"Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:There's a character who aims to improve their situation in life, be it in terms of money, fame or power. There is a high probablity of this character starting out as evil or becoming evil very quickly. The Visionary Villain and Well-Intentioned Extremist will do horrible things to achieve their Heaven on Earth; The Social Darwinist and The Sociopath will commit every act of crime and manipulation to move up the ranks; the Corrupt Corporate Executive began as a dirt-poor proletarian who wanted to live wealthy, etc. Upon attaining this power, they'll likely forget whatever it was they wanted it for in the first place. An Illusion of Pride, and the inevitable tale of Tragedy for the one who dared to be ambitious is likely. Fictional and Real Life moral codes have a tendency to demonstrate Selfishness, Greed, Pride, Megalomania, and Machiavellian Chronic Backstabbing Disorder as a consequence of the catch-all term "ambition". If you consult a dictionary it's broader than that. Ambition is the same thing that motivates some heroes to make the world a better place, but in that case it's more likely to be called "Hope". This trope is one of the reasons why Villains Act, Heroes React. Villains who don't have great ambitions would not plot grand schemes and motivate story driving conflicts such as World Domination or Utopia Justifies the Means, and therefore, would be boring and petty. It is possible to write an "ambitionless" villain - see For the Evulz - but they risk coming off as a Generic Doomsday Villain. Justified when the existing society is an evil dystopia, or otherwise flawed — "advancing" in such a society would mean complying with or encouraging its systemic injustices. Also justified when ambition, or other emotions, is the personification of evil itself. Can happen as a result of Status Quo Is God. Normally used as an Anvilicious Aesop about What's Really Important. Unfortunately ends up in a Broken Aesop that teaches us Evil Is Cool (or at least open to social progress). The Svengali, since their goal is usually to profit through their (supposed) protege, will usually be an example of this, and turn their protege into one, unless they realize in time. This is not an uncommon trait of The Starscream; indeed, it's often what makes them The Starscream. The heroic converse of this trope is To Be a Master where the hero is motivated by ambition. Note that heroes tend to pursue "healthy" goals such as strength and knowledge, while villains are more likely to be after power or money, usually for their own benefit and no one else's and at other people's expense. For some reason, while even high levels of ambition are bad, equal or greater levels of determination are usually seen as good, or at least not bad. If you have high levels of both, you're The Unfettered. Heaven help the character intending to use their super powers this way; it guarantees Screw the Rules, I Have Supernatural Powers!. If a character wants to rise above the level of their fellows, it might be a case of The Complainer Is Always Wrong. This, in a way, is the reverse of Living Is More Than Surviving - in that achieving more than the most basic things people can do is seen as good, in contrast to this trope. See also Pride, Personal Gain Hurts and Evil Virtues. Contrast with Self-Made Man, who did pursue his ambitions, and isn't evil, as well any Rags to Riches story where The Protagonist meant to become rich.
If it were so, it was a grievous fault;
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it."
If it were so, it was a grievous fault;
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it."
— Antony, Scene II, Julius Caesar
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Anime and Manga
- Berserk: Griffith. Originally, he "merely" wanted to rise from a poor street urchin to king in a society that does not encourage this sort of upward mobility. After a few setbacks, he sets his sights a little higher, and murders almost all of his friends, rapes his Love Interest, and unleashes a plague of demons on the world in order to reach his goal.
- In Katekyo Hitman Reborn!, Futa's "ambition" rankings actually seem to measure how treacherous a given person is.
- Isamu in Breakshot is described as "an ambitious guy"... because he often cheats to win.
- Very much averted in Fullmetal Alchemist, where a number of characters (e.g. Mustang, Olivia Armstrong, Greed, and Ling) are ambitious but they are generally good because of this, not in spite of it. Ling's ambition to become the next emperor was the only thing that prevented Greed from taking over his body completely.
- Greed's ambition is notable in that he desires to possess everything. Most people would chalk this up as evil, but the thing is that he also values everything he possesses. His minions may be possessions, but they're his and killing them is equal to stealing from him.
- In Air Gear, the Big Bad just wanted to improve his lot in life and ended up Jumping Off the Slippery Slope.
- Averted in Bleach. During his more reflective moments, Ichigo makes much of becoming more powerful so that he can better protect the people he cares about, even if he's doing it by using his Superpowered Evil Side. Combined with With Great Power Comes Great Insanity around the 350th chapter/the final stages of his fight with Ulquiorra, where the latest upgrade to his Superpowered Evil Side only appears interested in protecting Orihime, and will casually attempt to kill anyone else who gets in his way—like, for instance, Uryu.
- Subverted in Code Geass, Everyone assumes Lelouch, a prince, used the Black Knights for personal gain at best and a game at the worst. However, by the end, a select few realize that all of Lelouch's ambition was for the good of the world.
- Ambition is the defining characteristic of Dio Brando from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, to the point that he rejects his humanity and transforms himself into a vampire for the sake of gaining more power.
- Played straight and subverted quite often in One Piece. Most of the villains have pretty lofty goals, but the main characters have arguably the highest ambitions in the series. Inverted with Captain Kuro, who annoys Luffy because his goal to retire from being a pirate is completely lame.
- Played straight with Blackbeard, whose ambition to become Pirate King led him to kill one of his own crewmates in the back story, capture Ace to secure a position in the Seven Warlords of the Sea, try and kill Luffy, caused a war that led to the death of Ace, Oars Jr., and who knows how many others, killing Whitebeard directly and unleashed who knows how many of the world's worst criminals on an unsuspecting world.
- Basically One Piece is more like "Ambition is Neutral," as many of the villains they have fought had aims similar to the heroes, and it was merely their methods that were evil, not necessarily their aims. Blackbeard above is the best example as he also wants to be King of the Pirates, but his methods involve all sorts of cruelty. Or Eneru, whose ambition was to go to the Moon, perfectly innocuous except that he wanted to do it by plundering an island of all its gold then planning to blow the island up into the sea.
- It should be noted that said blowing up wasn't even necessary to the plan. It was just for the sake of it.
- Hell, "Haki" (Japanese for "ambition") is basically One Piece's resident Life Energy. Those who can control and project it out of their body get a substantial boost in battle. And the most powerful form, which one has to be born with, is the "Ambition of the King" - the sheer desire to reign over everyone else. The main hero has itnote . The Big Bad, probably, too.
- In Umineko: When They Cry, Eva's ambition to succeed her father as the head of the Ushiromiya family instead of her older brother was stepped on most of her life due to the Heir Club for Men, but wow, once she manages to achieve her goal, she goes nuts and kills most of the rest of her family.
- Slade (no, not that Slade), a minor character in Rave Master who worked with Haru's dad back when he was a soldier, is the person that Gale turns to to report his best friend who has since gone bad and began to run a criminal organization. He promises to tell Slade where the group, known as Demon Card, has its headquarters so long as Slade only arrests King. Slade agrees, then brings the whole army and shoots everyone down in as flashy a way as possible so his superiors will notice and he'll get a promotion. In doing so, he pushed King all the way into Big Bad status, and set his six year old son down the road to that as well.
- Played straight with Light Yagami; by the time the US President surrenders to Kira, his father is dead and his sister is traumatized. He even allowed his father to put himself in a life-threatening situation for his own gain, which ultimately led to his demise. And that's not even counting the countless other times Light has made morally questionable decisions in order to realize his dream of a perfect new world. The difference between his innocent, idealistic self and the person he becomes with the Note is startling.
- Naruto: Orochimaru's ambition to have eternal life (which he believed would be more easily accomplished by becoming Fourth Hokage, and he was passed over in favor of Minato) is pretty much the reason why he turned into the Big Bad. Similarly, Danzo was a political rival to the Third Hokage who sought to impose his warlike ideals on the village with means from covert operations to using his mind control powers to seize the Hokage title after Tsunade goes into a coma.
- Averted for several characters too, most notably Naruto himself, who wants to be Hokage one day and by Hashirama Senju, the First Hokage, whose boundless ambition to change the world created the entire system of hidden ninja villages and drastically reduced the Crapsackiness of the world.
- Averted for the most part in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann; daring ambition is the most powerful force in the universe, and the vast majority of the protagonists indulge. However, according to the Anti-Spiral, it's also the force that will eventually destroy reality, so really it could go either way.
- In Durarara!! Mikado's goal is to unite the Dollars and Blue Squares to show Kida that he can stand on his own. In his own words, "The only way for having your dreams realized is to have power." However this has pushed Mikado's sanity as of recent novel volumes out the window for the most part (unless he was crazy from the beginning.) In a good example of the evil bit, he even goes as far as setting people who piss him off on fire.
- Enchu of Muhyo and Roji desperately wanted to become an Executor to help his ailing mother, while Muhyo did not want the position, and would have turned it over to Enchu if given the chance. The committee for choosing an executor recognized that Enchu's preoccupation with his mother was a risk factor; hearing of her death and losing the position to Muhyo pushed Enchu into his Start of Darkness.
