeah. And I think at the core of all of this is sort of a question about. How do we change? Is it that we are dependent and we can only change. Through Christ or is it that we take hold of our life and. And decide to make positive change, or is it a combination of who is it up to? Yeah. Yeah. Ultimately. Does that. I mean, well, the reason I think what you're asking is so important. I mean, and you can toss it up and go, okay, these are difficult philosophical or religious questions. But what do they have to do with screenwriting? The reason I think it's actually important to screenwriting. Is because I think that those are probably the two big worldviews on how do we change? Does it depend on something outside of ourselves or something inside of ourselves? If outside, what is it? And if inside, what is it? And, The answer to that question has a lot to do with the way we write characters and the way we write stories. And. the way we tell stories and the way actors act. Characters and stories, right. And the way directors. Make choices about. When to do another take and which take to choose in the edit like that, worldview will affect the way you make movies. And, and so I think those are valid and important questions to ask ourselves and to ponder on because it allows us to more thoughtfully decide. Which take to use. You know, Or whatever character work, what to say to an actor, what to ride on the page? Yeah. All these things. And so. Right now something I think you and I have talked a lot about is that like the capacity to change and to, even use our agency to change. is given to us by the grace of God and yet. The decisions we make. Our. A result of our own wills. Like we must choose. To follow a path and, and so. That's the religious side of it, but from like a S a writing side of it, that means I'm going to, you know, I believe that characters on the one hand are not necessarily a product of their circumstances. And yet circumstances. Have the by-product of character, you know, especially high intensity circumstances that draw character out of people, you know? I don't know if I phrased that in a way. I made much sense. Oh, they reveal the character, I suppose, but I guess. In my mind, I'm kind of thinking of it right now is almost as simple algorithm or like a amaze, you know, that. We're presented with decisions and we Choices. And often I think when I've seen characters and movies change, you see them make the same sort of choice over and over again and fail, fail, fail. And then they have to have some enlightenment at some point, some sort of a realization or a breakthrough. That causes them to make a different choice. And. then even often that seems like it fails, but ultimately it doesn't. And so there's sort of this, like, yeah, you're taking action. You're making decisions, but we rely on Revelation or that, That inspiration to know how to make a better choice or what to do instead. And maybe it's through additional information. Like they get a little bit more. A bigger view of the puzzle and they finally go, oh, okay. I'm going to change the way I approach this and going back to sound of metal. I think it's interesting because he, he fights and fights and fights to, to reunite with his girlfriend and to reclaim his old life. And then he does reunite with that girlfriend and can immediately see by her behavior that. Them separating, allowed her to experience some growth that she really needed. And then coming back together, he realized was going to cause her to revert back to the same. Problems that she had been struggling with. And that revelation, that contrast the experience that he had had through act two of the Essentially. Gave him the perspective in that moment to be able to see like, We serve each other. The relationship service to get us to a certain point in our lives. And now. It's best that I let her go. And walk away from this and he couldn't see that in act one. And he wasn't with her and her two and an X three. He finally is in a position with the necessary experience and perspective to be able to see that. And that's when you realize this character has grown, like he never would've walked away from her. That was like world ending for him and act one. That was, it seemed like it was going to destroy him, at least in his mind. And now that he's with her again, he's, he's grown enough. I learned enough, you know, seen enough that he, like you said, It makes a different decision in the S in a similar circumstance. Yeah, and they do that very beautifully. And. I'm not sure if you had thoughts or, or examples that were in your own mind, but I went back to the same one to illustrate the point. I think there's tons of examples in my own life and in movies. I mean, we just watched Lala land, so that's fresh on my mind. I know. I don't get tired of that one. And that's another example where she's trying the same thing over and over again. Auditioning, auditioning. Trying to make it as an actress, going to events like parties, networking. And it's failing every time. It's not actually leading her to the success she wants. And then, Sebastian Ryan