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Vicariously Ambitious

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"Nestor is very much aware of the fact that he is part of the lesser branch of House Royce. He wants more for his son. Men of honor will do things for their children that they would never consider doing for themselves."
Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish, A Song of Ice and Fire

Some people just don't, for whatever reason, have the desire to climb the social ladder. They may be perfectly content with their life, maybe they think that the whole thing is too much trouble, or maybe they're aware that that sort of social climbing is impossible for them, for whatever reason.

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Sometimes though, those same people who are uninterested or unable to do some social climbing for themselves may have someone else that they're willing to back and help get ahead. In the most altruistic cases it's because they have a case of Undying Loyalty toward this person, perhaps because that person is one of their True Companions, a blood brother, relative, or a spouse. Less altruistic cases may be looking to turn that other person into an Unwitting Pawn while becoming The Man Behind the Man, or to benefit from some Nepotism after putting them into power, or to be able to say "You Owe Me" sometime later.

This tends to overlap with a whole range of tropes, ranging from The Good Chancellor to The Consigliere, to more morally ambiguous (or worse) ones such as Stage Mom, Poisonous Friend, Psycho Supporter, and Lady Macbeth. Those darker tropes go double if the person in question doesn't want to be pushed into whatever position that is being planned for them. These actions can also backfire, and anyone hurt by the ambitious party may target the person they're supporting for revenge. Doubly so if it's felt that the person reaping the benefits of the ambition is an Accomplice by Inaction or guilty of Murder by Inaction.

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These sorts of supporters may be the difference in a Kingmaker Scenario. May be the result of the supporter being or becoming an Almighty Janitor, if it seems like they shouldn't have the ability to influence things as much as they do. Social Climber is a more general super trope. Mother Makes You King is a specific subtrope where a woman (usually barred from ruling due to Heir Club for Men) arranges for her son to be next in line to become king.


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Examples

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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Fullmetal Alchemist, once Roy Mustang announced his intention to rise to the top of his country's military dictatorship and reform it so that horrors like the Ishval War never happen again, his unambitious best friend Maes Hughes immediately volunteers to play the role of the guy working below him who helps him reach the top. In a particularly ironic twist, after Hughes gets killed, he's promoted two ranks to Brigadier General, surpassing Mustang, and Mustang bitterly remarks about this while standing at Hughes' grave.
  • Attempted at the start of Drifters by Nobunaga to put Shimazu in power after they were sent to the Orte Empire. Shimazu is too familiar with Nobunaga's history and the things he did which led to his "death", so he declined to go through with his scheme.
  • My Hero Academia: Despite Endeavor's considerable capabilities, he would be unable to surpass All Might, due to his own physical limitations of his Quirk even after All Might got wounded. He resorted to putting his youngest son, Shoto, through Training from Hell to surpass both him and All-Might. Originally, he chose his oldest son, Toya, as his successor because he possessed hotter flames than even himself, but lacked the constitution to go full out just like his father. It's implied a horrendous accident occurred as a result of his attempt to teach Toya one of his secret techniques.
    Endeavor: With my blood pumping through your veins, you will surpass me...you will fulfill my ambitions!!
  • Paul von Oberstein from Legend of Galactic Heroes does not care about getting power for himself, but he will make sure that his boss, Reinhard von Lohengramm, will become a benevolent, enlightened ruler for the Galactic Empire, no matter the cost.
  • In One Piece Portgas D. Ace fought so that he could make his adopted 'father' Whitebeard the King of the Pirates. However, Whitebeard had no particular interest in the position himself. It's also suggested that the inverse, Whitebeard maneuvering Ace to become King of the Pirates, was going on. But it's left open as to whether that was true.
  • In Attack on Titan, it turns out that Reiner Braun's mother pushed for her own son to enter the "Warrior" program, and later did the same with her niece. In her case, it appears to be for purely selfish reasons- to improve her own standard of living as an Eldian, and to possibly get revenge on Reiner's father.