- Gihren Zabi of Mobile Suit Gundam is the single most ambitious member of the Zabi family. He's also the single most evil member, and the only one with no redeeming qualities.
- In Cyber Weapon Z, Leiting may look like a Well-Intentioned Extremist but, at the end of the day, what he really cares about is his increasing his own power by siphoning that of the Demon King Solote.
- Tokyo Ghoul explores this trope, particularly in the sequel, :Re.
- Seidou Takizawa is quite vocal about his desire to get promoted, and this is one reason he frequently clashes with his rival, Akira Mado. At one point, they get into a drunken argument concerning whether being promotion-focused is bad or not. But when push comes to shove, he risks his career by disregarding direct orders and goes in search of a wounded Amon. In the sequel, he plays the trope straight — his thirst for power seems to have played a part in his Transhuman Treachery.
- Kuki Urie's ambitions might be fueled by an understandable desire to avenge his father, but the methods he uses establish him firmly as the Token Evil Teammate of the Quinx Squad. Though assigned as their acting Squad Leader, he refuses to work with the others....unless, of course, he can use them to achieve his own ends. Intensely jealous of Sasaki's strength, he looks for ways to undermine his leadership and increase his own power even when warned against doing so. After his actions cause him to be dismissed as Squad Leader, he begins plotting ways to destroy the team from within in order to discredit Shirazu. It becomes a case of Be Careful What You Wish For: Urie gets his position back and receives credit for bringing down one of Aogiri's most prominent members.....because Shirazu sacrificed himself to create an opening. Urie tries to convince Shirazu to live by promising him all the credit, and is left crushed by his friend's loss.
- Matsuri Washuu is this trope incarnate. The heir of the illustrious Washuu Clan, he is infamous even among his clan for his ambition and callous disregard for human life. Operations he supervises are known for having incredible success rates, but also extreme loss of life in the process. He actively schemes against his colleagues and his own father, with many within the organization concerned about what would happen if he manages to take over. When asked point-blank whether seeing the bodies of his subordinates makes him feel anything, Matsuri states that it doesn't while looking like he'd been asked a stupid question.
- Mei from Ga-Rei -Zero- believes that she is more qualified than Yomi to lead the Isayama family. Her ambition allows her Sesshoseki stone to corrupt her, after which she kills Yomi's father and manipulates the family in order to steal the position for herself.
- Subverted in Fullmetal Alchemist.
- Despite having a character who is the living embodiment of Greed, he is the only one of the homunculi representing the seven deadly sins who finds true fulfillment in his life. Despite bragging all along that he wants everything material, cars, money, power, etc, he comes to find that what he actually wants is friends who admire him, and ends up sacrificing himself for them despite his altruism being completely the opposite of greed.
- A few of the characters seek to rise to the position of Fuhrer President, the highest position in the country. Roy narrowly avoids going off the deep end for revenge along the way, but his intentions are to reform the country for the better. As for his mentor Grunman, it's implied he has less than savory tactics (letting his younger apprentices take the brunt of the obstacles while he maneuvers in behind them), but as President he doesn't do anything unjust or overly selfish.
- This seems to actually be a trend among superhero fiction; this article notes that rich superheroes tend to inherit their money, while self-made men are usually villains.
- Subversion: Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) is hugely ambitious, to the point of it frequently biting him in the ass, but his drive is less for personal gain and more for the betterment of mankind... he hopes. His worst excesses (such as Civil War and the Armor Wars) are usually not driven by lust for power, but by an overzealous sense of guilt and responsibility.
- Half the point of The Authority was that, where other superheroes simply react to supervillains' schemes and preserve the status quo, The Authority would use their powers to genuinely change the world. The implications of this vary from author to author, but often involve the team Jumping Off the Slippery Slope and becoming Anti Villains or just plain villains.
- Seahn of The First. He's the personification of ambition, and a nasty, nasty piece of work.
- The Plutonian has a very subtle version of this. It's revealed in flashbacks that he has a strong desire for love and adoration. Since his ambitions were very altruistic, and he used his superpowers to make them come true by helping people, nobody seemed to mind (or just assumed he was doing it out of the goodness of his heart and not a need for affection). But then he eventually realized you can't please everyone and gave up on being a hero, and instead ruined a world that he could never get to love him.
- The first Squadron Supreme miniseries (whose members are Captain Ersatzes of the Justice League of America) had the heroes helping to rebuild the world (after they themselves helped conquer it under an evil alien's mind control) and decide that instead of rebuilding it as it was, they would make it better. They even announced that if people trusted them they would give up control over Earth in exactly one year. However this was seen as a bad thing by half the heroes, who organized a resistance against them. The reasons given weren't very convincing- they just seemed to be there just to maintain the Status Quo of their Earth resembling the real one. Note that this story inspired both DC's Kingdom Come and Civil War.
- Only one hero, the Batman Captain Ersatz, actually objected to improving the world. What causes the real split was when the majority of the Squadron Supreme decided to use Brainwashing for the Greater Good.
- Actually, he made a very valid point in the final issue. Even after turning power back over to civilian authority, the Utopia could only last so long as the Squadron was around to enforce it. There's no guarantee their eventual successors would hold to the same moral standards.
- Only one hero, the Batman Captain Ersatz, actually objected to improving the world. What causes the real split was when the majority of the Squadron Supreme decided to use Brainwashing for the Greater Good.
- The Hood suffers Motive Decay (he initially just wanted to support his family) because of his ambition to be a big-time supervillain criminal mastermind instead of the street thug he really is. Acquiring the magical hood and boots empowered by Dormammu gave Parker Robbins an appetite for power that has gotten worse with time.
- The cape-killer (Ozymandias) of Watchmen might fit, depending on whether you think he's evil or a Well-Intentioned Extremist. It's true that he gave up a fortune, but that just underlines his ambition (he wanted everyone to know that his accomplishments were his accomplishments, not his family's).
- The Transformers: Last Stand of the Wreckers: Averted with Prowl, who is the most morally grey of the good guys as he's willing to go to lengths to end the war others find uncomfortable. He just wants the war to end; he doesn't want any credit or glory. For the Decepticons, Overlord is quite possibly the most evil Decepticon in the IDW comics. Megatron always thought that he'd pull a Starscream on him, but Overlord does not care about rank and he doesn't care about advancing in the power structure. He just wants to kill people. Kup speculates that his goal in life is to upgrade from homicide to genocide, and keep killing.
- The Transformers: Robots in Disguise: Starscream is this. Bumblebee remarks that his ambition is untempered due to his lack of any ideology and a huge dose of caring only for himself. He wants power and control, but now the war is over, and the world they face is brutal and the people all distrust each other. To get power he... wants to be elected by a committee of his peers. He keeps his smug attitude, but does his best to help the society move into a brighter future, one he wants to lead. He even befriends his political rival Metalhawk, and though he snarks at him, seems to respect Bumblebee. When Megatron throws it all into chaos, Scream berates him because of his shortsighted folly, and stands with the Autobots. When Megatron is defeated Starscream rejoices, and then kills Metalhawk, uses his death as a political maneuver, swears off his faction, and has the entire public rally behind him. He then banishes Bumblebee and all the Autobots and Decepticons clinging to old alliances. His final words to Metalhawk lampshade this:
Metalhawk: I thought you were my friend.(Starscream murders Metalhawk)Starscream: I was. I just wanted this more.
- Judge Dredd: It turns out that Judge Martin Sinfield would do anything to become Chief Judge, including brainwashing his predecessor to step down. Of course, he did it all for the good of the city.
- In the Jackie Chan Adventures fic Queen of All Oni, Jade seems to fit this, as one of her major motivations is to prove herself, even as a villain, feeling unappreciated for all the times she helped against evil and saved Jackie's life.
- In the Harry Potter fic Why Harry Hates the Headmaster or Alt Sixth Year Ron actually started fighting Harry at the mere mention of ambition, which resulted in Harry giving a somewhat Anvilicious mini-sermon on how ambition wasn't "Slytherin" or "Dark."
- Averted in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, where Harry's ambition to become omnipotent and benevolently reorganize reality is fully endorsed by the Author.
- Twilight Sparkle in Pages Of Harmony very much fits this, seeing as her ambition is to "preserve harmony"? How does she do so? By Mind Raping, torturing, and killing her friends to extract their Elements. And that's just the start.
- In Blood and Spirit, Veress broke off from the main Sheikah tribe to create the Dark Interlopers because of her desire to succeed Impa as the leader of the tribe and lead the Sheikah into battle against Demise. However, since this was not the destiny of the Sheikah tribe, she was passed over in favor of Sheik, her former best friend.
- Friendship Is Magical Girls: Sunset Shimmer's Start of Darkness was caused by her desire for power and glory for its own sake, and her belief that her mother and Celestia were holding her back. Thus why she ritually killed her mother to become immortal and started her campaign to become more powerful than Celestia.
