Imagine this story:
A gifted young athlete finds out he has cancer. Painful treatments and discouraging prognoses knock him down and his chance of surviving slims to less than 40%. The pain and emotional fatigue gets to the point where he has to decide if he is going to continue the fight or just roll over and let the illness win.
Our main character decides that not only will he beat it, he will make it such a fight as to inspire and give hope to others. He begins a rehabilitation period where he pushes his body with demanding physical routines. Through pushing himself, he finds a passion for competing in a sport that a man of his medical history has no business even trying. He succeeds and wins the biggest competition in the sport. Determined to prove his success more than a fluke he repeats his victory 6 more times in dramatic fashion.
His experience brought hope and pride to an entire nation. Through his success, millions of people are inspired to improve their health, fight their own demons, and donate time and money to finding a cure for the disease.
Well, it really happened. The protagonist’s name? Lance Armstrong.
If this book is written prior to 2011, Lance Armstrong is a hero. But a lot of ugly truths have surfaced in the past three years about Lance: He is a cheater, he was the ringleader of a drug ring in the sport that used strong arm tactics to keep the truth hidden, he ruined people’s lives who opposed him. And worst of all, he doesn’t feel bad about any of it and would do it all again.
So, if this book comes out today what is Lance Armstrong? A Villain? Maybe. He still inspired millions and raised money and awareness for cancer. Is that what a villain does? I would classify Lance Armstrong in the conflict of man against cancer as an anti-hero. He beat cancer and won the conflict, but that still didn’t make him a good person.
Anti-Heroes have their place and in some genres they work perfectly. But in Fantasy literature, where the conflict generally revolves around the fate of the world, I want my heroes to be better than that. I am not saying that I want them to be perfect, that would be boring. They can be selfish (see Royce Meldrum), they can be mean (see Arlen Bales), they can be prejudiced (see Kelsier), they can have all sorts of flaws and I will still root for them.
But ultimately, I want the hero to have the desire to be good. I want he or she to do something good for a good reason. When they mess up, I want them to feel some remorse and have a desire to improve. I want to be able to respect them for who they are along with respect what they accomplished.
The world has enough Lance Armstrongs.