    Comic Strips 

     Fan Works 
  • Rivals Series: Yakov is rather infuriated that his student Viktor Nikiforov, a previously uncontested and universally-loved gold medalist has competition and controversy in the form of his rival, Yuuri Katsuki. While Viktor and Yuuri's rivalry generates a lot of publicity, Viktor is no longer loved by everyone as people take sides on who they support, a fact that Yakov does not enjoy, and it colors his perception of Yuuri and his relationship with Viktor. This has disastrous consequences, as it eventually leads to the doping scandal, which emotionally destroys both men to the point that they were both on the verge of retirement. Yakov, realizing the damage he's caused to not just a skilled and respected skater but also to his own student, who he loves like a son, subsequently discards this trait out of guilt after that.
  • Code Geass: The Prepared Rebellion: While plenty ambitious himself, Lelouch has no desire to become the next Britannian Emperor. Instead, he's planning on placing either Nunnally or Euphemia on the throne.
  • Naito in Megami No Hanabira, who intends to distribute the Summoning Program to everyone, so that they can bring their own ambitions to life through use of it. As it stands, he doesn't seem to be getting anything out of it: it's more philosophically driven than through any desire of his own to be The Man Behind the Man or be owed favors. He's less than pleased when he meets people (ie. the protagonists) who don't want anything to do with his scheme.

    Film — Animation 

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Army: It eventually becomes clear that Tomohiko, who was unable to see combat duty in either the First Sino-Japanese War or the Russo-Japanese War due to chronic illness, is pressuring Shintaro to achieve the military glory that he never did.
  • A dark example in Dead Poets Society with Neil Perry, whose father starts off cancelling his assignment to the school annual, and hopes that Neil will graduate from Welton, go to Harvard and become a doctor, callously disregarding his feelings and extra-curricular activities that would sidetrack him from this goal in the hopes that Neil would get to experience opportunities his father never had, only for Neil to commit suicide when his dad forcibly withdraws him from Welton and transfers him to a military academy after seeing him acting in A Midsummer Night's Dream at a neighboring school.
  • Ghost Dog from Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a Street Samurai who works as an assassin for Mafia lieutenant Louie due to an I Owe You My Life scenario. When the mob turns on both of them after a hit gone wrong, Ghost Dog (who after all, is only loyal to Louie) kills off everyone within the Family who would be a threat to Louie, then allows Louie to kill him as well, so that Louie can claim to have avenged his bosses and become boss himself on a clean slate. Ghost Dog doesn't realize, however, that the daughter of the old boss has inherited the Family.
    Ghost Dog: (shot several times by Louie and dying) You're gonna be the boss of your own clan now, right Louie? There's no one else left... ain't that right, Louie?
  • Jidai Geki film Shogun's Samurai features a case where one of two brothers will inherit the title of Shogun. Supporters of the older brother fear that the more polished and charming younger brother will be chosen, and poison the Shogun before he can make it official in order to give the older brother a chance.
  • The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement has Mia expecting to become queen of Genovia without any opposition, when she discovers that Viscount Mabrey is opposed to her ascension, placing his nephew Nicholas Devereaux in her way to ruling the kingdom.