- In The Vow, this is taken further with Lord Shen (see Kung Fu Panda 2 in Animated Film section below). Even when he has won the heart of the woman he loves and his future as his parents' heir is secure, he can't help but feel that he must strive to make a name for himself instead of settling to inherit his parents' legacy. It leads him to experiment on black powder and designing cannons, and his attempt to prevent the fate he'd end up with for continuing his dark path leads him to be driven away from his home and loved ones, leaving him filled with embittered ambition.
- Pointedly averted with the Harry Potter fanfic THERMOS!, or, How a Muggle-Born Brought a New Age of Spell-Making to Hogwarts (Entirely by Accident). The main character Phoebe is a Slytherin, and while she's noted to be ambitious (it being the defining trait of Slytherin House and all), somewhat lazy and definitely a Troll (no, not a literal one), she isn't mean-spirited in any way. Her friend Titus, also a Slytherin, comes off as friendly and nice, too. (The author's identified herself as a Slytherin, so it makes sense that she'd write them in a more flattering light.)
Film - Animated
- In The Little Mermaid Ursula was kicked out of Atlantica because she attacked King Triton and tried to seize the throne. Then, when Ariel came too close to getting that first kiss that would undo Ursula's plans, she sabotages that by transforming into Vanessa and using Ariel's voice to hypnotize the prince, just so Ariel would remain her slave. Then, even after promising Triton to release Ariel in exchange for his magical trident, she tries and fails to kill Ariel. To top it all off, she goes on a rampage and tries to kill everyone because of how badly her plans have been mucked up.
- As bad as Lightning McQueen from Cars is by putting his ambitions over everything and everyone else to the point of not knowing the names of his own pit crew or caring when they quit (he gets better), his rival Chick Hicks is much worse. In the big race at the end of the movie, Chick seems to be willing to kill his long-time rival The King by causing a horrible crash. Chick wins the race, but everybody hates him and it's highly unlikely he'll be getting sponsorship from the people who employ the guy/car he just tried to wreck.
- Lord Shen in Kung Fu Panda 2. First, he invents the cannon with plans to use it to make himself more powerful. When his family's Soothsayer predicts that he will be defeated by "a black and white warrior", his response is to try to murder a nearby village of pandas. By the time the film's events roll around, he wants nothing less than to conquer all of China.
- The Once-ler in The Lorax adaptation started out as a young man determined to prove himself to his family by becoming a successful businessman, but when he does become a success, he becomes obsessed with "biggering" his company until he turns into a full-blown Corrupt Corporate Executive.
- Prince Hans in Frozen. There was no way he'd inherit the throne to his own kingdom since he was the thirteenth-born son, so he plotted to marry into the royal family of Arendelle, kill Elsa and assume the throne.
- Henna from Barbie: Mariposa poisons Queen Marabella to become Queen herself. Unfortunately, this also causes the lights guarding Flutterfield from Skeezites to go out, as their status depends on Marabella's health.
- Archibald Snatcher, Big Bad of The Boxtrolls, is obsessed with climbing the social ranks by rounding up and exterminating all of the boxtrolls. His obsession drives him to spread outrageous lies about the boxtrolls being savage, baby-eating monsters, threaten children, mistreat his lackeys, and eat cheese despite his violent allergies to the stuff.
Film - Live-Action
- In Gladiator, Marcus Aurelius wants to make General Maximus his heir specifically because Maximus does not have any ambition to be Emperor and Marcus wants Rome to become a Republic again. Commodus, however, has great ambition to be a wise and just Emperor. When he learns that the position is about to be snatched from him, he murders his own father. This lends credence to an Alternative Character Interpretation that Marcus Aurelius felt that ambition was not the only flaw disqualifying Commodus from the purple robes of power...
- Eve Harrington of All About Eve is nothing if not driven. She wants to be just like her inspiration, star actress Margo Channing, up to and including taking the role she has, and will stop at nothing to get it.
- Quite a few romantic comedies feature ambitious women being brought down to earth because they forsook relationships and families for their careers:
- In The Thin Red Line (1998) the antagonistic Lt. Col. Tall orders a suicidal attack, because the battle offers perfect opportunity for promotion.
- In Stardust, all of the Stormhold princes murder each other in an attempt to become heir to the throne. Only Primus seems decent, and he doesn't need to be ambitious because he's already the heir. The crown eventually goes to the most humble characters who is in line for it.
- The Family Man: The whole movie is about showing Nicholas Cage's character the life he would have had if he had chosen to stay with his girlfriend instead of going off on business. The thing is, he actually seems happy at the beginning of the film and miserable with his new circumstances to the point that he spends a fair portion of the movie trying to get his high-powered career back. Eventually though, he does fall in love with the family but is snapped back to his old life and circumstances are contrived as such that he has to blow the deal of his career to catch his ex girlfriend at the airport (presumably sacrificing his career for a now-hypothetical family.) Why he couldn't have closed that deal and tried to look her up later is left to the viewer to figure out.
- Wall Street: Villain Gordon Gekko famously asserts, "Greed, for a lack of a better word, is good." In a World where money is power, greed is ambition.
- Loki in Thor and The Avengers definitely has ambition: he wants to rule Asgard in the former and Earth in the latter. This, of course, leads him to do some pretty evil stuff.
- Wan ultimately ends up losing everything she actually loved in her grab for power in Legend of the Black Scorpion. Then someone killed her.
- Luchino Visconti's The Damned provides a thorough exploration of the trope. Various members and associates of a German steel family vie for control of the family business, set against the backdrop of Nazi Germany, using blackmail and murder to advance their means. Their ambitions are ruthlessly manipulated by SS leader Aschenbach, allowing the Nazis to take control.
- The Sith are all about this trope. They actively betray and murder in order to obtain more power, in contrast to the Jedi Philosophy. One particular Sith went so far as to destroy the entire Sith leadership because they had stopped the repeated betrayal that usually only weakened the Sith as a whole.
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Elsa Schneider is a well-educated scholar who used her allegiance with the Nazis to obtain the Holy Grail. Her ambition drives her to betray both Indiana Jones and his father to get the invaluable information on the grail’s location. In the end, ambition was her undoing, as she refuses to accept that the grail couldn’t leave its protective temple, which causes a Cataclysm Climax. Despite the chaos, Indiana manages to keep her from falling to her death in a huge chasm. In her quest to have the grail at all costs, she wildly reaches for the grail, and Indiana loses his hold on her slippery gloved hand.
- In Nightcrawler, Lou exemplifies this trope. He is literally willing to do anything to get ahead in the business, no matter who he has to hurt.
- Tracy Flick in Election.
- Played with in Beyond The Lights. Both Noni and Kaz have dreams and aspirations that are seen as admirable. It's Macy, Noni's mother's, ambition that is seen as evil as it drives her to ignore her daughter's own wishes and micromanage Noni's entire life. It not only is part of the reason Noni attempts suicide, it also is the reason why Noni eventually fires her from being her manager.
- The title character in the Artemis Fowl series is motivated almost entirely by monetary gain in the first book, but as he makes the transition from AntiVillain to a more conventional protagonist over the course of the series. Then his interest in wealth takes a back seat to concerns about his family, friends, and preventing The End of the World as We Know It.
- John Steinbeck's Winter of Our Discontent has a main character from a formerly wealthy family who goes to extreme lengths to reclaim his former wealth and status.
- In Animorphs this is used to foreshadow Sixth Ranger Traitor David's turn to the dark side.
- The "darkest" of the four houses in Harry Potter, Slytherin, has ambition and cunning as its main valued qualities. Although being in Slytherin does not guarantee you'll become evil (Merlin studied there, for instance, and Slughorn was an okay guy), the house gets a terrible rap because most if not all wizards who did turn to evil have studied there - so while a predominantly cunning and ambitious mind is not a guarantee of villainy, it is a prerequisite for it.
- In Chapter 17 of Sorcerer's Stone, we get a character's ambition mentioned in the same breath as his hatred and greed.
- Also, Percy's ambition and devotion to the Ministry (despite being a Gryffindor) set him at odds with the rest of his family.
- As revealed in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, this could be how Dumbledore viewed himself. In his youth, he worked with another wizard to find artifacts of great power, ostensibly to help his family but as much for himself. It took a tragedy to bring him back to earth, and ever since he kept himself away from positions of power such as Minister for Magic.
- By the end of the series it becomes clear, through secondary characters, that good and evil exist in all houses. It's just that ambition is a trait that can lead to villainy if not properly handled and limited, which explains why many shady individuals hail from Slytherin. Also visionary criminals are more likely to become famous rather than petty and insignificant ones.
- Averted several times in the Honor Harrington novels. The titular character herself spends much of the first book being ambitious about future rank. Storm from the Shadows plays it straight in regards to most Solarian League Naval personnel, with Battle Fleet having centuries of naval service in each family with characters with ambition to be like their last 10 forefathers and be important Battle fleet Admirals. Because of their ambition and pride, they also get the Idiot Ball and see nothing wrong with having had no major battles in 300 years nor a tiny R&D budget with no major upgrades in the last century.
