Those who have read Simon Mawer’s novel, the Glass Room, would likely say yes. To agree, we should first agree on what constitutes a character. Isn’t it the one “personage” who could not be removed from the cast’s lineup without destroying the story? Other characters can come and go, some mourned tearfully by readers, some meeting their end with a heartfelt, if only mutely acknowledged, hooray. But there is that one, the protagonist, upon whom everything hinges.
That one in Mawer’s 2009 bestseller is a huge room, a living area in a private home, enclosed in glass. Its inhabitants, even the couple who pay for its construction must eventually leave, but the room in the house on the hill, remains. [In fact, the house from which it is patterned, lives on as a museum in the Villa Tugendhat in Brno in the Czech Republic.] This main character does not judge what goes on in the room—and much does go on: sexual encounters, hetero sexual and lesbian; intense discussions of a bright future by rich Czechish, even on the eve of the Nazi occupation; scientific experiments by German Nazis attempting to define Jewish by physical characteristics; Russian troops with their horses taking a break from the fighting; children learning dance steps as therapy for the ravages of polio; a family growing; and the same family coming apart. Yet the house withstands even a bomb exploding in its garden.
The glass room, expansive, magnificent, transparent, and almost one with its natural surroundings, endures, while its succession of inhabitants who use the room to satisfy their desires and to protect themselves from the outer world, vanish. A few return, remembering times and relationships transfigured by living within glass walls.
Now, are you persuaded that the glass room was the primary character in the Glass Room? If you disagree on the grounds that a novel’s main character must be living, who would you choose to bear this title? Maybe you would write a version where the building is destroyed and the inhabitants’ lives remain intact. In that scenario, the room could not be a contender for the role of main character and our dilemma would be resolved.