Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault;
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it."
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 probability 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. The 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 Take Over the World 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.
Usually justified when the existing society is an evil dystopia, or otherwise flawed — "advancing" in such a society would generally mean complying with or encouraging its systemic injustices.note 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 heavy-handed 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 a common 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 presented 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 inverse of Living Is More than Surviving, where achieving more than the most basic things people can do is seen as good.
See also Pride, Personal Gain Hurts and Evil Virtues. Compare with Drunk with Power. Contrast with Self-Made Man and Go-Getter Girl, who pursue their ambitions, and aren’t (necessarily) evil, as well any Rags to Riches story where The Protagonist means to become rich.
- Alexandre Cabanel's The Fallen Angel: Craving for power is Lucifer's Fatal Flaw. He first wants to rule over both angels and humans alongside God, but he's rebuked because there can only be one God. Upset about it he hypocritically deems God a tyrant and convinces other angels to rebel against him. He loses the war and is banned from Heaven, which causes him great pain but doesn't prevent him from declaring himself the ruler of hell.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The villain's Backstory in Coco: Ernesto de la Cruz only became the star he was after he murdered his musical partner and stole his songs.
- In Frankenweenie, the main character manages to resurrect his dog out of love, and while still kind of dead, the dog is otherwise fine. The other kids, meanwhile, are Designated Villains because they want to replicate his experiment to win the science fair; their animals all Come Back Wrong, for no apparent reason other than that they had "bad" intentions.
- 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.
- 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.
- Downplayed with Tigress in the first film. Tigress was quite overachieving in the beginning but it was mostly to reinforce her worth in the eyes of Shifu, the citizens of the Valley, and her teammates. Nevertheless, it's these traits and the feeling of being pushed aside by an incoming (and seemingly undeserving) student that drives much of her cruel treatment towards Po.
- In The Little Mermaid (1989) 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.
- The Once-ler in The Lorax film 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.
- 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.
- 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 is part of the reason Noni attempts suicide and ultimately leads to her letting Macy have it and firing her as her manager.
- Bones (2001): Jeremiah's first flashback establishes him as being resentful of how Jimmy refuses to accept criminal deals which could help him advance in the world. When Jimmy says he's fine with the status quo, Jeremiah replies that "you got all the status, and I got nothing but quo." He pressures Jimmy to partner with Eddie and Lupovich to get rich selling drugs, and while he's horrified during Jimmy's actual murder, he's unrepentant about helping to turn his old neighborhood into a slum.
- Luchino Visconti's The Damned (1969) 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 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.
- 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...
- Godzilla vs. Kong: Apex Cybernetics, the Evil, Inc. responsible for the plot of the movie. Though they try to justify their Evil Plan to kill and usurp Godzilla by claiming they're returning total control of the planet to humanity and are creating a secure line of defence against the Titans, it's pretty clear from Walter Simmons' behavior and Apex's nightmarish lack of regard for the millions of potential casualties they engineer that what Apex really want is to be the ones credited with breaking new ground in the form of their human-controlled anti-Titan Mecha and to be hailed as heroes. It's even all but confirmed in the official novelization that if Apex's plan had succeeded without any hitches, they would've gone on to Take Over the World outright.
- 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.
- A rather subtle version occurs in I Shot Jesse James. Bob Ford’s pursuit of silver and wealth makes him even more possessive of his Love Interest Cynthy, whereas his rival John Kelley’s decision to become Town Marshal (largely considered a thankless job) is treated as a selfless action. This makes the two men's Love Triangle with Cynthy even more intense.
- Many, if not all, James Bond villains are motivated to dominate the world or be very powerful, and they'll use any means to get to their goals, including but not limited to straight-up omnicide or triggering World War III.
- Wan ultimately ends up losing everything she actually loved in her grab for power in Legend of the Black Scorpion. Then someone killed her.
- While Loki initially states that he never wanted the throne, he definitely gets a taste for it during his short rule in Thor. In The Avengers, Loki has a lot of ambition: he wants to be a king of Asgard but would settle for taking over Earth as a substitute. This, of course, leads him to do some pretty evil stuff.