- Several other major characters also resent this trope. Honor fights several times what she feels is favorable treatment to suit her ambition. Her rank is usually thrust upon her after arguing she not only deserves it, but is obligated to take it to better serve
The KingdomThe Empire.
- Luis Roszak is sort of a borderline case; he's generally presented as a positive character, but it's clear that he can be absolutely ruthless in the service of his ambition.
- Turns out the Solarian League assumes everyone else has their same ambitions, but just isn't capable because they aren't the Solarian League. This leads to rather poor military intelligence estimates, and once reality hits that people are capable of hurting them, their assumption of ambition means they are going to have to do horrible things to put people in their place...
- Several other major characters also resent this trope. Honor fights several times what she feels is favorable treatment to suit her ambition. Her rank is usually thrust upon her after arguing she not only deserves it, but is obligated to take it to better serve
- Ralph Fitzgerald, as we see later in World Without End, by Ken Follet. He would do ANYTHING to become rich and famous. He is quite frequently the Jerk Ass, but gradually becomes a more ambitious Jerk Ass. Godwyn plays it straight, going much murkier routes than you'd expect a monk to go. Godwyn is a Chessmaster with NO morals or guidelines. Ralph, as we all see later is just stupid, and got lucky.
- Subverted in Robert Asprin's Myth Adventures. The characters frequently use their Functional Magic to make money and usually each book ends with them even richer than when they started.
- In Class Dis-mythed, a secondary character directly argues (in an impromptu lecture) that the most effective way to help others is to focus first on one's own personal security and financial success. While overlooking the obvious rebuttals, this isn't presented as a strawman argument, and quite possibly represents the author's current views. The important thing to remember is that it says "focus first on your own personal security and financial success", not "focus only on". A lot of villains forget that part.
- Warrior Cats takes great care to mention "Tigerstar's ambition" everywhere it can. Every villain so far has been ambitious (except Ashfur). Brambleclaw is ambitious too, but he was able to mostly ignore The Dark Side.
- Subverted in Bluestar's Prophecy when Bluestar is chosen as deputy. Sunstar mentions that she is ambitious, but only because she wants to serve her clan.
- Milton's Satan said it best: "To reign is worth ambition though in hell;/ Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven."
- Oh so very many villains, and characters who may not be overtly villainous but certainly do a lot for Horus' cause, in the Horus Heresy novels are guided by ambition in one form or another; these range from the vox officer on the Eisenstein (who wants to command his own ship one day and betrays them to Typhon), to Horus himself.
- In The Wheel of Time, Elaida isn't outright evil in the first place (though definitely not nice), but her ambition ( and a bit of help from the Black Ajah) cause her to screw up everything and go well inside evil territory to keep her power.
- Also, ambition is the reason Sheriam, and possibly many others, joined the Black Ajah.
- This is a recurring theme in Agatha Christie's mystery novels. One of her favorite types of villain (and/or victim) was a character from humble origins who had clawed his or her way to the top.
- Ebenezer Scrooge, in A Christmas Carol. He became, well, The Scrooge after allowing himself to be consumed with ambition and greed. At one point his younger self even lampshades the trope, and what he sees as its unfairness:
"This is the even-handed dealing of the world. There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!"
- Many of P. G. Wodehouse's plots involve a happy, aimless man being pestered by an ambitious woman to improve himself. Jeeves's first mission is to rescue Bertie from his fiancee Florence Craye, who is trying to boost him up in the brain department by making him read 'Types of Ethical Theory'. Later, it's his aunt Agatha who is always pressuring Bertie to get a job. Lord Emsworth has similar problems with his sister Constance.
- Also a partial subversion. Bertram Wooster (and his lack of ambition) isn't set up as a real role model. Really, mostly ambition is evil only when someone is trying to make Wooster evil. However, many of his friends have ambition.
- The major recurring theme of The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End is that people will put their own ambitions over what is morally right and what is best for everyone. All of the villains are consumed by the desire to rise above their current station and will do horrible things in the attempt. Further, the morally ambililent characters will repeatedly make decisions based solely on what is best for their advancement. Even the heroes are sometimes accused of being too arrogant or ambitious, though unlike others they do so in the pursuit of more noble goals.
- Inverted in The Divine Comedy. The ambitious are placed on one of the early spheres of the Heaven rather than in Hell. Nevertheless, in at least some translations, sins of "violence and ambition" get punished in the same part of Hell.
- In The Thin Red Line the amoral Dale is motivated by his desire to become a sergeant (this aspect of his character is absent from the 1998 film).
- In Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian story "A Witch Shall Be Born", Salome rejected the study of Things Man Was Not Meant to Know for using Black Magic for power.
"He said I was but an earthly sprite, knowing naught of the deeper gulfs of cosmic sorcery. Well, this world contains all I desire—power, and pomp, and glittering pageantry, handsome men and soft women for my paramours and my slaves.
- In both The Hour of the Dragon and "The Phoenix on the Sword", more than one conspirator wanted the throne. (At least two wanted the same throne, which gets awkward.)
- Played with in Lord of the Rings. Ambition itself is not evil, but the One Ring will inevitably twist any ambition or aspiration into an evil parody of its original form.
- Well, it tries to. When The Ring tries to corrupt Samwise by exploiting his desire to be a gardener it shows him that he could turn all of Middle Earth into a garden for him to tend. Sam shrugs it off by noting he'd need an army of gardeners to handle that much work, and what would be the point of gardening if you didn't do it yourself?
- A Song of Ice and Fire features one borderline and one straight example. The minor character Bronn follows a Rags to Riches arc, starting as a lowborn mercenary who, though the strength of his sword arm and some calculated risks, rises to a noble's retainer, then a knight, and then a lord. He's ruthless, unscrupulous, and quick to sell out his employers when given a better offer, but so far doesn't seem to be actively malevolent. Petyr Baelish was born a minor lordling with only a stretch of rocky coast and a handful of peasants, but his knack with finance and his overpowering ambition transformed him into a wealthy power-player with a political vice-grip on the continent (do note though, that simple ambition isn't his only motivation). Not only does he have a habit of murdering and betraying people left and right, his entirely self-serving scheming was one of the key factors that lead to the new civil war. Which, as far as we know, was intentional on his part, thus making him directly and indirectly responsible for most of the bad things that happened in the series, including about half of Westeros being devastated by said civil war and most likely facing famine in the near future.
- Tyrion comes to the conclusion that it's Littlefinger's limitless ambition that makes him one of the most dangerous men in the Royal Court, whilst everyone else thinks of him as pretty harmless. Varys makes a similar statement in the TV series.
- Tywin Lannister is a form of this. Tywin helped rule as Hand of the King for twenty years to King Aerys, and his time as Hand of the King is widely regarded as peaceful and prosperous. But when Aerys named Tywin's eldest son and heir to the Kingsguard, making him ineligible to inherit Casterly Rock, Tywin resigned, and eventually turned on Aerys. His forces sacked King's Landing, while Cersei ended up married to Robert Baratheon. Tywin's driving ambition, as stated in both the books and TV series, is "legacy"— he speaks of establishing a dynasty that lasts a thousand years, and does some very ruthless things to accomplish his goals.
- All Tom Weathers, from the Wild Cards series, really wants to do is use his immense power to make the world a better place. Using his personal definition of "better", of course: a purely Communist state run along traditional lines... including thought police and the elimination of dissidents. As he puts it, "You can't make an omellette without breaking some eggs", and if the "eggs" in question just happen to be a village full of innocent men, women, and children, all of whom must be killed by their own government so that they can blame another country and start a war, then so be it.
- Morgan Sloat in The Talisman is differentiated from his friends and partners by his ambition.
- In Death: This trope has occurred a number of times. Immortality in Death has Jake T. Casto, a cop who specializes in illegal drugs, make the fact that he wants to be promoted to captain very plain. Which would be fine, except that he is a Dirty Cop who has dealt in drugs, money, and murder. Witness in Death has this one traffic cop try to snatch an operation to arrest a suspect out of Eve's hands and winds up getting Trueheart and maybe the suspect shot. Commander Whitney makes it clear that that cop will be punished heavily for that. Betrayal in Death has FBI Agent Jacoby use a murder committed by Sylvester Yost in an attempt to take over Eve's investigation, and he snatched Eve's operation to nab Yost out of her hands, causing Yost to run for it. Oh, and Jacoby got hit in the heart by Yost's syringe when he tried to arrest him later on. Treachery in Death reveals that Renee Obermann wants to be promoted to captain and eventually commander. Unfortunately, she is a Dirty Cop dealing in drugs, money, and murder. Lieutenant Eve Dallas, on her part, has no interest in being promoted to captain.
- This is the aesop of Grace Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Minli's mother is only able to be happy once she learns to be content with her impoverished, isolated life, and the fortunes of Minli's family only improve after she gives up on trying to make them better...
- In Septimus Heap, Simon Heap's ambition to become ExtraOrdinary Apprentice causes his Face–Heel Turn at the beginning of Flyte, since it was Septimus who got the job.
