Might the hive mind of fanfiction predict the plot of the seventh Harry Potter?
We’ll know in 2 days. At least four books (see below) aggregate the predictions for the final episode in the Potter series. Anticipating the course of beloved stories has a long tradtion. Novels were the new media of the eighteenth century. Readers loved the innovation they offered: complex characters depicted so vividly that they seemed to live beyond the story’s pages. These full-bodied characters could be carried along serial episodes, or even lifted into other dramas and other media. This persistent life made reading novels hugely popular but it also tempted readers to transport these characters into their own stories. As soon as novels appeared, fans began writing their own alternative endings. Sequels to two of the first novels ever published, Robinson Crusoe, and Don Quixote, were issued by their authors primarily to preempt fan-written versions. Today we call that fan fiction. The universe of this derived work is very large; more than 10 million fanfic stories have been penned so far. Any popular fiction series you can name, from Jane Austen to Star Wars, will have thousands of extended stories written by avid fans.
Every new medium since the novel has engendered further fan fiction, and nothing has done more to boost the involvement of the audience with fictional characters than the internet. In two days the largest book phenomenon of the year, perhaps of the decade, culminates as millions of people dive into the seventh and final Harry Potter book. Preceding them is a small army of intense Harry Potter enthusiasts on the internet who have already laid out in great detail their predictions of exactly what will happen in book seven. For years they have been scrutinizing the dark corners and subtexts of the first six books with a diligence that any professor of literature would be proud of, and have rendered their analysis as speculative story plots.
While fan fiction is as old as the novel itself, prediction is new. Extremely long-form narratives, like the Harry Potter series, allow fans and critics to perceive narrative trajectories in real-time, and propose endings in advance of the author’s ending, instead of after the fact. Some of the most watched TV shows of all time have been occasions for audiences to guess the ending of a long running drama. And I don’t mean just the last episode of the Sopranos. In 1967, after five years of fans predicting the fate of the on-the-run hero in the Fugitive, its closing broadcast broke audience records. When JR was shot in the TV series Dallas just before the summer break, the mystery of who shot him was delayed by a writer’s strike until late fall, giving fans plenty of time to generate millions of guesses about who did him in before the final show revealed the killer. It seemed as if the entire country tuned in to the see if their predictions were right; that show topped the finale of the Fugitive as the most watched TV show ever.
Predictions must have a deep base to draw from. As literary works grow in length, authors can invest them with new levels of complexity. The TV serial drama Lost will be, when it is complete, a very long 120-hour movie. This huge canvas permits multiple story lines, large numbers of lead characters, and intricacies of plot that are simply unreachable in a 2-hour movie. The deeper the story, the more the fans can “own” it themselves. This generation of fans grab onto stories faster than previous audiences because they possess a new narrative literacy. It is powered by a million YouTube experiments, another million critics on blogs immersed in the vocabulary of story telling, and even by the mandatory “making of” movie squeezed onto the DVD of every film made these days. You tell a story and then you dissect the innards of the story just told.
When a great deep story like Lost announces its ending date two years in advance, this gives plenty of time for fans to assemble their own ending scenarios, especially those that try to remain true to the story and predict how it will actually end. And that is exactly what is happening now on fan forums like Lostpedia.com, where fanatically close readings of each episode are plundered for clues suggesting the final endings.
What was once a marginal activity has been converted into a cultural force by the collective intelligence of the web. The search function on the web allows fans of the most obscure passion to find each other. Second, tools like databases, timelines, wikis, slo-motion replay, easy text comparison, source footnoting encourage dedicated amateurs to work together to generate novel ideas. Most importantly, the internet enables fans to share their results widely and rapidly. All of these factors raise the quality of their contributions; higher quality recruits mainstream or even professional enthusiasts. Soon it’s a mass movement.
There’s probably no better example of this virtuous circle than the scores of very active community web sites where fans of the first six Harry Potter books delve into the slightest supposed clues in hopes of unraveling the seventh book even before it is printed. The world of Harry Potter is ideal for predictive narratives. Rowling’s imagination has spun a rich, deep, consistent world hiding several foundational mysteries, which she has promised to resolve in the last book. And she gave plenty of advance notice of when it would end so that the predictors had enough time to not only post their speculations, but publish them in book form. I located four books in print which gathered evidence from online fan fiction sites and Harry Potter forums in order to boldly predict the main events of the last story.
With the help of my daughter, who took a course at her university on Harry Potter, I’ve compiled a table of predictions extracted from the four published book of what will happen in the final episode, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The table addresses the common questions most people who have followed the series want to know: does Harry prevail? Why was he special?
A lesser writer than J.K. Rowling would not offer enough authentic, consistent details to stand on in order to extrapolate an ending. The fans are counting on her deep integrity in their bid to parallel her creation. On the other hand, maybe Ms. Rowling will pull a Sopranos, and fool everyone. We’ll know in two days if the web’s hive mind can read her mind.