    Literature 
  • This comes up constantly in A Song of Ice and Fire since the nature of medieval politics means that parents are always trying to position marriages and alliances that will get their children (or further generations) higher up the social ladder rather than attempting to climb it themselves. A few of the many, many, specific examples include:
    • Tywin Lannister planned to have his daughter Cersei marry Prince Rhaegar Targaryen since Cersei was just a young girl. When Rhaegar was killed and the Targaryens were overthrown in Robert's Rebellion, Tywin didn't miss a beat and promptly wedded Cersei off to the newly crowned King Robert Baratheon instead.
    • Littlefinger, The Chessmaster supreme, uses this as part of a Batman Gambit to entrap Nestor Royce. Nestor comes from an ancient and prestigious family, but neither Nestor or his children are in line to inherit any of the family's holdings, which leaves Nestor and his children in a tenuous position where they could very easily becomes Impoverished Patricians. Littlefinger offers Nestor and his son a hereditary title that would save them from that fate, but taking it will force him to be permanently loyal to Littlefinger and make sure Littlefinger remains in power in order for it to happen. After Nestor agrees and then leaves, Littlefinger tells Sansa that any attempt to simply bribe Nestor would have enraged Nestor's pride and sense of honor, therefore a little flattery and the prospect of a better life for Nestor's children was necessary. The page quote is a part of those observations.
    • Mace Tyrell married off his daughter Margaery to Renly and later after Renly's death to Joffrey, and after Joffrey's assassination, to Joffrey's brother Tommen in a blatant power grab so that Margaery would be queen and her children kings. Somewhat ironically most of House Tyrell thinks this was a terrible idea as the Tyrells prefer more of a soft power, 100% Adoration Rating type of arrangement and this sort of open attempt at power could blow up in their faces, but they're trying to make the best of it.
    • Arianne Martell did something of a Poisonous Friend version with Myrcella Baratheon, as she tried to use a legal loophole to negate the Heir Club for Men rule and get Myrcella crowned in place of Myrcella's younger brother.
  • Dune:
    • Baron Harkonnen knows he has no chance of ever becoming Emperor, but he plots to someday put another Harkonnen, (such as his nephew and chosen successor Feyd-Ruatha) on the throne.
    • Princess Wensicia Corrino plots to put her son Farad'n on the throne, attempting to assassinate Emperor Paul Atreides' children in the belief that Farad'n would be the logical successor as the grandson of the ruler Paul deposed. Farad'n himself sees his mother's methods as distasteful and ham-fisted and banishes her after the attempt fails.
  • When the realm of Andor experiences a Succession Crisis during The Wheel of Time, Elayne has a difficult time claiming the throne due to the way her mother mismanaged the realm while being a victim of mind control. Dyelin, by contrast, is the head of the one House that is in good standing with virtually all the other Great Houses, and about the only person who could easily consolidate power and become queen. However, she believes that Elayne should be queen, so Dyelin supports Elayne and becomes the key to Elayne keeping the throne.
  • The Rebel Leaders in Daughter of the Lioness are plotting everything not to put themselves on the throne but Sarai Balitang, since she has the required bloodline for The Prophecy. Notably, they keep Sarai Locked Out of the Loop both for her own safety and her tendency for Loose Lips in the Deadly Decadent Court and there's serious question about whether Sarai would be happy about it, or good at it. Fortunately, she elopes out of the country and her more capable younger sister willingly takes her place.
  • In The Count of Monte Cristo, Héloïse de Villefort commits a series of murders with the intention of ensuring that the wealth of her husband's family will be inherited by her own son and not by the child of her husband's first marriage.
  • In Robert Ludlum's The Icarus Agenda, the protagonist is an American congressman with no higher political ambitions (The sole reason he ran for office in the first place was because he wanted to break the political machine that had been running his district for years, after which he planned to retire) who becomes the unknowing focus of a conspiracy to make him the President of the United States. The conspirators choose him because they believe he would be a better President than anybody the modern political process would put in the job if left to itself, and don't intend to ask for any favors in return (indeed, the plan depends on him never finding out what they've done, because the whole point is that he's an honorable man who would never stand for the tactics they consider necessary). In the end, the congressman breaks both the corrupt backers of the current Vice President and the benevolent conspirators giving him their unwanted support, after which the President mentions that the conspirators were right in their opinion of his suitability for higher office, and offers to make him his running mate in the next election.
  • Isaac Asimov's Franchise: When Mr. Muller tries to say he'll pretend to be sick instead of going into the public eye, Mrs. Muller angrily tells him what he will do instead. At the very least, after this event, he's going to be promoted to branch manager with a big fat pension plan.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Killer of the Week of "The Rat Race" episode of Elementary was a secretary who killed people in the way of her boss's advancement.
  • At the end of Malcolm in the Middle, Malcolm finds out that his mother has been deliberately manipulating the course of his life in order to set him up to become President of the United States.
  • M*A*S*H. It can be argued that this was Margaret's intentions for whenever Frank was in command of the 4077th; in fact, during Frank's brief tenure as commanding officer after Henry's discharge and prior to Potter's installment, Margaret is the one taking care of all the paperwork, and Frank even comments, "Gee, Margaret, ever since I became commanding office, you never let me do anything!"
  • I, Claudius. Livia spends most of the series trying to get her son Tiberius made Emperor of Rome. She shows no restraint in her tactics and ends up murdering several people to achieve her goal.
  • In a second season episode of Barney Miller Barney is offered a job as a small-town Florida Chief of Police. After considering the position he turns it down and suggests Fish for it. A later episode has Barney's subordinates trying to get Barney to accept a promotion he initially declines, in part because as long as Barney is Captain all of their careers are stalled too.
  • In Empire, Cookie and Lucious are both fighting to position their favored son to take over their record company, infighting that threatens to tear their family apart for power.
  • In the backstory of Cedric Daniels in The Wire, his wife Marla was this to him for many years, and at one point she even says that it was his ambition and burning need to make something of himself that she first fell in love with. However, he got burned out on trying to make it to the top of the corrupt and dysfunctional Baltimore Police Department, and the events of the first season put him on a road to caring more about doing what's right than what will get him promoted. Marla and Cedric's relationship doesn't survive that, and she later runs for office herself to try to fulfill some of her own ambitions.
  • Oz features this trope getting defied. In a late season, some of the prisoners unhappy with the way that Burr Redding is running the Homeboys try to encourage Poet to take over again. Poet refuses the people trying to push this by essentially saying "Been there, done that, and the shoe doesn't fit."
  • Versailles has the Chevalier de Lorraine, who makes his disdain for King Louis XIV no secret. Being a minor noble, he stands no chance at inheriting the throne himself, nor does he want to. But he's more than eager and willing to do everything he can to put his lover, the king's younger brother Philippe, on the throne.