- In The 39 Clues, nearly everyone besides Amy and Dan Cahill displays this at some point, given that the reward for combining all 39 Clues is a master serum that gives its drinker the powers of all four Cahill family branches. Of special note are the members of the Lucian family branch, who prize power above all else. Surprise - the Lucians in the Clue hunt are generally shown to be more willing to inflict serious and potentially fatal harm upon their competitors than anyone else.
- Inverted in Atlas Shrugged, where ambition is pretty much what makes the heroes good.
- But also played straight! James Taggart, Wesley Mouch, Dr. Robert Stradler and others are descend to horrific levels of evil (e.g.letting an entire trainload of people die simply to avoid being blamed for delaying said train) due to ambition. The difference is Dagny, Reardon, Galt, etc. can actually do the jobs they have ambitions to hold.
- Caine Soren from GONE is so ambitiously evil it borders sociopathic.
Caine: Drake is a sick creep. I'm...ambitious.Diana: That's one way of putting it. Power hungry. Domineering. A bully.
- Played straight in the Belisarius Series with Narses, who is a Magnificent Bastard AntiVillain obsessed with ambition for power and even more, ambition to prove himselve the best Chessmaster of them all. Downplayed with Theodora and Justinian, whose ambition does not make them evil but does make them proud, curmudgeonly, and sometimes paronoid.
- The Legend of Drizzt: Totally inverted by Obould Many-Arrows. He starts out as a typical if somewhat smarter and stronger than average orc warlord. Unlike most orcs, he had a dream beyond simple slaughter and mayhem. Obould wanted to make a kingdom for his people, one that would be recognized by the rest of the world. Obould's ambition more or less forces the orcs to become more civilized.
- Black Hat Otokoto in Akata Witch went very, very wrong because he aspired for material wealth.
- Zig-Zagged all over the place in A.L. Phillips's The Quest of the Unaligned. For starters we have the contrast between Tonzimmiel (an extreme meritocracy where everyone is seeking their own advancement, even to the detriment of others) and Caederan (a traditional society where advancing beyond your birth station is next to impossible and attempting to do so is considered extremely evil). Oddly enough, neither society is presented as being exactly right or wrong, rather each is wrong where the other is right and right where the other is wrong. In addition, the arch-villain became the villain by seeking to gain magic when he wasn't born with any, as the attempt to do so exposed him to The Dark Side. But on the other hand, the deuterotagonist Laeshana wanted nearly the same thing, and she was granted White Magic instead. Considering that this book was written by a student of sociology, this is not surprising.
- The communist-killing Nazi terrorists in Icebreaker could have been dealt with sooner if the KGB agent that was sent to investigate them hadn't been so ambitious. He allies himself with them, and plans to use the allegiance to lure James Bond into a trap, so that with him captured and delivered to his peers, he could further his own career.
- The Age of Fire series:
- The Copper isn't evil per se, but is by far the most morally ambiguous character in the series, is driven by a desire to prove himself (due to being cast out by his own family), and after becoming Tyr sets in motion plans to establish draconic dominance of the world.
- Pretty much every villain in the series is driven by ambition: the Wrymmaster wants to Take Over the World and wipe out all non-humans; Thane Hammar and King Fangbreaker want to carve out empires for themselves; almost all the members of the Lavadome Imperial Line are political schemers who'll backstab anyone for power; the Red Queen seems to want to Take Over the World for its own sake; and Rayg wants to extend his life long enough to unlock the secrets of the Lavadome, and is willing to decimate and enslave dragonkind to do it.
- In The Thorn Birds, Father Ralph deBricassart befriends wealthy widow Mary Carson even though he dislikes her in the hopes that her wealth and influence can help advance his career. When she dies, she does make a huge donation on his behalf and even though by now he's fallen in love with Meggie Cleary, the prospect of advancement is too tempting for him and he leaves her—and continues to leave her in order to continue rising in the ranks of the church. By the end of the book, he admits that deep down, he always knew that he was the father of Meggie' s son Dane, but taunts himself by referring to himself as "Cardinal deBricassart", because he is also forced to admit that rising in the church ranks was more important to him than being with the woman he loved and building a life with her.
- In Vampire Academy, Victor Dashkov intends to take the throne. He doesn't care who he hurts in the process, having no problem torturing his "niece" Lissa mentally and physically.
- One of the main causes of the Eugenics Wars was that super ability breeds superior ambition. Even the scientists who created them were seen as guilty of this, willing to not only create a new breed of humanity but create a strain of strep-A that would kill everyone else in the world to make way for their superhumans.
- In Codex Alera Invidia Aquitaine is born to a mid-rank Citizen family. Despite her power and proficiency in magic use, as a woman she can never attain true political power. So, she settled on being the First Lady of Alera, wife of the First Lord. When her first arranged marriage fails, she moves on to Attis Aquitaine, a powerful High Lord and his plans to take over the country in a coup and become First Lord himself. After some complications, she moves onto sides with the Vord, a Zerg-like force bent on the total eradication of all non-Vord life. In exchange for her help, she will be given domain over the Alerans who have surrendered to the Vord for safe keeping.
- In The Crowner John Mysteries, the Fatal Flaw of Sir Richard de Revelle, the Sheriff of Devon, is overweening ambition. His belief that he is entitled to (and destined for) greater things leads him to join rebellions against King Richard, only to have to hurriedly backpedal (and find some way to cover his tracks) when the rebellions fail.
Live Action TV
- In Primeval, Christine Johnson is one of the main villains in Series 3. The reason why she's so evil? She wants to steal an Ancient Egyptian artifact, which supposedly has magical powers, in order to do research on it, and become famous. In fact, Christine is so ambitious, that James Lester described her as "like a Velociraptor, only better dressed". Luckily, in Episode 3.9 of Primeval, Christine Johnson is pushed through an anomaly leading to the future by Helen Cutter, where she is killed, and presumably eaten, by a Future Predator, probably to Lester's great relief.
- Kind of subverted in Sabrina the Teenage Witch: When Harvey tells Sabrina he doesn't plan on going to college, Sabrina secretly doses him with a magical "Ambition" line of toiletries sold to her by her cousin. However she uses too much turning Harvey into a Corrupt Corporate Executive who manages to buy the school and plan on demolishing it. When Sabrina's aunts find out, they learn that the Ambition products lacked a key "expensive and imported" component: Perspective, meaning that Harvey was dosed with "Blind Ambition". When Harvey is dosed with Perspective, he cancels the plan, gives all his money to charity, and everything goes back to normal with an Aesop about wanting to change people... until Harvey tells Sabrina that he will go to college after all. (It's important to note that the Harvey at the end of the episode is still Harvey dosed with Ambition-plus-Perspective, not the original, unaltered personality — in other words, it is okay to screw with people's brain chemistry without their consent as long as you do it right.)
- Doctor Who:
Dalek Sec: I feel... everything we wanted for mankind. Which is... ambition. Hatred. Aggression. And war. Such a genius for war...
- In the episode "Evolution of the Daleks", Human-Dalek hybrid Dalek Sec spouts the following line after his transformation (note the other words besides "ambition"):
- In "The Deadly Assassin", the Master subverts his ally through appealing to his ambition.
- In Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and its spinoff Angel) there's a similar theme running throughout most of the TV portion of the series. First, with most of the non-evil characters high school students, the monsters and villains become distinguished as those who know exactly "what they want to do when they grow up" - they're doing it. More broadly, the show (based on commentaries, deliberately) emphasizes evil and good as proactive and reactive. When the good guys are farther ahead of their game than a last minute response, they're generally making a mistake somebody else will pay for. Organized efforts to protect people before they're in danger turn out to have been corrupted from the very beginning. Even when the goal is simply to help people who need it (the homeless shelter in Angel, headed by a genuinely good person), there are hints of evil as entropy: proactively doing good on a local scale inevitably means contributing (at a net loss) to greater if vaguer evils. This seems to end in Buffy's season seven. Maybe. Lindsey, a villain, had a driving motive of his cynicism and ambitions, as pointed out by his actor:
Christian Kane: "I still think this cat looks at the glass as being half empty. And so, damn it, I’m going to drink the rest of that water."
- Never, ever go on a reality show and express a desire to actually win. I mean, that'd be silly- who'd enter a Game Show with the intention of succeeding?
- An episode of You Can't Do That on Television specifically dealt with ambition. One of the cast members remarked that the problem with ambition was "If you don't have enough, you're lazy. And if you have too much, you're ruthless. You can't win." His solution? Be lazy and get a ruthless manager.
- HBO's The Wire argues that every system, from law enforcement to schools to government, is hamstrung by personal ambition. Everyone is too obsessed with advancing their own careers to actually do what is best for the community. Even if you do selflessly try to do what is right, you will be thwarted by others who refuse to make the same sacrifice.
- There are some indications on Supernatural that Sam's desire to go to school was bad.
- His desire for the power to stop Lilith is treated as bad only partly because of the way he goes about getting it.
