I have a character in my novel, De-Shi, who's the mentor and love interest of the protagonist, Li-Mei (nicknamed Hanging Pup). He listens to her feelings, gives her advice, jokes with her, shares philosophical thoughts with her. Anyway, here's a taste of their dialogue:

Chapter 8

De-Shi sighed. "How does your boyfriend stand going on vacation with you?"

"I don't have a boyfriend," I said. "And I don't go on vacations."

"That explains your good temper ..."

"No one forced you to bring me along."

"Did you know that anger is the direct product of fear?" De-Shi said. "Animals developed this response to get rid or stay away from possible treats. Same for humans. Imagine what'd happen if we didn't feel rage toward a killer."

Chapter 10

“You okay, Hanging Pup?” De-Shi’s voice came muffled from behind the sheet.

“Yeah, I ... think so,” I answered.

“I know how you feel. It was the same for me the first time.”

I sat up and turned towards him. “Really?”

A short silence. I imagined De-Shi nodding his head in the dark. “You feel as if something has crept inside you. Something dark and murky, like crude oil. It travels gradually, silently, polluting every cell, every nerve, every organ in your body. You can feel it. You can feel it eating you inside. And the worst part is, you’re the only one who’s aware of this. Yes, you can explain it to people, but just skin-deep. They can’t help you. So you have no choice but to fight alone. Fight this darkness alone.”

But some readers say that they felt a "lack of connection" with De-Shi (which also affected their interest between Li-Mei's and De-Shi's romance).

Here I quote one of the readers (he just read Chapter 10):

I don't know anything about him other than he started this club. I assume since he was in that class where Li-Mei asked her question he is a veterinarian science major or something like that. But regardless, I never felt the chemistry between them.

They have a similar interest, but it seems when De-Shi is talking, it's more like reading from an encyclopedia then a person sharing something. We need to flush out his personality. Why does he know what he knows? What is his major?...

Have him tell a story that will endear him to the reader...

This is something that I did intentionally. I wanted De-Shi to be funny, scientific, philosophical. And make him talk about his past only in the last chapters. (Guess I wanted to do that to make him a bit mysterious.)

So my question is, how can I make this character who doesn't speak about himself relatable?

EDIT (based on ShastriH's answer):

The other characters do talk about De-Shi:

"Don't worry, kiddo. I'm a tomb." She patted my arm. "I suggest you take the initiative, though. The guy might be an animal expert, but when it comes to human courtship, he's totally clueless."

This doesn't happen too much, though.

  • if you want to make Li-Mei's and De-Shi's more relatable, you could consider giving them occidentalized names. most readers in the english language relate more easily to christian based names. No flames please, i am neither western, nor christian, nor an english native speaker. Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 16:19
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    @Reed I disagree; I don't think you have to have names of a particular culture, language, or religion to have relatable characters. There's a thread going on right now asking how to make non-human characters relatable, so "non-white non-christian non-english" should be a non-concern. Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 20:47
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    I don't think the issue is that he does not talk about himself. He just sounds and acts like a stereotypical mentor, neutral and professional. There is no sign in the short samples he is personally or emotionally invested in those discussions, that he personally cares about the person he talks to or the issues he talks about. Add some and the issue should go away. You don't need to explain how he is invested or give the background, just show some emotion, some fractures on that serenity. Make him sound like a person living in the moment, not a book written with deliberation. Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 4:19
  • As @VilleNiemi says, I add that rounded characters are imperfect, they get angry, or selfish, they make mistakes. That is not to say they cannot be perfect at something. I can write about the best card cheat on the planet, who also cannot help cheating on the wife he actually loves. Who may be a coward. Nobody is perfect except a robot, and it is hard to feel love for a machine. Flaws let us distinguish our fellow humans from the machines. Or cardboard characters that are relentlessly right.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Oct 7, 2017 at 15:18

4 Answers 4


I agree with what some of the others are saying. The hardest part of writing (for many people) is making side characters who are just as interesting, round, and believable as the main character. Readers aren't as likely to be in the side character's head, so they aren't privy to the constant inner monologue that must be happening there as much as in anyone else's.

In this case, I think the best way to remedy the situation is through the age old adage "Show, don't tell." De-Shi's actions should speak for him, as well as the things other characters say about him, the way they react to him/his presence/mentions of him, and the things Li-Mei thinks and feels.

As Chris said above, you might want to write something from De-Shi's perspective to get a feel for what's going on in his head. It can be really eye opening. Does he have any habits -- smoking, nervous ticks like hand gestures, does he wear something specific that might seem odd to others (even something small and hidden, like a necklace or a pin). What does he do for fun/to relax and unwind? Where does he like to go? These are things you may already know. If so, find other things you don't already know about him and write about those. Or anything else that will help you understand your character better. And of course, this is just for you, so don't worry about including it in your main story. No one will judge what you've written, and you can rewrite and explore to your heart's desire. You may even discover new facets to his personality that you never noticed before (this happens to me all the time!).

Once you understand De-Shi better, it will start to bleed over into your writing and the readers will also start to understand him better. He'll feel like a real person to them and to you. Flat characters tend to trigger unease in readers because they subconsciously know something isn't quite right, but not being able to put their fingers on it puts them off. Filling in his character for you and the readers should remedy this a bit. Your readers obviously want to know more about him or they wouldn't have brought it up. :)

As a side note, your writing overall flows really well! Good luck on your novel!


If you're insistent upon keeping his past and emotions a secret early on, one option might be to have the environment around De-Shi fill that void. Let the people around him give the reader clues as to his other side or true nature (depending on whether De-Shi always was like he is). This is of course assuming either exists, and if not there is little that can be done to relate a robot to anyone.

As the reader you quoted said, De-Shi comes off a little too stiff, even from just those two passages you provided. More details, maybe not even personal, might help. Sure, there are some people out there who really are as limited emotionally and fixated upon facts, but they tend to not have romantic relationships, at least not one solid enough for a book. Therefore, I'm going to assume there's much more to this character, and this side is what you have to hint at in the way his friends/family/acquaintances behave around him, what they say about him, what he does when no one is looking, the little things Li-Mei notices when he lets his guard down etc.

You might be able to take advantage of facial expressions, various cues or just a break every now and then from the thesis quoting. Of course, I don't think I know enough to say whether any of that is appropriate, so just take the suggestions under consideration.

  • Oh, did that. Can you check my EDIT? The other characters do talk about him. But not too much. (By the way, thanks for the advice. I'll give it a thought.)
    – wyc
    Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 16:09
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    Since there isn't much for Li-Mei to get from other character's, maybe because De-Shi is the same with her as everyone else, then another option might be to have Li-Mei make him seem a little more normal by reflecting on what she sees or think she sees when it comes to De-Shi. Another might be to add some (maybe) unintentional poignant thoughts come from De-Shi where he retains his nature but also lets Li-Mei (and the reader) in on what's important to him.
    – ShastriH
    Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 16:24

I think you're misreading your feedback. The problem isn't De-Shi not talking about himself, it's that he doesn't come off as a fully realized character, but rather as a plot device. He's just there to serve a function in Li-Mei's story.

You might try spending some time writing De-Shi's own story from his perspective --not to go in the finished book, but just for your own purposes. Once you know more about him and his motivations, you may be able to write him more believably, even if he's still mysterious and not inclined to talk about himself.


The problem I see with De Shi is that he doesn't have a "background" in the story on which to base his responses. Or for others to base their reactions toward him. You don't need a lot of background for him, but it has to be more than zero.

The best idea would be to have him disclose a small window into his past. The second best would be to have another character "narrate his past.

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