Use Minor Characters to Flesh Out Your Protaognist

Use Minor Characters to Flesh Out Your Protagonist

Use Minor Characters to Flesh Out Your ProtaognistPart 3 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel

Stop thinking of your minor characters as characters.

If that flies in the face of everything you’ve ever heard about your story’s supporting cast, then just hang with me for a minute as I first ask you this all-important question:

What is story?

On its surface, story is a mimicry of real life following the journey of one character in particular (the protagonist) as he interacts with a bunch of other characters–just like we interact with all kinds of random and not-so-random people in real life.

But if we dig straight down to the beating heart of story theory, we discover that story is actually more about positing and proving (or disproving) theme than it is anything else. This is true of any type of story, no matter how banal or high-brow, whether the author realizes it or not.

As such, you then have to look past the surface role of all the playing pieces on your story’s board. Your minor characters are no longer just characters; they’re no longer just representations of people (although, of course, you have to keep that aspect in play as well). So what are they?

Get ready–this is where it gets awesome.

Your minor characters are reflections of your protagonist.

Deep down, on the deepest of story levels, the minor characters are there to provide thematic representations of your protagonist’s various fates.

Is Iron Man II a Character Movie?

Welcome to Part 3 of our exploration of the Marvel cinematic universe’s highs and lows of storytelling. Today, we’re going to take a look at how Jon Favreau’s Iron Man II used its minor characters in this powerful way to reinforce the inner journey of protagonist Tony Stark.

In the wake of the blockbuster Iron Man and the flaccid Incredible Hulk, this highly anticipated sequel was received with lukewarm responses. At the time of its release, Marvel’s overarching vision of interwoven movies still wasn’t completely clear, and this movie definitely suffers as a standalone. In hindsight, however, I find it works better, and is, indeed, an integral piece in the overall storytelling–a sort of Avengers 0.5, setting up the true evolution of the series in the following movies.

Iron Man 2 Tony Stark Nick Fury Donuts

It’s also an excellent character study, as we get to see mightily flawed would-be hero Tony Stark struggling with the ramifications of everything that happened to him in the past six months–including being captured by terrorists, changing the focus of his multi-billion-dollar company, becoming Iron Man, and just generally trying to figure out what it really means to stop wasting his life.

Oh, yeah, and he’s also dying.

Iron Man 2 Tony Dying

In short, he’s having a bit of an existential crisis, all against the backdrop of pressure from the government and assault by rogue terrorist Ivan Vanko, who has a personal grudge against Tony and his father.

It’s a busy movie, and one of the chief complaints is that it didn’t develop its exterior conflict with Vanko well enough. Everybody blames Marvel’s insistence of shoehorning in Nick Fury, SHIELD, and Black Widow as setup for The Avengers. But the reality is that this movie is, in fact, a character movie. The external conflict isn’t the point.

The point is Tony’s relationship with the minor characters–and how they flesh out his personal, inner journey. Let’s take a look at how this movie uses its minor characters to create a unified theme–and how you can do the same in your books.

How to Use Your Minor Characters to Create a Rock-Solid Thematic Premise

Creating Character ArcsIf character arc and theme are all about the conflict between a posited Lie and Truth, then everything in the story will need to reflect upon that thematic premise in some way. Same goes for the minor characters.

The fabulous Matt Bird talks about:

…the concept of clones, characters in the hero’s life who represent possible outcomes, either as cautionary tales or as potential role models. I refer to such characters as parallel characters.

In Story, Robert McKee says it this way:
Story by Robert McKee

Consider this hypothetical protagonist: He’s amusing and optimistic, then morose and cynical; he’s compassionate, then cruel; fearless, then fearful. This four-dimensional role needs a cast around him to delineate his contradictions, characters toward whom he can act and react in different ways at different times and places. These supporting characters must round him out so that his complexity is both consistent and credible.

6 Ways Minor Characters Can Deepen Your Protagonist

Now consider how Iron Man II uses its minor characters. Every single one is carefully chosen to reflect upon the protagonist or represent a future fate he may experience–depending on the thematic choices he makes in the story.

