“You look familiar,” she says as she shakes my hand. Her brown eyes peer at me expectantly over the rim of her glasses. “Have we met before?”
“I don’t think so,” I say, and we sit down opposite each other at the rustic wooden table. She’s the hostess of a wine tasting dinner my friend invited me to, in a neighborhood I’ve never been to, with people I’ve never met—or have I?
The following ten minutes I spend racking my brain for where I could’ve met this woman. I watch her slender hand swirl the wine in its glass. Watch her curly hair bounce as she turns her head. Maybe we have met. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention when we did. Sometimes I do that. Maybe I just have a bad memory.
This is not the first time someone has said, “You look familiar.”
It started in high school when my classmate, Andres, turned to me in math class and said, “You look like my friend, Jennifer. I’m going to call you Jennifer.” And he did—for the rest of the year.
It instilled in me a mixture of embarrassment and annoyance, until it got weirder. Many people after that, into my adult life, mistook me for a Jennifer. Even people who already knew my name.
Someone once told me I looked like Anne Hathaway. Someone else, like Rosamund Pike. I do this to people too—I walk the streets and mutter to my friends:
“That’s Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom mixed together.”
“There’s Norwegian Brad Pitt.”
“Don’t you think she looks like our cousin?”
I’ve been pondering this concept of familiarity for a long time. Do I have a twin sister named Jennifer who my parents never told me about? Could I have multiple doppelgängers trotting the globe, grown in the lab from my stolen DNA? Do people look at my general features and compartmentalize them under “brown-haired, brown-eyed girls with small foreheads and big smiles?”
Lately, I’ve been thinking that maybe the why of it isn’t as important and the what of it: we seek out the familiar because we are comfortable with the familiar. We resonate with it. We relate to it.
We do it on the street corner. We do it at work. We do it while traveling. And we do it when we read a book.
The familiar, the relatable, it’s what draws us.
When characters feel like old friends, when we can taste a meal, smell a setting, hear a song.
The story could be set on Mars—The Martian’s main character, Mark Watney, is stuck on a hostile planet with no one to interact with but himself. Yet, his sense of humor remains intact and brings him “down to earth,” so to speak: “Turns out the ‘L’ in ‘LCD’ stands for ‘Liquid.’ I guess it either froze or boiled off. Maybe I’ll post a consumer review. Brought product to surface of Mars. It stopped working. 0/10” (pg. 150).
The story could be set in a country we’ve never been to before—in The God of Small Things, set in India, Arundhati Roy transcends her homeland, using similes to exemplify the human condition: “Both she and he knew that there are things that can be forgotten. And things that cannot—that sit on dusty shelves like stuffed birds with baleful, sideways-staring eyes” (pg. 122-123).
Your story could be set in your childhood home—but, inevitably, your nostalgia, your memories, they’ll feel familiar to your readers too.
So the next time you spot someone you think you might know, ask yourself, “What is it about them that makes me think that?” and you may have the beginnings of a new character.
The next time you walk into a restaurant and feel a sense of deja vu, ask yourself, “What is it about this place that makes me think I’ve been here?” and you may notice some nuanced details that will enhance your set description.
And the next time someone tells you that you look familiar, recognize that they’re giving you the highest compliment—that you comfort them (And maybe try to figure out what about yourself brings that familiarity.).
Soon enough, you’ll have your readers seeing themselves in your work, turning the page, and coming back for more of the familiar.
Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1900352/