Social media has given fans the ultimate platform to express their love, hate, and tin-foil theories for their favorite shows, games, books, and films. As the classic internet forum slowly dies out, platforms like Reddit have become thriving, fan-driven communities. Viewers frantically tweet their observations in real-time while watching TV series, and even petition websites like Change have given some fans the ability to campaign the networks that control their beloved shows.
With fans’ voices louder and more accessible than ever, are the creators of these narratives listening? While I’d like to think that my tweets inquiring if Riz Ahmed is single will eventually find him, many fans are attempting to use their online presence—no matter how small—to influence creators. And surprisingly, it’s actually working.
Think your internet rants are falling on deaf ears? Think again. Check out these classic examples of creators who took their fans so seriously that they used their ideas:
1. Saved From Narrative Death
Spike may be one of Buffy The Vampire Slayer‘s most beloved characters, but his part on the show was never meant to be permanent. There’s no denying he’s a little more, well, attractive than his other vampire counterparts. His longevity wasn’t quite consistent with the usual fate of the show’s antagonists—but nevertheless, Spike lived.
Actor James Marsters, who played Spike, said in an interview with 411 Mania that Buffy writer Joss Whedon didn’t actually want his fans to like Spike’s character at all.
Unfortunately for him, they did. In fact, they loved him. Spike stayed for an extra five episodes, and then another five episodes. Before Whedon knew it, Spike was in it for the long-haul.
2. Incorporating Fan Jokes
The seventh season of Game of Thrones didn’t just deliver on some epic theories and dragon action. It also addressed a long-held question among its fans: Where the heck is Gendry?
Gendry, the bastard son of Robert Baratheon, was last seen rowing to freedom way back in season 3. His long absence had fans joking that he was “still rowing” this whole time. Even Joe Dempsie, who plays Gendry, got in on the joke.
Surprisingly, this very line was used after Gendry finally returned in season 7. Needless to say, when Davos remarked that he “thought you might still be rowing,” the internet exploded. Did Game of Thrones just reference a Reddit joke?
Dan Selcke, editor of Game of Thrones fan website Winter Is Coming, says that while it was fan service, it was brief.
“It was an obvious reference to the meme, but it’s also not a completely ridiculous thing for Davos to say in that moment, given what Gendry was doing the last time Davos saw him,” he says. “It was fan service, but it was very quick. I thought it was pretty harmless—the hardcore fans would recognize and maybe enjoy it, and the casual fans wouldn’t give it a second thought.”
While Selcke admits Game of Thrones doesn’t like to get “self-referential too often,” it’s not the first time we saw a reference to a running joke among fans this season.
When Jon Snow asks Davos in the fourth episode, “How many men do we have … ? Ten thousand? Less?” Davos quickly corrects his grammar: “Fewer.” Selcke—and countless other fans—picked that one up pretty fast, too. It was a nod to a grammar lesson in scene between Stannis Baratheon and Davos from earlier in the series.
“But again, it’s a fan service moment that works in the context of the story, because Davos was there when Stannis made the correction,” he says. “I have no problem with these kinds of moments unless they obfuscate the story, and so far, they haven’t.”
3. Evolving Terminology
One of the hardest parts of writing a great story is coming up with the names—especially when your fans decide to give that character a way better name than you could ever come up with.
This is a feeling that director Neill Blomkamp knows all too well. Earlier this year, he released a series of sci-fi short films through his new project, Oats Studios. One of the movies, Zygote, features a grotesque, many-limbed creature that Blomkamp calls “the Zygote creature.”
As truly horrifying as its collection of dismembered appendages is, Oats Studios fans had a better name for him: Jazz Hands.
Luckily, Blomkamp loved it. He even admitted that the Oats Studios team now refers to him by his new stage name.
4. Fan Service by Design
In 2013, SyFy show Defiance released a video game that was heavily tied into the show’s narrative. The idea was that gamers could feel see the effects of the missions they played as the show evolved each week. It allowed players to get more of an insight into the show’s backstory. This kind of cross-media immersion was the first of its kind.
