Last week I ran across a guy on YouTube who had a great talent. He could impersonate a lot of great actors. His Al Pacino was off, but his Heath Ledger version of the Joker was bang on. His reel went on and on, and they were often astounding. As great as his talent was, there was something missing. I soon realized that it wasn’t the impression. It was the material. He was giving out the movie lines, just as they were handed down from the movies. There was impersonation. There was technique, but no transcendence or fresh invention. There was nothing of him in the characters he imitated.
Art has pretty much all been done. Sometimes artists go to absurd lengths to be different, like putting a crucifix in a jar of urine, for instance. Different isn’t the point. Mixing old elements into something fresh is how new art is created. So, what if this guy, who is an amazing voice talent, changed things up. Do that great Heath Ledger doing Joker impression, but now he’s a psychopath slinging fries at your local Wendy’s drive through. Suppose Christopher Walken explained his take on particle physics to you. Great impressionists are often not dead on, but take a well-known character somewhere new: look up Kevin Pollack’s impersonations of William Shatner on YouTube. Try the Hollywood Babble On podcast with Kevin Smith and Ralph Garmin. Ralph does Pacino, but it’s not Pacino. Pacino’s a great actor. Ralph’s version is a hilarious take on Pacino if her were a crazy ham who only spouted nursery rhymes.
Mixing things up is what writers must do, too. I once read a manuscript sample where the writer had imitated too much. She thought familiar was a safe bet for gaining publication. However, it was all too familiar to anyone who had seen a commercial for any of the Twilight movies. Too predictable. This went beyond homage and just short of plagiarism.
“Make your vampire a nerd,” I said. “Give him a weird hobby or fascination or at least a geeky name and a parent or sire who embarrasses him on prom night. Take the material somewhere new.” It’s not just about twists (though you should strive for the logical surprise.) It’s about a new take on old material. I’m sick of publishing professionals who should know better saying the vampire is finally dead. They’ve said that too many times for too many years to be listened to anymore. It’s probably all the scripts that ape old material that squeezes editors and agents into making those silly pronouncements. If you love vampires, write vampires. But do something different. (Not a Stephanie Meyer fan, but I must admit, she went a different way with vampires sparkling in sunlight instead of bursting into flames.)
We are writers. We do not work on an assembly line. We do not imitate. We innovate.