Sure Thing asked
How do you manage to place your characters in difficulties/conflicts that are still emotionally readable? . . . You still create vulnerability in your characters but nothing that makes me feel they are too flawed . . . . How is it that they hurt, or do hurtful stuff (Cal) and I still want to keep reading?
Here’s my theory on that, without comparing myself to anybody else because I can’t speak for anybody else’s process.
It starts and ends with character. Any realistic character has strengths and flaws, and those strengths and flaws are often mirror images.
Since you brought up Cal, he’s a good, loyal friend, empathetic and concerned about others. Because of that he’s also sensitive about things that might hurt them and (the part that’s hidden but the reader knows is there) himself. So while you admire Cal for his charm and the way he listens to Min and tries to understand her, it’s not out of character when he blows up at the end because he thinks she was playing him. (It is, however, a Big Misunderstanding, and I’m not proud of that at all.)
Or take Bill in Crazy For You. He’s a great teacher and a great coach, sure of himself and in control of his classroom and his team, a terrific role model. But the flip side of that is that he can’t lose control and he can’t see anyone else’s world view, so what works on the football field (play hard, play fair) becomes dangerous in the complications of adult life. When he starts to lose it, it’s not a character violation, it’s a logical extension of who he is, just pushed to its limits. Doesn’t mean you forgive him, but it does mean, I hope, that you understand how he got there.
I think one mistake authors make (no author in particular, just in general) is saying, “Yes but he had this lousy thing happen in the past [see prologue] and that explains why he’s like that now.” First, it doesn’t explain anything. People can come out of the same traumatic experience and take vastly different paths. Second, what happened then isn’t important, it’s what the character is doing now that establishes our attachment to him. A dog bit him when he was twelve, so he kicks puppies now. Lots of people have been bitten and do not kick puppies, and beyond that, we’re watching him kick puppies now. We don’t like him.
So understanding why a character does something is half of solution but only if because it’s part of his personality (“he’s cautious about relationships” not “he was abused as a child”) and we see it in dimension (“and that makes him a careful judge of character and especially protective of children”).
The other half is that the character makes amends. Bill can’t apologize because he still thinks he’s right, so he’s going to jail. When people explain to Cal what he’s done, he apologizes without reservation and then goes beyond that; he grows, he changes, he commits. He’s forgiven. That puppy kicker better start his own no-kill shelter and take down a dog-fighting ring if we’re going to forgive him.
If you create a character with strengths and flaws and demonstrate them on the page so that the character becomes three-dimensional, her screw-ups become forgivable because she’s human and everybody screws up, but only if she sets things to right. If she creates pain and chaos, then she has a responsibility to clean up the mess. If she does that, we can maintain our attachment to her because we’ve been there, too.
One other aspect is important in establishing sympathy for a character: vulnerability. If he’s a master of the universe, then even if he hurts someone and apologizes sincerely and politely, we’re not going to be engaged because he’s invulnerable. The apologies that are the most devastating are the ones that cost the character real pain to make because they make him or her vulnerable, not just admitting that he made a mistake, but making it clear on the page that the admission is painful, that it hurts him that he’s hurt others, that it matters to him beyond social courtesy. Establishing your characters vulnerabilities through small things throughout the story can make their transgressions more understandable and their apologies more acceptable, and therefore maintain our sympathy with them.