- Similarly, in the episode "It's a Terrible Life," the moral of the story can be seen as "being a businessman is evil."
- Somewhat subverted with Glee: Main character Rachel is extremely ambitious, but it's portrayed in both good and bad ways: her insistence on always getting the spotlight alienates people, but her go-getter attitude combined with her talent is ultimately what will save her from the fate of many of her classmates (being stuck in Lima, OH). Certainly, she's never seen as evil. On the other hand, we have Sue, who single-mindedly pursues her goal of destroying Glee Club - and there's Terri, Will's wife who cruelly pushes him to give up teaching and become an accountant so they make more money.
- Rachel often seems to lack perspective, and goes to extreme lengths such as sending Sunshine to a crack house to scare her out of the glee club, this eliminating her (perceived) competition. By the end of Season 2, though, Rachel seems to have learned her lesson. She'll still be ambitious, but she's going to be nicer about it. Hopefully...
- Will is ambitious, though. It's just that these ambitions are directed toward elevating the McKinley High Glee Club as high as possible, rather than making money.
- Anyone in M*A*S*H who has ambitions is evil. The only people with ambitions are portrayed as being self-centered, selfish, and just plain bad. Some examples:
- Frank is always an antagonist, but any time he's in charge, it goes to his head and everyone turns against him.
- Generals and colonels are often portrayed as people who care more about their careers than anything else.
- When Winchester joins the cast, he wants to be head of thoracic surgery at a Boston hospital.
- Then again, Winchester is also portrayed as more than competent enough to handle this. Unlike Frank, his antagonism comes from a clashing personality as opposed to incompetence. By the end of the show, this troper wanted him to run that hospital!
- When the soldier of the month board is coming up, everyone in the competition stoops to some low activities (brown-nosing, cheating) to get ahead.
- One episode sees the company clerk, Radar, promoted from Corporal to Lieutenant. He's then put in charge of his "friends," who decide that since he's now an officer, he's automatically a Jerk Ass and no longer their buddy - even though he's shown to be quite laid back, and is only doing the job he was assigned. Radar is so troubled by this that at the end of the episode he asks to be demoted back to Corporal.
- There was also a nurse who had a crush on him. She was always making passes at him, but he didn't act on them because he was only a lowly corporal. When he's promoted to lieutenant, the nurse loses interest in him and explains that the only reason she was attracted to him in the first place was because it was wrong.
- Subverted with Father Mulcahy, who pushes for promotion but remains a nice guy. And it was because he was jealous of a colleague getting a similar promotion!
- Not quite subverted - he's shown regretting his actions and talks about the sin of pride.
- Similarly, in an episode of Happy Days Richie becomes leader of his squad in ROTC. Ralph and Potsie think it's an invitation to goof off and somehow he's the bad guy for punishing them for it.
- Morgan le Fay in the 1998 Merlin miniseries.
- In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Enterprise, this is explicitly given as the reason why genetic engineering is illegal in the Federation, with Khan as the defining example (naturally, this overlaps heavily with Fantastic Racism). It's specifically mentioned that "superior ability breeds superior ambition", and that dabbling in genetic engineering risks the creation of another superhuman like Khan, "whose ambition and thirst for power have been enhanced along with his intellect."
- Arguably, the US version of The Office. In the first few seasons, Dwight and Angela are the meanest employees who are the most unpopular with their coworkers. They are also the most driven, hard-working and likely to take charge. Then Andy was added to the cast and he was originally characterized as someone who, like Dwight, would stop at nothing to become Number Three in the office. By the time he was Rescued from the Scrappy Heap this goal had mysteriously disappeared. Ryan was corrupted with power when he got promoted to corporate and Took a Level in Jerkass, to extreme levels. Jim is at his best when he is Brilliant, but Lazy and whenever he takes on management duties he finds himself Lonely at the Top and is unsure of how to handle the job. Pam has always had an ambitious streak (even if it was repressed at first) which appears to run much deeper than that of Jim. However, while she originally had the sympathetic goals of wanting to prove herself talented and capable and escape her disliked receptionist job ever since she came back from Pratt she has gradually become more concerned with making money than being competent and has undertaken more questionable means of getting herself promoted. In fact, the only notably ambitious character who neither does mean things just to get ahead of others nor gets an intelligence downgrade after being promoted is Karen (she was sometimes mean to Pam because she was a rival love interest, not out of ambition). And that's because she was always going to be Put on a Bus for unrelated reasons.
- Lex Luthor seemed to catch more than a little flak for ever wanting to help people. Phrases like "The world doesn't need Lex Luthor to save it" were bandied about constantly, with the implication that because of his
DENSITYdestiny to be Superman's greatest enemy (which no one knew at the time because PREQUEL) meant that any and all efforts he made to be something other than a regular nobody would end in a Face–Heel Turn. And with his murder by Oliver Queen and having been effectively replaced by his clone, it seems all of that worrying was for absolutely nothing.
- A recurring theme on The Honeymooners is Alice telling Ralph he should be satisfied with his job as a bus driver and not keep trying to improve their lot in life. Admittedly, Ralph has a tendency to go with get rich quick schemes, but if the level headed Alice actually helped steer his ambition instead of belittling him, they might actually prosper.
- Royally averted in Carrusel. Most, if not all of the kids had an idea of what they wanted to be when they grew up. They were encouraged to study and do well in school, as well as to pursue their hobbies.
- The central theme of Kamen Rider OOO is desire, and most of the story arcs are about dealing with some ambition that's run out of control. The main character himself is characterized by an utter lack of any kind of ambition. And then the trope was inverted.
- Particularly by Kosei Kougami, perhaps the closest thing there is to a Big Good in the series. He loudly and frequently espouses the virtue of desire and ambition, because it leads to progress and evolution. This is in contrast to Eiji, who's lack of desire and focus on what's immediately in front of him are initially played as entirely virtuous, but his outlook is later shown to be the result of severe emotional trauma and eventually causes him to start losing himself as he transforms into the Purple Greed, which represents the antithesis of desire.
- Inverted in Power Rangers in Space, where being more evil seems to increase your ambition. The Big Bad has a Heel–Face Turn midway through the season, after finding out she's Andros long-lost sister. Unfortunately, not long after, the Greater Scope Villain captures her and uses cybernetics to brainwash her into being even more evil than she originally was. After this happens she almost immediately begins plotting to overthrow the Greater Scope Villain, an ambition she'd never been shown to have before.
- Wonderfully averted in Parks and Recreation. Leslie is extremely ambitious (She wants to one day be the first female president) but is also extremely moral and would never even think of doing something wrong to get ahead in politics.
- Played with on Leverage with Sterling, who always benefits personally from the team's actions, Word of God even says Sterling. Never. Loses. . While he is almost always an antagonist of the team, he is often portrayed as actually being in the right, especially once he becomes an Interpol Special Agent.
- In Babylon 5, the Shadows hold ambition as the highest virtue and constantly play to this emotion in the Younger Races to promote their philosophy of Social Darwinism. Londo Mollari, their main 'client' through the story, ends up doing a lot of Dirty Business for his ambitions and suffers greatly for them, especially when he tries putting it right again. Word of God confirms that the Shadow emissary Morden recruited Londo specifically because he had a positive ambition to restore the Centauri empire, while G'Kar only wanted revenge on the Centauri, with no vision beyond that. note Ironically, the Shadows are convinced to leave the Younger Races alone forever after Sheridan asks them their own Armor-Piercing Question ("What do you want?") and they realize they don't know the answer anymore. The Shadows themselves had no real ambitions.
- A recurring theme on Little House on the Prairie. Anyone with money is bad or downright evil (Harriet Olesen, Ebeneezer Sprague) and doing things that will make a character successful will only backfire and provide an Aesop for the protagonists.
- Every time Harriet attempts to make more money, she has the plan fall apart on her and end up costing her money.
- When Charles and Caroline go to a high-school reunion, they feel sad when they realize how much more successful everyone else is, but in the end, everyone who succeeded in life wishes they had the life of Charles and Caroline because they have true happiness.
- When Charles and Mr. Garvey go into the freight business, they're immediately successful, so the first thing they do is go into a fancy restaurant and start ordering things off the menu that they don't even recognize. When the waiter brings them their escargot, they get mad at him, like he's trying to force a fancy life upon them. Charles even yells at the waiter for no reason other than he didn't like the fancy life. Charles and Mr. Garvey leave the restaurant, taking a bottle of wine with them, without paying for any of it. The entire scene is played like this is their "reward" for doing well. Because of this meal, they decide to end their freight business and go home to their wives. Neither one of them had been home for two weeks, but rather than have that be the reason for their return, they focused on the way rich people act.
- First Lady Mellie Grant on Scandal will do anything to stay in the White House and clearly has designs on building a Grant political dynasty. We later find out the underlying reason for this. She was raped by her father-in-law and was too traumatized to tell anyone what happened. Instead she convinced herself that her staying silent was a Heroic Sacrifice needed to get her husband elected to office so he could do great things. If she were to abandon that ambition, she would have to admit that her 'sacrifice' was for nothing.