  • Ivan Vanko/Whiplash

The antagonist is always the most obvious representation of the protagonist. It is his similarities to the protagonist that both tempt the protagonist and warn him away from the Lie.

Vanko is an obvious example. He and Tony are very similar. Both are genius inventors. Both are the sons of genius inventors–both of whom were involved in creating the ARC reactor. Both are tortured by their pasts with their fathers. Both are intent on “putting things right.” Tony could end up as Vanko in the blink of the eye (and, indeed, arguably does by the time Civil War rolls around).

Iron Man 2 Mickey Rourke Whiplash Ivan Vanko Monaco

  • Justin Hammer

Here’s another antagonist, mirroring still more aspects of Tony’s life. Hammer is also an inventor (although not quite so genius), and, like Tony, he is the head of a major arms manufacturing company (although not quite so successful). He’s a wise guy (although not quite so fly as Tony), he’s a jerk (although never lovable like Tony), and a selfish wheeler and dealer (just like Tony).

Hammer is a representation primarily of who Tony used to be: a weapons dealer who had no care whatsoever for the moral ramifications of his actions. All he cared about was being the top dog whatever the cost and however much of a jerk he had to be to get there.

Sam Rockwell Iron Man 2 Justin Hammer Dance

  • Natasha Romanov / Black Widow

Iron Man II introduces the perennially popular character of (sorta) repentant spy Natasha Romanov. She provides foreshadowing for the roles Tony will fill–as a reluctant member of SHIELD and the Avengers. Hers is primarily a surface reflection of outer roles, rather than a representation of the Lie/Truth.

Iron Man 2 Natasha Romanov Black Widow Happy Hogan Scarlet Johanssen Jon Favreau

  • Pepper Potts

Tony’s not-quite girlfriend, the ever-dependable Pepper Potts, reluctantly takes over Stark Industries, at Tony’s insistence–representing his status as head of the company and his erstwhile position as CEO. Note how by externalizing this particular role of Tony’s, the story is able to transform it into a much more active form of conflict. Now, Tony gets to argue with Pepper (representing the aspect of him that would be a “good” CEO), instead of simply internalizing information and making decisions.

Pepper is also, as Love Interest and a Mentor of sorts, a representation of the Truth. She is Tony’s complete opposite: thoughtful, responsible, dutiful, and kind. She represents the ideal the protagonist is capable of achieving if only he can come fully to grips with the Truth.

Iron Man 2 Hearing Tony Stark Pepper Potts Robert Down Jr Gwyneth Paltrow

  • James Rhodes / War Machine

Tony’s rightfully indignant best friend Rhodey is a two-sided reflection. On the one hand, like Pepper, he represents the ideal toward which Tony is striving: a man who is responsible enough to be entrusted with the War Machine suit–without using it for drunken party tricks.

On the other hand, Rhodey also represents Tony’s potential fate if he ever completely surrenders his tech to the government. Rhodey’s suit is slaved by Hammer and Vanko, turning him into a mindless weapon that threatens even his friends.

Iron Man 2 Robert Downey Jr War Machine James Rhodes Rhodey Don Cheadle

  • Howard Stark

And, finally, we have Tony’s dad, Howard, who appears in flashbacks. Tony’s relationship with his brilliant father is complicated and full of wounds–but it is also perhaps the most important projection of Tony’s future evolution.

He is more similar to his father than to any other character: they’re both brilliant, conflicted playboys with poor relational skills. In hating his father, Tony is essentially hating himself. He cannot come to inner peace without first harmonizing this outer manifestation of his inner conflict.

Iron Man 2 John Slattery Howard Stark

Consider the minor characters in your story. How are they already reflections or representations of your protagonist’s various traits, roles, and potential fates? How can you strengthen their thematic relationship to your protagonist to create an even deeper and more powerful weave within your story?

