Does a book need a main character?

Dave Robicheaux

It seems like a strange question I know because I am sure most people would say that without a main character a book will lack focus.

I really wonder about that.

This blog is really something of an interim report on James Lee Burke’s new novel, Light of the World. I’m two hundred and six pages into it now out of a total of five hundred and forty-eight.

I promise there will be no spoilers in my blog, just some observations on how one of the  masters of modern fiction goes about the craft of writing.

So I am forty percent of the way in, and I can’t identify a main character.

Part of the explanation may be that since it is a Dave Robicheaux book we are familiar with many of the characters and the roles traditionally assigned to them in the other books in the series.

But I think it’s more than that.

It is almost as if some of the repeat characters have gained such a presence and power of their own that  whenever they appear they operate independently from the rest of the ensemble.

That’s what we want.  We want Dave to be Dave and Clete to be Clete.  Now that Clete’s daughter is part of the group, we want Gretchen to be Gretchen.  Dave’s daughter Alafair needs to steal some scenes, too.

And this doesn’t even take into consideration the new characters Burke has introduced this time around.

I remember once when Caleb Pirtle and I were talking about writing, he made the observation that it is hard for a book to work well with two really strong protagonists.

I understand the principle, but it looks like James Lee Burke just decided to throw it out the window in Light of the World.

As I think about my own writing, I realize my tendency to write more than one strong character into almost every book.

To me a group of strong characters with a chemistry that works between them seems as good a way to go as the model of the lone lead and a cast of supporting actors.

Like I said, I understand this  may be a flaw in my writing, one which I will consciously consider.

When I get to my next book.

I’m too far into the present one to take a different tack.  So I think I’ll just have about six or eight really strong characters and let them figure it out among themselves.

The bad guys had better watch out. Or maybe about half of them are really bad guys in disguise.

Do they count as potential lead characters if they’re bad to the bone?

I’d like to blame James Lee Burke for all this mental turmoil.

But like Hemingway said, “You can be sure if anything happens to you, it’s your own damn fault.”

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