- Revenge has Daniel Grayson who took over his company against his fathers wishes and alienated all other friends and lovers in the process.
- On ER, Kerry Weaver did increasingly underhanded and immoral things in order to advance her career.
- The premise of House of Cards (UK) and House of Cards (US). Francis Urquhart and Francis Underwood initially engage in some ruthless Disproportionate Retribution after getting snubbed for a promotion that ends with them in higher positions than they were originally hoping for. But they enjoy the power so much that they keep climbing the political ladder on top of several careers and bodies.
- A running theme of For Better or for Worse is that anyone who shows ambition is doomed to failure or just plain horrible. The biggest example of this can be spotted with Therese, Anthony's ex-wife. She is demonized for not complying with her husband's wishes and giving it all up to become a stay-at-home mom. The fact that she apparently gets postpartum depression is glossed over by Anthony; when she abandons, then completely rejects her own daughter, it's just anvilicious.
- The structure of Dungeons & Dragons averts the trope, since achieving wealth and power is a built-in result of adventuring.
- In Scion, one of the Dark Virtues is Ambition.
- In Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000:
- Tzeentch is the Chaos god of ambition, also: hope, change, mutation, psychic powers, lies, plotting, ravens, Etc.
- The Space Marines believe, "Better to die for the Emperor, than live for yourself."
- The Tau are all about this, to a point where they can be a Deconstruction. Everything they do is for "The Greater Good": they don't love in the romantic sense (they breed by eugenics with couplings determined by genetic analysis), they will throw themselves into a meat-grinder knowing full well they will die, and even their leaders will sometimes carry a bomb to blow themselves up all for the Greater Good.
- In 7th Sea, "Ambitious" is one of the Hubrises that can be taken as a "fatal flaw" by player characters in exchange for more Hero Points at character creation. However, Hubrises aren't explicitly considered evil traits, just dangerous ones, and characters that have one are just as heroic as anyone else. (The game also includes such Hubrises as "Loyal", "Misfortunate" and "Star-crossed".)
- In Magic: The Gathering, ambition is one of the things represented by the color black. Granted, black is not always evil, but it is the usual home of Always Chaotic Evil creatures.
- In Legend of the Five Rings, there exist a set of four "Bloodswords", powerful weapons crafted by an evil sorcerer. They are named Passion, Revenge, Judgement, and Ambition, and greatly increase the given emotion/feeling in their wielder to an extremely unhealthy level. Throughout the story, two separate individuals have wielded Ambition. Both tried to murder the Emperor and take over his throne. Both ended poorly for the individual in question.
- In Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies, "ambitious" best describes the national character of the Barathi, whose empire is tangled, corrupt, and ridden with assassination and Vendetta-killings. The other nations have their own ideals that can cause conflict, but the Barathi are the easiest to hand for any GM who wants a sinister plot driven by someone's desire for power. Ambition is even listed as one of the fatal flaws that distinguishes a swashbuckling villain from a hero, becoming consumed by the need to win.
- Characters can also easily take "Ambition" as a Foible (similar to the Hubrises of 7th Sea), which is an open invitation for any GM to have it bite them in the ass. Then again, they can also take it as a Motivation or other Forte so that an ambitious nature works for them rather than against.
- While BattleTech operates under a mostly Grey and Grey Morality, characters who are presented as ambitious (whether that ambition is to work their way up to a higher rank in the military, become governor of a planet, or conquer the entire Inner Sphere) are almost always presented as antagonists. Hanse Davion is the biggest exception- he came the closest to conquering the Inner Sphere that anyone had done since the collapse of the Star League but was generally portrayed as heroic because of his actions.
- Brett Andrews is one of the worse cases, as the ilKhan(Khan of all the Clans) he puts his personal ambitions and ideas over the betterment of all the Clans. He instigated the Wars of Reavings which resulted in the Clans tearing each other apart, while his Clan the Steel Vipers benefited from it, at the expense of the rest of the Clans.
- Hanse Davion avoids falling into this trope mainly by not actually being especially ambitious, at least not by Successor Lord standards. Cunning, yes, ruthless where he needs to be, too...but he does have a conscience and at heart genuinely believes that the people he conquers will in fact be better off than they were under their old oppressive regimes (and considering who his primary enemies in his time are it's not too difficult to see why he would think so). So from his perspective it's actually not All About Him. (Compare and contrast his daughter Katherine, who in her own grab for power after his death plays the trope dead straight and promptly ends up thoroughly wrecking the very Federated Commonwealth he's only just helped establish again.)
- The Violent in Anathema gain will from outclassing other shrouds. There's nothing wrong with being ambitious at your job. When your job is to murder millions upon millions of humans, however...
- Initially the main protagonist of The Fix, Calvin Chandler, only wants to hang out getting high and playing guitar—it's his scheming mother who forces him into politics after her Senator husband dies, because...
If I can't be the wife of the President,You can bet your ass I'll be his mother!
- RENT: In "You'll See," it's revealed that before the events of the musical, ambition and wanting to move up on the social ladder are what gradually transformed Benny from an idealistic bohemian and friend of Mark and Roger, to a rather callous and occasionally unpleasant capitalist who reneges on his promise not to charge rent to his former room and housemates and tries to get a lot containing a tent city cleared out and demolished. Its worth noting that both of these actions are to achieve his dream of building a high-tech studio, which he hopes can allow his former fellow bohemians to actually make money off of their art.
- Cyrano de Bergerac: In-Universe: One of the traits of the Gascon moral code: De Guiche, a gascon soldier is considered No True Gascon between all the other Gascons because he wants to get power through compromise instead of his personal valor.
- Social hierarchies were a major part of Elizabethan society, so ambition beyond one's station is an important theme in many William Shakespeare tragedies:
- In Julius Caesar, Brutus claims to the Romans that Caesar's ambitious nature was tyrannical, and that stopping him justifies the murder. Antony provides the page quote by acknowledging the dangers of ambition even though he disagrees.
- Ambition is literally Macbeth's only motivation in favor of kill Duncan: "I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition".
- In Hamlet, Claudius' ambition to the throne leads him to kill his brother and marry the queen.
- Ambition leads Abigaille to usurp her father's throne in Verdi's Nabucco.
- The aptly-named Ambition series has this with Yale.
- Crusader Kings 2: The Ambitious trait gives a character a very good stat bonus, but it also gives the character a permanent -5 relations malus with anyone else who has the trait, as well as -25 towards anyone getting in the way of the ambition (typically the character's liege, if any). This means Ambitious vassals are more likely to rebel. Furthermore, its opposed trait, Content, gives a piety bonus. So, it's not so much "ambition makes you evil" as it is "ambition makes you a pain in the rear".
- Disgaea 4: This is the sin that sent Fuka Kazamatsuri straight to hell. At the tender age of five, she wanted to Take Over the World, and begged her Mad Scientist father for a little sister who would also double as a Person of Mass Destruction and her own personal Dragon. Once in the Netherworld, she first tries to take over Hades (as she was sick of being treated poorly as a Prinny), then tries to take over the entire Netherworld, and then tries to take over the Human World as well!
- It's apparently such a big enough sin that in The Fuka and Desco Show she is effectively banned from reincarnation after she and her sister Take Over the World! Though that doesn't bother her too much and declares the Netherworld and Celestia are next.
- Dragon Age II: Anders is the only one who shows any kind of ambition towards ending the templar/mage conflict. So, he blows up the Chantry so there can be no compromise between the two sides.
- Merrill also has shades of this trope. Her ambition to link her people with their past prompts her to try and restore a broken mirror that's a portal for a demon to re-enter the world from the Fade. While she herself survives, this goal gets at least Keeper Marethari killed, if not the entire clan she was trying to help.
- Snarky!Hawke plays this straight, being one of the few unambiguously good characters in the game. Despite their actions pissing off more than a few people in the process, Snarky!Hawke acts out of a desire to help people with no reward, has no real goals other than protecting their friends and family and at the end of the day, simply desires nothing more than to head down to The Hanged Man for a drink among friends.
- Played very straight with siblings Varric and Bartrand. The former is a party member, has no patience for "dwarven honor" and is happy to hang out at the Hanged Man drinking and telling stories. The latter is obsessed with reclaiming his family's legacy, incredibly unpleasant to work for, and leaves you all to die with a little push from an Artifact of Doom.
- Dragon Age: Origins: Bhelen Aeducan is a Well-Intentioned Extremist who wants to drag the dwindling dwarf kingdom into the modern day, and isn't above poisoning his own family to get on the throne. Should you put him in power, he institutes martial law and sends assassins after anyone who might try to unseat him. He also opens trading deals with the outside world and gives casteless dwarves actual rights. Under the other guy's rule, the dwarves stay an isolationist Deadly Decadent Court and not much gets done.