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about how the one thing the wobbly Thor undeniably aces is its Moment of Truth.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How are you using your minor characters to flesh out your protagonist? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This is an excellent survey of the roles minor characters play. I’m delighted that Marvel got it right by the time Iron Man 3 came out with the character of Harley Keener. Best use of a minor character in an Iron Man franchise movie ever.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, Harley was a total delight. Again, he was a reflection of Tony in a lot of ways, since Tony himself is still a child in so many ways.

  2. Kate Flournoy says:

    YES. I love minor characters. I love what I can do with them. I love the strength they can bring to the theme.
    This is also a good way to figure out whether or not you should cut a character or story-element— if they DON’T feed into the theme (or worse, distract from it) then they probably don’t belong in this story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re totally right. Writers often get hung up on using the “surface” elements of a story to make decisions (e.g., is this character interesting? if not, I’ll cut him), rather than digging down to the actually storyform, where all the story decisions have their true foundation (e.g., is this character advancing the thematic premise? if not, I’ll cut him).

  3. Michael Saltar says:

    Great post! I, too, have looked back on Iron Man II often, actually wishing the Avengers would return to the character development from that film. My favorite scene is the subtext in the banter between Tony and Pepper when he is about to promote her.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Or when he tells her he loves her at the drunken party scene. It’s so totally brush-offable as pointless drunk talk–and yet we all know he means it from the bottom of his heart.

  4. Good post buddy! Love it.

    I had an aha moment yesterday while finishing one of James scott bells short stories. Everything in the book reveals something about the character. The protagonist is acting and reacting in many ways. She’s acting and reacting to many different people in the story. Including the bad guys and minor characters. Some reveal and deepen her personality, while others reveal more of her problematic past that she has to constantly face.
    Some believe in her lie and calling, while others don’t reinforcing her fears. But she presses on with renewed vigor, especially after teaming up with a new minor character who supports her values and calling.

    In my own WIP I do have a few minors C’s that will represent the truth, even if he doesn’t realize it yet. They become allies but he won’t fully realize why until later.

    Minor C number two who also doubles as a mentor, represents who he will eventually become. He has his own desires and goals that directly contradict those of the protagonist, but yet he fully supports him. At least until the time is right.

    Minor C number three represents the inevitable conflict between various judicial systems to strengthen the theme. Who or what determines justice?

    Minor C number four also has his own goals that align with that of the other minor C’s but has his own way of making sure it gets done. Later this has a HUGE impact on the story, theme, and is a major catalyst in the book. He also represents a controversial group that clashes with its own judicial system and way of doing things. This dude is truly an impact character.

    I’ve got a few more guys that could assist in deepening the complexities and round out my MC.

    AWESOMENESS. Thanks again Kate!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is great, Benjamin! Sounds like you’ve got a firm foundation of conflict and theme amongst your supporting cast.

  5. I never thought of minor characters helping flesh out the main character, but that makes complete sense. Your posts are always so helpful.

    I also want to say I love this series. It’s a highlight of my Friday. Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks, Rachel! Glad you’re enjoying it. I’m having an unusually high amount of fun putting it together. 😉

  6. Love it! I know it’s been said before, but this may actually be the best post of all time.

    • Whoa! That’s saying alot. It is an awesome post. I started a post hall of fame on my blog to display my favorites. This very well could be inducted.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Well, we all know anything with Tony Stark in it gets automatic extra brownie points. 😉

      • I should watch those movies. I actually do not know Tony Stark, but he seems interesting based on your posts.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          He’s a fascinating and entirely entertaining character. He’s arguably the most flawed character in the entire Marvel cinematic universe, and I’d further argue that’s one of the reasons he’s also the most popular.

  7. Ah, the minor characters. Since my story is set in a fantasy world similar to our Greco-Roman era, the characters have slaves. The real Romans allowed their slaves to engage in business and keep part of the profits as their “peculium,” which was their income. The slaves could save that money to buy their freedom.