- Master: It's implied that Liv, a professor at Lancaster University who is a candidate for tenure, commits hate crimes against Jasmine and ultimately kills her in order to get tenure and thus secure her place in the college.
- 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.
- Savannah Smiles: Mr. Driscoll wants to run for the state Senate and neglects his daughter even more than usual to do so (while making his wife do the same), eventually graduating to outright destroying evidence that shows his daughter did run away instead of being kidnapped.
- 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 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.
- In The Thin Red Line (1998) the antagonistic Lt. Col. Tall orders a suicidal attack, because the battle offers perfect opportunity for promotion.
- Vicki: Even though Vicki claims she is not ambitious, this is patently not true (and Steve even outright states this during one of Perp Sweating sessions). She uses those around her to ruthlessly claw her way to the top of the New York social scene, and then tosses everyone aside to move to Hollywood. It is her decision to go Hollywood that gets her murdered.
- 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.
- Both of the scientists in the Evillious Chronicles song Project "Ma" are this.
- "Paranoid Android" by Radiohead has the prominent line 'Ambition makes you look pretty ugly.'
- Dawn of a New Age: Oldport Blues:
- Finn, whose desire to be a great political leader is intrinsically tied to his unlikable, arrogant personality. Downplayed, however, in that he's a jerkass rather than a villain.
- Daigo, similarly, wants to overthrow the ruling powers and become a leader who can present himself to the masses as their saviour. While a somewhat noble goal in theory, he quickly leaps off into the dark side when he uses his newfound power to terrorise and murder innocents for the sake of his goal.
- 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...
- While BattleTech operates under a mostly Grey-and-Gray 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 structure of Dungeons & Dragons averts the trope, since achieving wealth and power is a built-in result of adventuring.
- 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.
- 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. Personified by Bontu, the God of Ambition on the plane of Amonkhet, which drove her personality so much that she allied with Nicol Bolas in order to gain more power. Predictably, once Bolas had used Amonkhet to his satisfaction, she paid for it.
- Scion: One of the Dark Virtues is Ambition.
- 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".)
- 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.
- In Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000:
- Tzeentch is the Chaos god of ambition, also: hope, change, mutation, betrayal, psychic powers, lies, plotting, ravens, etc. In fact, in 40K he's the accumulated hope felt by sentient species in the galaxy.
- 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.
- Worth pointing out that they think personal ambition is bad. Collective species-wide ambition is a virtue. Yeah.
- Horus Lupercal embodied the Emperor's ambition, and that ambition led him to ruin.
- Nagash from Warhammer Fantasy wanted to be king, but due to Nehekaran rules of succession, he (as the eldest son) was made a priest while his younger brother was made king. Pissed beyond belief by this, Nagash plotted for a means to overthrow his brother, which he got when some captured Dark Elves taught him the basics of dark magic, providing him with the base to invent necromancy. Nowadays Nagash (as a mighty lich) has loftier goals in mind: killing the entire world and the Chaos Gods so that his will alone would reign supreme.
- Similarly, the elven prince Malekith wanted to succeed his father Aenarion, the first Phoenix King. When the High Elves instead instituted Elective Monarchy and elected Bel-Shanaar to the position, Malekith accepted it publicly but secretly schemed against him. After murdering Bel-Shanaar and the Council of Princes, Malekith sought to emulate his father and Bel-Shanaar and undergo the same Trial by Ordeal to become king by walking through the Sacred Fire of Asuryan with their blood still on his hands. Asuryan quickly disabused him of his legitimacy, and the ensuing Civil War tore the old High Elven kingdom apart. Staying alive through his own spite and ambition, Malekith still plots to become king of the elves or to sink Ulthuan beneath the waves if they continue to defy him.
- 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.
- 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!