- Dragon Age: Inquisition: One of the potential companions of the Inquisition, Vivienne, was pretty much described in the promotional material as 'The Ambition'. She's not evil per se, but self-serving and tends to cause conflicts with other companions. Being a player of The Game, she really need to claw her way out to a society that despise mages no matter how many blood was spilled.
- Dragon Quest VIII: In this JRPG, Marcello is obsessed with gaining power and status because he was born to a peasant woman and a nobleman. It doesn't end well. It does, however, end better for him than for the majority of other named characters; at least Marcello survives the game.
- Dynasty Warriors: In the early games, most of Cao Cao's speeches links to the term 'Ambition'. And he is the bad guy in the novel.
- Ecco the Dolphin : Defender of the Future: Justified. Ambition made dolphins from an alternate reality ruthless and selfish, but only because at the time it was their only trait besides Intelligence (the others having been stolen from them). When those qualities are balanced by the rest - Compassion, Wisdom, and Humility - Ambition instead serves as the noble trait that drives dolphins to fulfill their dreams.
- The eponymous Player Characters of Evil Genius are explicitly... well, Evil Geniuses trying to Take Over the World, in the purest form of evil ambition there is. But among the three, Alexis stands out, as she started a wealthy socialite, quadrupled her inheritance, and the thing that drives her to world conquest is the realization that this wasn't enough.
- Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones: Caellach, a mercenary who becomes one of the six generals of The Empire. His greatest ambition is to become a King, and he's also Affably Evil and That One Boss.
- Legacy of Kain: Kain gets called out on this in a few of games of the series. He may be the hero of the series, but that doesn't change the fact they actually make a point.
- Valkyria Chronicles: This is actually one of the major themes of the game; every single character who actually aspired to achieve their rank in the military is in it for some form of selfish gain and nothing else, and most of them die. The exception is Varrot, who only became a captain because she wanted revenge for her murdered lover., and retired shortly afterward. Everyone who either enlists voluntarily or is conscripted, without pursuing an actual military career, gets a more or less happy ending— and the exception to that is Faldio, who dies explicitly for believing in military strength over the power of love. The bottom line is that in Europa, the only way to win a war is by blowing it up with your belief in pacifism (and regular guns- magic lasers are evil.) It takes this a step further by having the entire main Gallian army die in a huge explosion. Their deaths are mentioned once and then completely ignored by the main cast— because even though enemy Mooks are shown to be human, the Gallian army are Mooks that have no worth at all, presumably because (unlike Squad 7, which is made up of people who volunteered in response to a threat to their hometowns) they're professional soldiers, who only exist to promote warfare and be willingly manipulated by their evil, shallow overlord, General Damon.
- Zyll: This is what got Zyll into trouble in the first place.
- Mehrunes Dagon of The Elder Scrolls is the Daedric Prince of Destruction... and of Ambition. He is also the only Daedra to have been the Big Bad of two games, and one of those games indicates him to have been the Greater Scope Villain for a third. He tends to favour destruction, but the fact that one of the few Princes that pretty much everyone agrees is evil is associated with ambition is rather telling.
- From Sands of Destruction:
- Subverted by Pistris Rex. While his sole motive for holding the peace talks is to secure a better seat for himself on the counsel of beastlords, he's perfectly reasonable and willing to make genuine strides for peace. Too bad the Front decided to send in Kyrie, who's known to not have complete control of his powers, as their representative, and the Crimson Sun picked that moment to active his Destruct Code.
- Eventually played straight by Lacertus Rex. His ambition to destroy and remake the world to his liking lead to delusions of godhood.
- Played for Drama in Xerath's backstory in League of Legends. Originally a child slave of the ancient Shurima empire, all his life he only desired to be free. He would eventually save the life of the young Emperor Azir, who promised him his freedom, and would go on to be educated, taught magic and become the Emperor's top adviser. However, he never gained the freedom he was promised, and eventually turned to scheming to take freedom. However, just as his schemes were about to bear fruit, Azir finally kept his promise and revealed he always intended to, just waiting for the right moment. Xerath, unable to do anything to stop the destruction of Shurima he had set in motion, could only silently weep at what was about to happen. He was then sealed away in a tomb for several thousand years by Nasus and Renekton before escaping into the present time determined never to lose his freedom again.
- In The Legend of Zelda, the Big Bad, Ganondorf lead an expedition to the Sacred Realm in order to acquire the Triforce, a creation of the three goddesses that could grant unlimited power to the one who has it. However, when he touched it, the Triforce separated into three parts, as it would only remain intact for those whose hearts value Power, Wisdom, and Courage equally. Ganondorf only received one piece of the whole: the Triforce of Power, as he only valued Power and wanted to Take Over the World. Meanwhile, the other two pieces, the Triforce of Courage and Triforce of Wisdom, went to the heroes: Link and Princess Zelda respectively. Thus, in all games in the series, it is the job of the various Links and Zeldas to stop Ganondorf from gaining the full Triforce so his ambitions can come to fruition.
- In Brawl in the Family, this is the ultimate source of Ganondorf and Dedede's respective Face Heel Turns.
- In Pacificators, there is Princess Belinda. She poisoned her father, and successfully got the throne. This trope is averted with Muneca, however, who is a good guy. She's still awfully ambitious, though.
- Averted In the Whateley Universe: Phase used to be a Sheltered Aristocrat and is now fairly obsessed with regaining wealth, power, control, and the ability to do stuff with that power...but is a good guy.
- Sigma from Red vs. Blue is the personification of the Alpha's ambition, and Season 10's flashbacks reveal that his biggest ambition was to achieve "metastability," the AI equivalent of becoming a person. To achieve such a goal, he corrupted Agent Maine into becoming a psychopath, tortured the Alpha multiple times, and convinced Carolina to take two AI units, all of which either directly or indirectly led to most of Project Freelancer's agents being killed.
- For Eddy (along with his friends, who are far less deserving) of Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy, Failure Is the Only Option by the end of an episode, usually because he is a scam artist who attempts to weasel the other kids out of money. However even if they manage to pull off a relatively legitimate business with rather impressive efforts they will still end up getting screwed over badly.
- On Total Drama World Tour, Ezekiel was really determined to win. This did not go well for him. Note that he wasn't a villain like Heather or Alejandro—he was just a really determined contestant who wound up getting ridiculously abused before somehow transforming into Gollum. And no, It Does Not Really Make Sense In Context, either.
- Deconstructed in the season 22 Simpsons episode "Lisa Simpson, This Isn't Your Life." Lisa spends an episode dreading ending up like Marge and transfers to an elite private school. Sitcom law dictates that the children there must be insufferable snobs, sending her running back to good ol' Springfield Elementary. Instead, the school suits her perfectly. Late in the episode, she discovers the long hours Marge works to cover the tuition. She spouts out something out of nowhere about how the children are snobs, saying she'd actually rather turn out like Marge, but it turns out she really wanted to remain at the school and probably would turn out better if she could stay there, but she can't do it knowing the strain it puts on her mother. In the end, ambition itself may not be evil, but fulfilling it can be, because it requires not caring who you have to step on to get ahead.
- This is played straight and subverted in Avatar: The Last Airbender. The shows main bad guys are the Fire Benders. Fire is described as being the element of power and those who practice it have desire and will and the energy and drive to achieve what they want. They are by their nature ambitious. However we are also shown many characters, including fire benders, whose ambition drives them to improve themselves and the world around them.
- Of especial notice is Fire Lord Sozin, his seemingly earnest ambition started the show's conflict generations later.
- Averted in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic; the aesop of "Sweet and Elite" is that while achieving success is great, you should never forget your roots.
- The show tends to subvert this trope in general. Characters like Rainbow Dash or Rarity have great ambitions for their futures and this is never treated as negative.
- Megatron in Transformers Prime started this way. He wanted was to bring social reform to a caste-bound Cybertron, and believed himself to be worth of the title of Prime. Flash forward to a few stellar cycles later, and he's now a war-mongering tyrant who plans to bring "Peace through tyranny."
- As in the comic book section above, most incarnations of Starscream are paragons of this trope (In addition to The Starscream), wanting to lead the Decepticons for no other reason than he wants to be in charge, and will stop at nothing to achieve this, even though he's usually massively unsuited for the position. As he says in Transformers Prime, he is no stranger to ambition.
- In ThunderCats (2011), though the Fantastic Caste System of The Empire of Thundera is presented as deeply dysfunctional, the one person who expresses an explicit, deep desire to rise above his station is the villain Grune, a Four-Star Badass with dreams of being The Usurper of Thundera's king. Frustrated in his efforts, he later settles for the more expedient strategy of defecting to be The Dragon to the series Big Bad, collaborating in Thundera's downfall.
- Huntik: Secrets & Seekers's villain Wilder is definitely this, to the point his ambitions about ruling The Syndicate blind him. Clear and looming threats, combined with his Demonic Summons titans and Smug Snake personality make for a villain who doesn't listen to facts or care about the consequences as long as he gets what he's after.
- In Teen Titans, the only member of the H.I.V.E. Five with any real ambition ultimately inverts this.