Trion Worlds, the game’s developer, ran competitions to allow players to actually be featured in the television show. The first one, the “Most Wanted” competition, allowed gamers the chance to see their faces displayed on wanted posters in certain episodes.
The show’s producers took things one step further with a second competition: They were going to turn one player’s character into an actual character in the show.
True to their word, the winning character—Alethea, if you remember her—was eventually written into the show. Played by actor America Olivo, she featured in three episodes during season 2.
5. Two Words: Harry Potter
Is there any creator more engaged with their fans than J. K. Rowling? The author regularly reveals new character details on Twitter (despite the fact that the final Harry Potter book was released in 2007). Gay Dumbledore, anyone?
But in one of the last Harry Potter books, Rowling included a reference to a particularly notorious fan theory.
Fans had long speculated over the unlikely death of a certain character (spoiler alert: it was Dumbledore). They were finding it a little difficult to believe that he was really gone and were speculating over how he could have survived. In a world of magic, anything is possible, right?
Apparently not everything. Rowling went so far as to reference some of her fans’ theories on how Dumbledore had actually survived through Ron’s dialogue in the final book. Unfortunately, Ron was about as far from the truth as those fans were. Dumbledore was gone, and no amount of magic was going to change that.
6. Listening to What Matters
Period drama Outlander is a fantastic show, but it can be painful to watch. Not only is it quite gory, but it contains some incredibly uncomfortable scenes of assault—specifically with main character, Jamie Fraser.
Book readers knew that it would be difficult to watch Jamie’s assault depicted on screen. But some fans were concerned that one important detail would be changed: his recovery.
Hundreds of fans reached out to Diana Gabaldon, author of the original Outlander novels. They explained that her depiction not of Jamie’s assault, but his recovery, had been cathartic for them to read. Many of them were survivors of assault themselves.
Gabaldon was so moved that she convinced the show’s writer, Ronald D. Moore, to include Jamie’s recovery in the show. It was her way of paying respect to her fans who had been so affected by her novel.
7. Immortalizing Memes
Even people who’ve never played World of Warcraft have probably seen the video of Leeroy Jenkins, the enthusiastic player who defied his party’s intricate raiding plan to charge straight into battle alone.
Blizzard Entertainment loved it so much that they wrote him into the game, creating both an achievement and a non-player character in World of Warcraft in his honor.
Some creators, though, make a deliberate effort to steer away from fan theories. Most notable for this, perhaps, are the creators of Rick and Morty.
The Rick and Morty fan base is obsessed with theorizing, and it’s not hard to see why. The show is loaded with zany science that hold infinite possibilities, from time travel to alternate dimensions.
But according to writer and producer Mike McMahan, posting theories online is a surefire way to make sure they’re never used in the show.
McMahan took to Twitter to vent his frustration at the endless stream of fan theories:
Apparently, it’s “no fun” once a fan has already guessed what’s going to happen in the plot.
With the seemingly endless theories that fans come up with, the creators might be a little hard-pressed to come up with narrative details that haven’t already been guessed by viewers.
Writers Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon admit that it’s an impossible task. In fact, in an interview with AV Club, they confessed that a fan guessed one of their secret plot lines way back in the first season. Ironically, they’d already decided to never actually reveal that detail to fans.
Are these examples of fan service good or bad?
As usual, it really depends. It’s hard to tell what Buffy would have been like if Spike had been killed off, but it was an ultimately positive decision to keep him on. At the other end of the spectrum, it would have been pretty absurd to see Dumbledore come back from the dead. Good judgment call on that one, Rowling.
In the case of Outlander, listening to fans showed that the creators really cared about their audience and saw the true importance of the story—possibly the best example of how a creator-fan relationship should be.
Who knows? Maybe your Rick and Morty fan theory will be so good that the writers will decide not to use it. Now that’s quite the honor.