Gosling's character comes into her life and he's sort of the. The catalyst for a different approach saying like, well, why don't you write something as interesting as you And she, he provides. As our advice to everyone listening to this podcast, but we'll get to that later. For sure. He provides for her to be able to quit her job and right. one act play and do this play. And it feels like even that has completely failed and the relationship fails and no one shows up to her play and she can't pay back the theater and she's all sad. But ultimately there was someone there who saw it and cast her in something vague. And that was. A big break for her, but it's sort of this, like, She was just going to keep trying the same thing. Forever. If it hadn't been for Ryan Gosling's character stepping in. And. Making some change there. And that was sort of like why their relationship was meaningful, even though they didn't end up together. She helped her to see what she needed to do. To achieve what she was trying to achieve. And so sometimes I think. God works through other people. Sometimes he inspires us directly. And sometimes it takes us some time to actually like, Apply. What, what keeps coming to us that we need to to believe that it will actually work. Enough to do it. And, you know, Let's just, I'm just gonna throw this out here. If you're listening and you're thinking, well, what if I don't have the same, like religious perspectives as you, I don't think it matters in the terms of the craft of screenwriting, that you share our perspectives. I mean, it matters in. Whatever end goal you have for what you're communicating with those films, but those goals might be different, you know? They're always gonna be different for different people. We're all different human beings. But, But I guess my point is, is that I really believe that it's not a date of six. Maquina kind of a situation whether God's completely in control or not. I think that life itself. was designed and set up in a way. And I think we kind of have to believe this whether we're religious or not, if we're screenwriters that the nature of this world. Will always drive us to a point. Where, what we hold dear is at stake and we have to make decisions in the midst of those stakes. Like it is just the way of life. It's why great stories work. The way they do. And that's why I think those principles. Our universal. Yeah. And it's been the same since. You know, Sir gallon and the green Knight and Hansel and Gretel. And. Something Star wars and whatever, you know, Plug it in, but like people, you know, life is about. This journey that we're all on, where we're having to make these choices. And. And at the end of many choices. We learned something. I mean, an example of a very small character arc is a. Exquisite film like Manchester by the sea. I mean, it's not like he's like. Totally healed and made this huge arc by the end of And yet you yearn for him and he's dealing with a big, difficult circumstance, and he's trying to figure something and by the end, like his Teeny tiny. I mean, It's not like, you know, he pulls the sword out of the stone or anything. And yet the experience of watching that film still sucks you in, you know? Yeah. It's that whole, something will always force us to face. Ourselves our own weaknesses, our own. Fears. And. And even though we may try to run or hide from those, they keep appearing in different places until eventually. We have to face that we have to. Confront them in some sort of different way, because there is no escaping. Yeah. I've really enjoyed this conversation so far with you, and I'm not sure. If you want to keep pushing it farther. And see where we go. The, some things to recap, I guess what we've learned so We talk about what his character. Let's let's it presents, presents similar circumstances that we began with in the first act of this podcast. And present them at the end of the podcast by asking, how would you define character? Well, did I ever ask you. I mean, I think I talked to that point, but ask me. Well, how would you define character? I defined it. Well, I quoted Robert McKee is defining it as what someone does in high stress circumstance. All. And I would say. Y. I would ask, why do they do. That. Why do they make that choice in the high stress circumstance? And the answer to that, why I think is closer to what actually defines character. We define character for the audience by showing them what that character does in the high-stress circumstance, but that's not necessarily what character is. What it is, is the reason why they make that choice. And the reason why they make those choices might be. circumstantial, which you can show the audience like, oh, well it's clear that he did that because. His mortgage depended on it, or who's the life of so-and-so was on the line or whatever. But, But that, just reveals, I think. Their beliefs. So if anything, I would define character as I won't say thoughts, I guess. The word beliefs means thoughts that we believe are true. And so it has to be more than just an idea that the character has. It's the actual beliefs that