    My protagonist allows her slave to do the same, and she secretly matches the slave’s savings so that the girl has the equivalent of a generous severance check when the protagonist frees her. She does this even though she’s suffered a serious financial loss, because she had made a vow to herself that she’d reward the girl for serving her so faithfully.

    Her macro arc is flat, her treatment of her slave demonstrates her truth about the importance of honor and dealing well with everyone regardless of whether they’re her own, for various definitions of “own.” Several times she has to form alliances or convince others to ally with those who are outside their tribe / nation / empire / species. It’s the key to their survival.

    Her micro, personal arc has her in the grip of the Lie that she cannot be the leader her grandmother is. Her grandmother is a demonstration of the endpoint of her arc as a wise and inspiring leader. Grandmother is the one who first imbued her with the Truth of the macro arc, so the seeds are definitely there.

    I’ve been delaying edits on the second book because I’ve been vacillating with whether or not to cut a particular minor character. I’m going to take a fresh look in light of this post. Thanks for your help!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good job using the grandmother as both a Mentor figure and a representation of the possible positive outcome for the protagonist. Happy editing!

  8. Hannah Killian says:

    I love minor characters! Sometimes, I think they’re the best part of a movie. Like Grandmother Fa in Mulan. She is hands down one of the best movie characters ever created.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Like I think I said in the comments in the last post, minor characters often have more latitude to be awesome. They’re sketched more broadly, which means they’re generally *easier* to write well than is the protagonist.

  9. Garrett says:

    Nice! I enjoyed everything you had to say here. Don’t you find it interesting how our minds work? I think on a deep level, we all know these truths. We sense that other characters in a (well-drawn) story somehow bring to light some valuable knowledge or truth that the main character is striving to gain/achieve/get (even if he or she doesn’t know it).
    Because everyone is different (and we all know THAT), we see how each person or character brings something unique to the table as they dance around the main character on his journey. We deal with this in our own lives on a day to day basis. We have mini goals or things we are trying to achieve throughout our day and everyone we interact with either impedes that, or helps its cause.
    Now where I think story is amazing is we get to choose the very specific message we want to tell an audience by focusing on very particular pieces of point of view that argue a clear understanding of how to go about solving things. I think for me, it’s understanding how all those pieces (all those minor characters!) go together to create the overall theme that *clearly* displays the author’s intent. I think it’s also why writing great and compelling stories are so difficult, but well worth the investment. Anyway! That was kind of a vomit of thoughts there, but I just wanted to share my two cents on the subject. Thanks Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hear, hear! Totally agree with every word here. Even though we have conscious control over our stories and our themes, I do think they still “choose” us to some degree. Even when I think I have my theme, etc., all planned out, I’m inevitably surprised by the direction the story naturally takes itself–usually to its betterment.

      • Garrett says:

        Yes, too true. It’s weird what our subconscious and heart do when we’re not looking (‘ha ha’). Someone I highly respect in the story world and is involved on the front lines with Dramatica, wrote this a couple days ago: “Writers gravitate to that emotional irritant deep within them and use story to help work through solving their own personal problems.”

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I think that’s entirely true. I’m always a little awed by how my own life questions often end being the ones getting answered in the course of writing a story.

  10. I’m just starting work on my minor characters, so this is incredibly timely! I think I have my antagonist and sidekick mostly down, I just need to work on the smaller ones. I also need to figure out a mentor character – I feel like there should be one, but he or she just isn’t present in the story right now.

  11. I love this post! It put into beautiful, concise words (as always) something I had begun doing in WIP recently. I have a lot of supporting characters in my WIP, and thinking about why these ones specifically are given personalities and dialogue-time over others has been enlightening. It’s also strengthened the connection and conflict between my MC and everyone else. All things that were, to some degree, already in place, but becoming aware of these interplays and themes is half the battle. Then you can go back and strengthen those connections, motivations, and interactions.

    I hadn’t been taking a proactive approach to this yet, just recognizing, “Hey, this character is my MC after x event,” etc. After reading this, I’m eager to go through a checklist of my supporting cast and really define how each relates to my MC and what aspect of hers they represent or reflect.

