“Stay back, human; you don’t know what you’re dealing with.” This phrase is printed in large font across the back cover of my copy of the first Artemis Fowl novel. And in a bit of expertly executed reverse psychology this is precisely why I decided to pick up the manuscript for the first time. From the very beginning, Eoin Colfer establishes a world where the familiar is overlain on top of the magical and advanced. Over the course of the first story, he introduces his readers to the truth about fairies, leprechauns, trolls, and centaurs. He drops us into a place that is so fantastical, it would be easy to get lost and never find our way back to the plot ever again.
Yet, somehow, he finds a way to bring our attention back to the matters at hand. In less than three hundred pages, he develops a narrative that inspires both engaging rereads and curious (and in my case, voracious) consumption of the sequels. How does he do this? Well, that’s a complicated question.
Let’s talk about it.
We can boil the Artemis Fowl series, and more specifically, the first novel, down to three primary pieces: an inviting setting, endearing characters, and and engaging plot. That may seem basic to some of you, but I assure you, the basics are important. I am no Captain Obvious; I was promoted to the rank of Commodore long ago.
Getting back to business, let’s address the setting first. Colfer is a master of descriptive writing. He lays out the rooms and spaces he utilizes with great care and detail, yet he does not bog the reader down with descriptions that are long winded or lengthy. Like I said before, this book is less than three hundred pages long.
He accomplishes this feat through the use of very targeted description. Take, for instance the introduction of Holly Short. Now, Holly is the second fairy we meet in the book, but she is the first LEPRecon officer, and the first fairy who lives among her people, that we are introduced to. These elements are important, not just for understanding Holly as a character, but for understanding the world as a whole. Colfer spends one paragraph talking about her description, and he slams as much information as humanly possible into a few short sentences. In the first sentence, he gives us an image of her facial features, using this as an opportunity to also give the readers the impression that she is daring and determined. Next, he gives us a glimpse into her family history, her ancient lineage, and, in doing so, he lets us see how human mythology will come into play in our interactions with the fairy people. In the final sentence, he tells us her height, and gives us an idea of what to expect of the size and appearance of the fairy folk on the whole.
So there, in three sentences, the author has relayed a mental image for the readers to associate with a key character, introduced us to many of the more fantasy-related elements of the story, and set our expectations for what kind of person Officer Holly Short is going to be. This pretty and determined elf, who happens to be related to Cupid on her mother’s side, is going to likely get herself into some sort of trouble due to her determined nature and personal drive for success.
That’s how it is done. And that is how it is done, not just here, but all throughout the book. Rather than long info dumps, where the reader has the potential for getting distracted or forgetting some key detail, he weaves important information together into short strands, giving his readers smaller, more easily digestible portions, while still relaying all the necessary facts.
This is something that many writers struggle with, and I am no exception. I have learned the hard way how to slice up your info dumps and dispense them into the narrative more naturally. And by “the hard way,” I mean two separate editors telling me that a section of my writing was painful to read. Trust me, you do not want that email directed at your writing. Learn from Eoin Colfer, and find a way to give description precisely, sustinctly, and in the proper place.
It is through this masterful use of informational description that the universe of Artemis Fowl is brought into focus. It is revealed over time that, while the world as humans understand it DOES exist, there is more going on than immediately meets the eye. Underneath our very noses, and several miles of dirt, lies a bustling society of several different fairy races, all living together in relative peace. These fairies are technologically outpacing humanity by decades, using their magic and their tech to remain hidden. This is important, as historically, humans have used their size and superior numbers to attack, enslave, and/or manipulate the fairy folk.
When the office of the Lower Elements Police is the setting, the rooms feel familiar and comfortable, as if the reader has been here before, and knows every inch of wood and glass. When Fowl Manor is the location, the halls feel regal and royal. All of this is accomplished in a manner that maintains the pace and feel of the story. Nothing is ever sacrificed for description, and nothing ever feels bloated or weighed down. At the same time, the reader never walks through a scene feeling as if they do not know where they are or what is going on.
Precision is key.
The setting would be nothing if there were not characters there to fill it. As with his settings (and as previously displayed), Colfer gives the reader lots of descriptive verbage with which to form an opinion and an understanding of each character individually. No one is grouped together, everyone is unique. Even the characters who belong to a group and only exist in the story as a group have individual traits and features that set them apart from one another. This gives the reader the impression that this world is full and vibrant.
You expect such things with main characters. Writers can fall into the trap of spending too much time rounding out the unique aspects of their main characters, and neglecting their side, support, and passing characters. They may be fictional, but they are people too. Or…in this case they are fairies, but dang it, you know what I mean. These characters matter a lot more than most people realize. Many of us know that they must be included; to not have anyone in our fictional universe except our main players would make it feel very lonely and empty. However, to neglect these characters once they have been input into the setting leaves the world feeling flat and uninteresting, like the only thing to ever have happened is what is on the page.
