- direct reveals of a character’s personality/characteristics/appearance
- specific character’s feelings on what love means
- specific character’s emotions towards other characters
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver is about two married couples sitting down at a table together, casually drinking gin and tonic as they talk about a generalized topic that they took for granted: love. The first couple we’re given lots of information about are two people named Mel and Teresa who’ve been married for more than four years; the second is a couple who haven’t been together quite as long named Nick (the narrator) and Laura. They get into different scenarios about what love is, their past love relationships (i.e. Terri and Ed and Mel and his ex-wife), showing us that Terri was abused by her ex-lover Ed and that once she finally left, he had two unsuccessful suicide attempts until he eventually died. The story even goes into how Mel witnessed a first-hand car accident that helped him think about what love truly means to him and how it can be shown through an old couple. The mood of the story takes a lax turn as the atmosphere changes to more a drunken bliss when Mel says he wants to talk to his kids. It is also revealed that he and Terri have a bad relationship with their kid, Marjorie, and is struggling to love her because of her poor relationship choices. Once again, the atmosphere quickly takes this mood away and we end on an ambiguous vibe as we see the characters reflecting on their conversation.
The first technique I looked for in this story had to be how each character thought about love. This story does an excellent job of revealing several deep thought out moments that are casually said by the characters, only making it more emotional for the reader. For example, the reader can tell Mel has thought long and hard about what it means to be in love and how it feels. This only became more the real to me when he said,
“I mean, it was killing the old fart just because he couldn’t look at the fucking woman.”
Even if it is a vulgar line (and even that’s the just the gin and tonic talking) you can still get that this accident deeply affected him more than it usually would’ve affected him when one of his patients got into a car wreck.
But this story doesn’t just demonstrate this through what a character’s saying, it also shows us through the character’s actions. Since this story is in first person, we can only get so much insight from all the characters. And all in all, we don’t even get that many mental thoughts from the narrator that reflect everyone else’s thoughts; we get scenery and setting through him which fills in any gaps. I looked closely to see what other character’s reactions were when Mel said something about love, or how they responded.
She was using her finger to rub at something on the table. Then she stopped rubbing.
This line may not mean much to people, but if we go back and read the section before it, you can tell Terri was thinking about why people would need pills and why she wanted her husband whom she loved to take them. This is a whole other story inside itself! If we could see what all the characters were thinking at once, it’d almost be like a train wreck. The fact that we can see what all the character’s opinions are like through subtle hints and actions and mostly direct speaking adds to the story.
The second technique I looked for was different character’s emotions towards other characters. This was shown mainly through responses to one’s comment. Mainly, this was shown through Terri responding to Mel.
Some could be questioned upon the base of their relationship,
“Please, Mel,” Terri said. “Don’t always be so serious, sweetie. Can’t you take a joke?”
Some could be seen as playful,
“Folks, this is an advertisement for the National Safety Council,” Terri said. “This is your spokesman, Dr. Melvin R. McGinnis, talking.” Terri laughed.
And others could be looked closely at,
“Sure, sometimes he may have acted crazy. Okay. But he loved me. In his own way maybe, but he loved me. There was love there, Mel. Don’t say there wasn’t.”
You can tell that the reason why these characters respond to each other this way is because they’ve known each other for so long. A prime example of this is when Mel, drunkenly, outbursts that he’d fall in love with Laura if it wasn’t for his relationship ties with his best friend Nick and his wife Terri who the reader know he’s in love with. These reactions and responses to comments that impact the story help the reader get to know the characters better and gives them a flesh and bone feel.
The third technique I tracked in the story was direct characterization and how the author captured all four characters in such a distinct way. He would give out features straight out, like their hair color or how they looked, and even sometimes what they looked. He demonstrated this when he was first introducing the characters to the readers eyes: every time we’d meet a character, we’d get a brief description.
Laura is a legal secretary. We’d met in a professional capacity. Before we knew it, it was a courtship. She’s thirty-five, three years younger than I am. In addition to being in love, we like each other and enjoy one another’s company. She’s easy to be with.
This gives us a nice image of what Laura did in the past, so we’re not completely drawn at a blank when trying to figure out what kind of person she is. If he didn’t tell us directly, he would tell us through little peak ins of stories or conversations that didn’t completely revolve around talking about the character’s features.
“How long have you been together now? How long has it been? A year? Longer than a year?”
“Going on a year and a half,” Laura said, flushed and smiling.
This tell us how long the narrator/Nick and Laura have been together simply by a conversation slip-in of mock disgust presented by Terri. It was nicely done, and it can be seen in several other parts of the story like when Terri is talking about Marjorie or when Nick holds up Laura’s hand to kiss it.