    Thanks for the great insight!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A long time ago, someone asked me to do a post on “character chemistry.” I’ve been mulling it ever since without quite getting my head around how to break into down into an actual process. But, in reading your comment, I think I just realized that what we call “chemistry” happens when we have two characters on the page whose interaction is interesting because it is pertinent to the theme and illustrates the characters as different facets of it and the conflict. It’s “coherent conflict” so to speak.

  12. Max Woldhek says:

    This movie was a pretty good example of how easy it is to emotionally manipulate me. 😀

    That scene at the beginning with Vanko and his dying father was all it took for me to regard him as a fleshed-out villain.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A lot of people complained about Rourke in the role, but I loved him. I thought he did an *awesome* job of fleshing out the character with the limited amount of screentime and resources he had to work with. He remains one of my favorite villains in the Marvel cinematic universe.

  13. Great instructional K.M.

    I take a lot of care when constructing my cast and ensure that each of them have an important part to play in the story as well as a part to play in the journey of my protagonist/s.

    I often key it back to internal conflict/influences versus external conflict/influences when I’m mapping my characters and their relationship to the protagonist and it makes for a much more solid cast…and it helps me visualize my story better.

    I use Scrivener and it has great character sheets which I’ve tweaked a little to help me connect the dots between characters better.

    It used to be that I would insert characters into a story on the fly but, inevitably, I ran into trouble because they ended up having little purpose. And this was partly the fault of my early adherence to pantsing. I can safely say that I’ve jettisoned that awful habit.

    Thank you for all that you do.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is so smart. I look back on my own early stories, in which I was inserting characters on the fly, and I wince. Those characters were inevitably weak links that served the story poorly. You can always tell when an author has spent the time to really figure out how each minor character figures into the larger picture of the story.

  14. This may not make sense as it’s kind of an abstract thought… but will give it a try: reading through, thinking of the minor characters you described and their relationship to the main… and it seemed kind of artificial (well, never mind that it’s fiction) but it seemed to me that everything in story is perfectly structured. From hook to resolution, everything is laid out along a fixed line with the balance point in the center… and now there’s a similar pattern/line to plot the character’s along as well; antagonist at opposite end from protag with a lesser antag/adversary and lesser protag/allies placed opposite along the line at similar distances you’d find plot points and pinch points, everything kept in balance…

    But then, thinking about the different locations of plot points and pinch points and act breaks, I began to see it as a modern art mobile, balanced but offset, dynamic as opposed to static, because you never knew where the character was going in their sphere of influence… from one of static placement of characters to offset their counter-part to dynamic individuals that moved/pivoted depending on the external/internal forces placed on them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I actually like that a lot. A mobile is a structured device–but it’s also completely free-flowing and moving and evolving (in the sense that it never looks quite the same). That’s the art of the novel right there.

  15. I find the information in this post quite informative and timely. My protagonist is a police detective and a bit of a womanizer but one of the minor characters is a major suspect in the case and also a womanizer. He, however, is a full blown misogynist. I think I may need to rewrite the interrogation scene between them so that the minor character mirrors my protagonists faults but accentuates his good qualities. My hero may not be as popular and complicated as Tony Stark (Iron man) but I can make him a hero worthy character in his world of solving crimes and capturing criminals.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That sounds like a great contrast. I love it when protagonists have to face their uglier selves in uglier people.

  16. Great post. I had some similar thoughts while working on some characters last year. You clearly laid out what I was trying to nail down.

  17. Joe Long says:

    Again, very good.

    I thought I scored well on this. I basically have two families – the MC and his parents (along with a neighborhood friend and a college friend) and his girlfriend and her siblings and parents. All the other characters appear briefly, but these are in for most of the story. At least in the rewrite, I’ve been satisfied with their arcs and interactions with the MC.