These side, supporting, and passing characters deserve some sort of characterization. Give them dimension, even if you do not give them more than a sentence on the page. Colfer does this well. He gives almost all of his passing characters (characters who are in the background and have nothing to do with the story other than being visible) some sort of unique description. That could be a big nose, or shifty eyes, or a unique sense of fashion, but he ensures that everyone who crosses the page feels like a living person. His side characters and his supporting cast get much more page time, and therefore are developed to a much higher degree. Some of them are only in one scene, and they still receive the same care and attention to detail that he gave to Artemis, Butler, and Holly when he introduced them.
With the world and the cast around them fleshed out to such grand detail, the main characters have so much more room to develop. When an author spends the time to design the world his main players will be performing in, it actually takes a lot of the weight off their shoulders to develop those characters. What I mean by this is that when the main character is in a coffee shop, and we know what the sights, smells, and atmosphere are there, we know what the main characters will be experiencing. When we know that the barista is cheerful and has the ability to put anyone in a good mood with just a smile and a greeting, we know what they are feeling. All that is left is to say it in a way that fits the tone of the story.
When setting and the background characters are fully developed, so much less relies on the main characters, and they are free to display the story without the burden of those other responsibilities. On top of that, the things they do, say, and think feel so much more natural. Nothing feels contrived, because the world exists for the reader.
Now. With his main characters free to express themselves and expand to their full potential, Colfer shines. Every detail, every moment, and every word sharpens and already well defined character portrait. With every page that goes by, Artemis comes into view as not just a smart boy with a plan, but a complex prepubescent genius who struggles with the loss of his father, his mother’s failing health, and his understanding of what success should look like. Butler’s motivations become clear, and the reader comes to understand why he does not just work for Artemis, but he cares for him and is emotionally involved in his wellbeing. The reader understands why he puts his life in danger, and why he is willing to bend the bodyguard rules when it comes to his charge. These are real people, and by the numbers, we should hate them all, even Holly at times. But the characterization is so well developed, and so deeply tied to the progression of the story, that as the chapters change, so do the characters, and so do we as the reader.
The plot that weaves through the setting, carrying the characters from the first page to the last, is nothing short of magnificent. It is not overly complicated. At its core, it is a relatively simple heist story. Artemis steals/kidnaps Holly, holds her for ransom of LEPRecon gold. The majority of the story revolves around the standoff that occurs after Holly’s abduction. The LEP attempts to foil the plan several times, and either through brilliant foresight or unequaled adaptability, Artemis and Butler turn to face the Lower Elements Police at every point. There is real suspense for even though Artemis is admittedly the most formidable mind the LEP have ever faced, and they are running against the clock, it remains unclear until the very end who will come out on top. It is a neck-and-neck race the whole way, and it comes down to a photo finish.
Throughout the story, subplots reveal themselves and unravel, exposing the motivations of each character one by one. Heroic characters become vulnerable, while dastardly characters become sympathetic. The reader is never asked to root for a villain, or to pick a side. It is over the course of the first two acts that the reader finds the grey area between wanting Artemis to get what he needs, and hoping Holly can find a way to escape. In the end, Colfer is able to design a way for everything to come together in a manner that is natural, and even with the twists and turns that have been revealed along the way, it seems there was no other way it could have gone. The conclusion to the story comes as a bit of a surprise, at least in the method by which it is achieved, but when you look back on it, the reader can see it was barreling towards that moment from the first page.
The first Artemis Fowl novel sets up a cast of characters that are easy to connect with, and who, through nothing more than the progress they made in the first novel, inspired me to buy up the rest of the series sight unseen the day they were released. The holy trinity of setting, characters, and plot sing in such beautiful harmony in this book. Admittedly, not every installment is a home run in my opinion, but I would say the first four or five books are absolutely spectacular. The rest of the series isn’t necessarily bad, but some of the magic and power you see on full display in book one is not always present.
Overall, Eoin Colfer is an author to emulate. I mean, the guy was selected to carry on the Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide” series; if nothing else, that should give you an idea of what his peers think of his work. Artemis Fowl lands squarely in the young adult section, marrying elements of sci-fi with its overtly fantasy setting. Where it sits, it reigns supreme, as I can think of very few authors under the young adult banner (or the adult banner, for that matter) who can so completely build a world full of developed characters and page-turning plots. It would seem that while many authors can get one or two of these elements near perfected, there are few who can accomplish all three so well at the same time. Eoin Colfer may not be the best author of all time, but for what he does, he definitely deserves to be in the discussion.