- Played with heavily in Hamilton, with Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr and what drives their relationship from an amiable friendship to a duel to the death. At the beginning, Hot-Blooded Hamilton's mouth tends to get him in trouble, and Burr tries to advise him to keep his opinions to himself to avoid just that. Hamilton is disgusted by Burr's refusal to openly back causes based on his beliefs, but the two form an Odd Friendship all the same. Hamilton keeps pushing Burr to be more active and ambitious, but the first big crack in their relationship comes when Burr switches parties to run against Hamilton's father-in-law for a Senate seat, which Burr wins. Burr tells Hamilton that Hamilton inspired him to aspire higher, as far as the Presidency, but as Burr aims higher and higher the two men grow farther and farther apart, culminating in Hamilton endorsing his old Arch-Enemy Jefferson over Burr in the Election of 1800. Burr blames Hamilton for his loss, and they begin exchanging polite but vitriolic letters, culminating in the infamous duel which ends in Hamilton's death.
- Hamilton's reason for supporting Jefferson in the election over Burr is explicitly this. He argues that while Jefferson's ideals run strongly against his own, he at least wants to be President because he believes in those ideals: Burr wants to be President so that he can become powerful.
- Ambition leads Abigaille to usurp her father's throne in Verdi's Nabucco.
- 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. It's 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.
- 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.
- "The Way Things Are" from I Can Get It For You Wholesale:
You've got to climb higher, always climb!
To hell with the rules!
Get used to the fools
Who have to be stepped on
From time to time!
- Double Homework:
- Played with regarding the protagonist. His Olympic aspirations seem to make him a stuck-up glory hog, and as he matures, he starts to lose interest in them. And when he loses the qualifier, he’s okay with it.
- Averted with Rachel. She has — and keeps — the same Olympic ambition as the protagonist, but she doesn’t lose her moral compass for it.
- Played straight with Dennis. A social outcast who wants to become an alpha male, he uses all manner of immoral and illegal means to achieve his aim.
- Played straight with Nagi, Nami, and The Midnight Killer in Major/Minor. While the former two are looking to restart the universe, their actions have caused death and suffering across the galaxy. The Midnight Killer, Maxine Armstrong, wants to gain possession of The Ark, claiming she'll use the powers of it to stop death — however, she is psychotic and treats the lives of the people she's killing as nothing. It's also hinted that she arranged to have her older sister killed so she could inherit Armstrong Incorporated. Subverted with Acheron and Velasquez: Acheron wants to gain the power of The Ark to prevent his psychotic sister from controlling it, and to use it to combat death; Velasquez wants to help The Federation find a new source of power and seems to care about his royal subjects, but the morality of his methods is questionable.
- Dreamscape: Melissa's thirst for knowledge led her to become Melinda's apprentice. Like Melissa, Melinda is a seeker of knowledge, but it's for evil purposes. This is also the reason she was sealed away in her castle the first time.
- Discussed and subverted in Overly Sarcastic Productions' retelling of Isis stealing Ra's true name. It sounds like "the highly dramatic inciting conflict of any number of High Fantasy evil god-queen plot lines"...but no, she just uses her nigh-omnipotence to give women easier childbirths and other nice things.
- Red vs. Blue: Sigma is the Anthropomorphic Personification of the Alpha's ambition, and as flashbacks in The Project Freelancer Saga reveal, 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.
- RWBY: This is Cinder Fall's defining trait; she will do anything for power. This is best demonstrated when she betrayed Raven and Vernal by killing the latter to gain the power of the Spring Maiden, which backfired horribly when it's revealed that Raven, not Vernal, was the Spring Maiden.
- In Adventures in Jedi School, Master Mudmud and Villaine sent Randy to assassinate Principal Eval and to procure Sessa, the former so that Mudmud would become the new Headmaster, while the later so that Villaine could have force powers and the two could rule together as brother and sister.
- In Brawl in the Family, this is the ultimate source of Ganondorf and Dedede's respective Face Heel Turns.
- DICE: The Cube That Changes Everything: X specifically gives less quests and rewards to people lacking Desire, ensuring that proactive or amoral Dicers stay on top. Every Dicer has an idea what they want from the Final Die and can do anything for it, including killing everyone else.
- 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.