    In the current chapter of the rewrite, about halfway through, the girlfriend’s brother gets a girlfriend of his own. He had been a player and now he’s trying to adjust to one steady relationship. After reading this article, it’s this girlfriend I’ve been thinking about. She, like the other supporting cast, has her unique ways of relating to the MC, but now I’m considering her back story – why she is the way she is. At this moment I’m working on when she meets the MC and what their conversation will be about.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      From what you’ve shared, I would agree that you’ve done a good job considering and fleshing out all of the minor characters as complex people in their own right.

      • Joe Long says:

        I was stuck on the current scene for awhile, but the light went on today. The only females in the MC’s life were his mom, aunt & girlfriend. All his conversations about sx and romance were with guys, and mostly the guys having their own unique opinions to share with the MC. Susie is someone who’s comfortable with casual hookups outside of emotional attachments, and now I can give the MC a chance to comment on her lifestyle. All these things in her arc just connected in my mind.

      • Joe Long says:

        I think I can explain this a little more concisely now –

        All of my minor characters had their unique point-of-views to offer the MC. After reading this post, and while working on introducing a new character, I realized that I can also have a dialogue, going both ways, so that the MC can comment on the minor character’s behavior. This gives the MC an extra opportunity to present his viewpoints.

        Without really trying to (comes naturally), I frequently, at the beginning, stretch characters or events into whole threads. What led to this (the foreshadowing) and what are the consequences. Then I weave that thread into the whole of the story.

        Earlier when Katie had a post on difficulties doing first-person POV’s, we discussed how to bring in events that happened out of the sight of the first person. In my third act I had an unseen event where this new Susie gets pregnant. The MC finds out, and it has repercussions on other characters, but not on him.

        Since I’ve now established at the beginning of her character that my MC can offer his opinions to Susie, I realized that months later when she gets pregnant Susie can call the MC for help, not just to notify (“I need someone to talk to.”) One, that draws the event into the open to be “shown” and two, it can then affect the MC’s arc, allowing how he reacts there to be contrasted with another scene later on.

        The key to these later scenes was allowing the MC to have a deeper relationship with the minor character, in which there’s advice offered back and forth.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I love opportunities for characters to just talk–not in a flat, conflict-less, or on-the-nose way, but one that really allows us to dig down deep and explore these people we’re writing about. I think that’s exactly the opportunity you’ve created for yourself here.

          • Joe Long says:

            Ultimately, the story is a vehicle for presenting different attitudes and points of view and them challenging them.

            You mentioned recently about have a flat-arc protagonist affect a secondary character’s arc. I saw how that can go both ways, all the major characters having their own arcs that are interacting.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Yes, exactly! That’s one of the really exciting things about character arcs, since they all weave into each other, creating this tight little puzzle of interlocking pieces.

  18. Kate, this was an enlightening post. Thank you for it.

    I wanted to ask a question on whom the minor characters should flesh out in a story where a flat arc Protagonist impacts a separate Main Character undergoing the change arc. In that scenario, should the Minor Characters still be reflections of the Protagonist, or do they instead shift and become reflections of the Main Character?

    Since the Protagonist already knows the Truth, it would seem that the Minors would be better suited to reflect the Main. But I was curious to your thoughts on handling such a scenario.

    Thanks so much.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good question. In a story that features a prominent main character (usually the narrator) *in addition to* the protagonist, the story usually belongs to the main character, even though the protagonist is driving the action. Although it can certainly be valuable to include reflections of the main character as well, I’d still put the focus on the protagonist. The main character’s life is being changed by the protagonist, so the more perspectives he has of this other person, the more complete his own journey can be.

  19. Thank you for this. I’m making notes for a sequel to something, and this article is helping me make sense of not only the continuing relationship between characters, but the story itself. Up until now, I only had a nugget, but I think I’m unearthing a vein! 😀

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  1. […] Characters propel our plot. Candace Williams warns against point of view confusion, Diana Hurwitz discusses choosing our antagonist, and K.M. Weiland explains how to use minor characters to flesh out your protagonist. […]

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