How to Be Your Own Leading Lady


It’s not surprising that women love the 2006 movie The Holiday. I liked it, too, but not for the obvious chick-flickness of it all. What I really loved was the old screenwriter who kept applying screenwriting techniques to real life. One scene that so many women adore is the dinner scene when the writer tells Kate Winslet’s character she should be the leading lady, not the best friend, in her own life. That sounds great, doesn’t it? But how do you do that?

Many years ago, when I was trying to find an agent to represent the book that became Brand-New Emily, I sent out queries. I got an email back from a big-time agent. He was interested, he said. Send him the manuscript, he said. Wow! According to my research, this guy had sold film rights for…well, let’s just say, a writer you may have heard of if you’ve been on this planet more than a few days. I could hardly believe he was taking the time to read my book!

Of course, he loved the book and took me on as a client and we made millions. Oh, wait. That isn’t quite right.

What really happened was that he sent me back a very nice, pithy email, thanking me for sending the manuscript, and saying he was sorry but he was going to pass on offering representation. I’ll never forget his words: “I prefer a feistier protagonist.”

If you want to survive as a writer, it’s very important to get past your ego and listen to what people in the business are telling you. This agent’s brief comment was a huge revelation for me. He was right! My protagonist was too passive.

And ultimately, that is what the screenwriter is telling Kate Winslet’s character in The Holiday. He tells her she needs to be the leading lady, but he stops short of telling her how to do it. So allow me to fill in the missing info.

Seven Ways to Be Your Own Leading Lady (Protagonist):

  1. Make Things Happen. Protagonists do not sit around passively waiting for things to happen for them; they make things happen. Leading ladies don’t just wish for their dream job; they go after it. (Frequently, hilarity ensues, which sounds like a real-life bonus, doesn’t it?)
  2. Be a Problem Solver. Protagonists don’t have time to sit around and whine about their fate (OK, maybe some do…cough cough Hamlet). They see an obstacle and they find a way around it.
  3. Know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Protagonists want something. The whole story is about their pursuit of that something. But why do they want it? No fiction writer worth his/her salt leaves out why this something is so important to the character. If you want to be the leading lady, have not only a goal but a purpose for that goal. Know yourself.
  4. Have stakes. You may have been pretty pumped up until this point. “Yeah!” you thought. “This leading lady business sounds awesome! I’m so in!” But protagonists always have something they might lose if they pursue their goal. To pick on poor Hamlet again, if he fulfills his heroic quest, there’s always the chance he’s really just lost his mind and is killing his uncle for no good reason. I mean, a ghost told him to commit homocide, for crying out loud. Let’s hope your quest is less gruesome, but you probably will have something to lose. For example, going after that dream job may mean leaving the dull but steady job you already have. Are you willing to go for it? Being the leading lady is not without price.
  5. Be likable. All this talk about the unrelenting pursuit of goals sounds exciting, but what good is it to get what you want if no one can stand to be in the same room with you? Fiction writers try to make our protagonists compelling in some way, even if they aren’t likable. In real life, I would suggest that your compelling trait be something that makes people not hate your guts. This isn’t to say that everyone has to adore you, but for the purposes of real life, do try to hang onto the whole “decent human being” bit while pursuing your goal.
  6. Be quirky. This is my favorite: as the leading lady, you get to be quirky! Protagonists all have something interesting about them that sets them apart from the pack. Quirks are a plus because they make the protagonist interesting. So embrace your quirks! Come on…in every romantic comedy, it’s always the weird thing that hooks the love interest, right? As the audience, we totally buy that the lead actor really loves her for her fervent devotion to her stamp collection and not merely because she’s hot. If only we could make that true in real life.
  7. Grow and change. All good protagonists are undergoing a metamorphosis of some type. They’re growing as human beings. So if you want to be the leading lady, be open minded and be willing to expand your horizons.

There you have it. Here’s hoping the movie of your life lands you a great adventure…and maybe even a smokin’ hot love interest who loves you for your mind.



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