The Harry Potter franchise came to its inevitable conclusion this weekend. Or, at least, formally it did so. There is long precedent for artists to return to the worlds they created, penning stories about minor characters, or little-desired sequels, and, in fact, Potter author J.K. Rowling already introduced a site with the tantalizing name Pottermore. At this moment, the website seems to be an experiment in interactive reading based around the existing Harry Potter books, but, in a sense, Rowling has already revised her novels. After all, in 2007, she declared that Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of the Hogwarts school, was gay, a simple declaration that had the effect of rewriting a major character in her novels.
In fact, it doesn’t much matter if Rowling ever returns to the world she created. We are in a time in which creators are, instead, accidental collaborators of a sort with their fans. Particularly in the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, the original artist establishes the parameters of a world and its defining characters, and then the fans go about endlessly filling in the details with their own fictions. We can expect millions of words to be written by fans that continue the story of Potter and his world, and this isn’t so terribly new. Horror author H.P Lovecraft encouraged his writing friends to create stories that made use of the supernatural mythos he invented, and, as a result, a large percentage of contemporary horror fiction still inhabits his world. Both “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” actively encouraged this sort of storytelling, going so far as to publish the best (or, at least, most marketable) of it. And now fans have started going ahead and making their own movies, some of which are of unexpectedly high quality and sometimes even make use of the actors from the original, replaying the role they originated.
I fully expect a complete breakdown of the divide between creator and fan in the future. It’s part of my theory that the future belongs to the vernacular. Firstly, I expect that new art will be created using the language and idioms of fan fiction, because popular culture always borrows from mass culture to give it a sense of authenticity. Fans will be invited, to a very large extent, into the writing process — in a lot of ways, this has already started happening, with showrunners for popular science fiction shows haunting discussion boards created by fans of their shows, using it for instant feedback and tips. But I expect this relationship will be formalized; so too will fantasy and science fiction franchises formalize — and monetize — fan fiction. The act of creating fan art is already a social one, and has been since nearly the start, with writers of the stuff sharing it using mimeograph machines to collect their work into zines and share it via the mail. With the development of the web, this exploded, and you can find fan fiction sites everywhere online, often dedicated to specific shows and novels, or even specific genres of fan fiction.
But this has generally existed in a sort of shadow world. The original creators are aware of it, and some tolerate it, and some fight against it, afraid it is diluting their brand. Some quietly encourage it, secure in the sense that when you have fans who start writing their own stories set in your world, you have really dedicated fans. But as the breakdown between creator and fan accelerates, I expect creators to start their own fan fiction sites, with a genuine social component, and offer profit sharing to fans who create the most popular or compelling new stories. Television shows will mine these sites for content, borrowing characters, or storylines, or dialogue from their fans for the actual shows, sometimes rewarding their fans handsomely, sometimes just giving them the satisfaction of knowing they helped create the world they adore. Science fiction conventions in the future will less be a meeting of creators and fans, and more a meeting of collaborators. As I have mentioned, there is a degree to which this is already true; I expect it shall just become more and more so.
Hell, while I’m making predictions along this line, why don’t I continue. Right now, actors from popular science fiction and fantasy shows tend to show up to conventions to hawk their wares, selling books they have authored and autographed glossy photographs. I expect that in the near future they will set up digital video cameras and green screens, and, for a certain fee, fans can actually appear in short scenes with actors. Further, I expect some enterprising fan will conceive of a way to stitch these scenes together into a facsimile of a narrative, and will be able to create a feature-length film starring themselves and a breathtaking collection of celebrity cameos.
I expect there will be popular science fiction or fantasy shows on television that are completely fan generated, with the show’s staff functioning primarily as editors. The quality of the show will be entirely dependent on its creator’s ability to sift through tens of thousands of submitted ideas, snippets of dialogue, fan-created costume designs and computer animation, and story suggestions to create something that feels like an organic whole, but, if there is one thing that computers, and the web in general, are good at, it’s this sort of churning through information.
We’re now in a time in which crowd scenes are often entirely computer generated. It will be a common trick in the near future to have fans send in photos of themselves and add their faces to these background extras. Fans can expect not just to watch their favorite shows, but, every so often, so see themselves in it.
Right now, there is a market for fan art, but it’s sort of under-the-radar, in part because it makes use of trademarked characters without going about getting any sort of license. Savvy studios will waive licensing fees in return for taking a very small percent of any profit the fan art makes, in the manner of Etsy or eBay, and will actually set up sites for creators to showcase and sell their art. So, for instance, if you’ve ever wanted to set aside a room in your house for nothing but oil paintings of Spock, you’ll be able to do so with ease in this future of fan-slash-studio online capitalism.
Of course, this is just one option. It is, I think, the smartest one, and has a sort of inevitability about it, but there is another route studios and corporations can go. They could sue their biggest fans, trying to clamp down on the copyrights and trademarks they own and protect their brand. They could see their fans as stealing profits, or stealing characters, or stealing attention. They could become intensely disturbed by some of the more marginal aspects of fan storytelling, particularly on the fringes of slash storytelling, which concocts sexual fantasies about beloved characters. They could see the web as a mechanism for controlling copyright and licensing, rather than a tool for encouraging collaboration.
Some, I expect, will. Some already are. I also expect this will be self-correcting, as fans abandon the shows that treat them as criminals in favor of the shows that treat them as participants. The future belongs to the fans, and why not? It was ever thus. Every successful creator started off as some sort of a fan, and I think a case can be made that all fiction is, to a larger or smaller extent, fan fiction. Nobody is sui generis; nobody creates without inspiration or influence. And the future stands to make this fact official and immediate.
This past weekend is not necessarily the end of Harry Potter, if Rowling allows it. It’s just the end of one tale in a universe where thousands of people are telling millions of new stories. It’s going to happen anyway, and the smart artist will encourage and celebrate it, rather than fight it.