the character holds, you know, and I think that defines And. Before I forget. I'd like to tie that into what something you actually set on our conversation for the podcast. Which you mentioned will Smith who had an acting. seminar lecture. And masterclass. Yeah, he, he talked about how character is a construct and how he realized this because he cheating And he found himself. Becoming in real life, that person. And he said, that's kind of, it was kind of scary for him. And, and he realized at that moment, Character and movies as a construct, but in real life, it's a construct. It's something we decide to create. And so. It's interesting. And I won't go deep into the acting part of it, but just this idea that like, In reality and in screenwriting, in the art of creating characters. The beliefs we have when we understand that that is what we, what is driving our decisions. We can. We can analyze and reconstruct those beliefs. That can be hard work sometimes. And sometimes life forces us to reconsider our beliefs for better and for worse. But those beliefs that we. Choose. And sometimes. Maybe you don't realize we chose, you know, maybe we don't realize some of the beliefs that we have developed. You know, especially the ones we've developed from childhood. But whatever those beliefs are, they exist. And, those are what are driving. Our choices and they beliefs are specially manifest in high stress circumstances or high stakes circumstances. Yeah. I love that. And I think that that does apply, especially in filmmaking, just because filmmaking is a simplification of real life. It's a microcosm of, you know, a whole person and. And so it could almost be as simple as. One particular thing that the character believes. Or one particular aspect of their character. M one trait. That. And in real life, that's how we change is one. Thing at a time, you know, little, little changes at a time to little aspects of our character. It's not usually an, an overhaul of all of our attributes at once. We kind of Realizations. Slowly we grow into them and change them. but. It makes me think that if I were to write a character and try to develop them, I might focus on one particular aspect. an example that came to mind was. The secret life of Walter Mitty. And how does he react in a high stress situation? He imagined something. Like magical and adventurous. He imagines himself the way he wishes he was or the way he wishes he could be in that situation and actually zones out. It's like a protective, Way of escaping what is his reality and trying to run from his reality, which he eventually. Can no longer do. Yeah. He starts to like his arc. Is sort of catalyzed by a decision to embrace the situation as it is. And. And confront. Reality. Which I think is really interesting. I think about it makes me think about, The beginning when he's trying to reach out to a woman. On a dating website when he actually has like, like, And in the flesh sort of like relationship with this person at work, which, they've never actually spoken to each other, but he's, he's hoping that this was a better way somehow to connect with this person. And. ultimately he realizes that the best way to connect with that person is like, And in the actual literal word world. and so. Once again, that's, that's an example of displaying arc. but those decisions, what are his beliefs? What are, I mean, you don't spell them out in the screenplay, right? And that would kind of ruin the art. Right. But my point is that it just focuses in on that one aspect of his personality. And we get some of the other aspects as we see it play out. But they're not They're not the fulcrum of the story. Which everything there is a simplification of. One aspect of his personality. And maybe that's the delineation between character and characterization. Character The beliefs or the. You know, the beliefs that manifest themselves in the attribute that. Defines the arc of the story. Yeah. Whereas characterization is all the other thoughts and details about this character that are. Periphery. Per referral. To that, That story. But they still, they still help us flesh out the character. It's important to kind of explore those things, but. the most important part of that is that, that fulcrum, that core belief, which, which leads to that core. Change or arc. Perhaps this podcast is a simplification of the craft of, character writing, but I think it's a, it's been. A helpful reminder to me, the discussion of the key principles that help us to, Think about and approach and write and create characters. And if we can't do that, then we can't really tell stories in my opinion. Yeah. I've enjoyed it. I feel like I. Have some takeaways. I want to go. Work on. And this story now, and thank you so much for listening with us. If you have thoughts, we'd love to hear them. We love hearing from our listeners. Feel free to send us an email or reach out if there are podcasts. Ideas topics that you want us to cover or comments that you have based on what we've shared. We love that kind of interaction with you guys. So thanks for listening. Thanks. We'll see ya. Bye.