    Multiple Media 
  • Horace Slughorn from the Harry Potter franchise pushes his students to success and networks for them, largely so that he can get perks and freebies when they're powerful figures in society.

    Mythology 
  • In the Ramayana, Kaikeyi, second wife of the king, schemes to have Rama, the king's eldest son, exiled and her own son Bharata crowned in his place. Bharata will have none of it, and places Rama's sandals on the throne to await the legitimate king's return.

    Theater 
  • Macbeth: Lady Macbeth is much more eager than her husband for him to kill Duncan and become king.
  • Volumnia in Shakespeare's Coriolanus lives through her eponymous War God son and pressures him to strive for political power he does not really want—with disastrous results.

    Video Games 
  • Fenrich from Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten will do anything to restore his master Valvatorez's power and position as The Tyrant, frequently slipping blood (which Val has promised not to drink, causing his powers to drop) into his meals. Unfortunately for him, Val is perfectly content with the lowly job of a Prinny Instructor.
  • Anti-Hero Yuri Lowell of Tales of Vesperia does the dirty work for his Heterosexual Life-Partner Flynn Scifo and gives him credit for his own good deeds, all in an attempt to encourage Flynn to change the corrupt government from within. At least one person views him as a Poisonous Friend because of it; meanwhile, Flynn'd rather have Yuri take credit for the good he has done (like rescuing the princess and ultimately saving the world) and gets frustrated enough with Yuri to start a Duel Boss fight to settle things.
  • In Ace Attorney, Morgan Fey knows that she can never take the position as the master of the Fey family due to her own lack of power. So instead she works to put her daughter Pearl in a favorable situation. By framing the main candidate, Maya, for murder. And that's just her first plan.
  • Crusader Kings and its sequel, thanks to the focus on dynastic Generational Sagas, have this as a gameplay consideration. An important part of the game involves setting up long-term plans that your current character may not live to see completed, but that may benefit their heirs when the player takes them over in turn. This can include things like killing your character's wife to make her claims pass on to your children so you can press them. If you're caught doing this, your children will obviously hate you for killing their mother, but they have no chance to turn down her ancestral titles when you go to war for them.
    • Considering that a good way to inherit various other nations in the game also revolves around marriages, you may end up marrying a daughter to an heir that's so low on the succession totem pole that no one will mind your own family being the dominant party in the marriage...which you can then use to ensure your house takes control of the kingdom after possibly assassinating every other heir.
  • In Persona 5, Hifumi Togo, the Star Confidant, is a talented young shogi player who comments that her mother, Mitsuyo, rejoices over each one of Hifumi's victories as if it were her own. Unfortunately, Mitsuyo only sees Hifumi's shogi career as a stepping stone to establish her as a gravure idol, something Hifumi has no interest in, and Hifumi realizes that her mother is using her to achieve what she couldn't. Even worse, once you confront Mitsuyo's Shadow in Mementos, Mitsuyo admits that she used blackmail and other methods to get many of Hifumi's opponents to throw their matches, something that ruins Hifumi's reputation when it becomes public.

    Web Comics 
  • Supposedly the case with Cabbage in Cucumber Quest. Cabbage was unable to become the Legendary Hero because someone else defeated the Nightmare Knight. So he pushed his son Cucumber into it when the Dream Oracle showed up, snidely dismissing Cucumber's protests that he wants to go to magic school, not become the Legendary Hero.

    Western Animation 
  • Steven Universe:
    • Barb pushes her daughter Sadie into doing a performance in "Sadie's Song", and seems to have done the same thing before with Sadie's other activities in the past.
    • Rose Quartz zigzags this. As revealed in "Lion 4: Alternate Ending", she had no actual destiny or plan in mind for Steven, she just wanted her child to live their life to the fullest. However, Rose was Born as an Adult into a Hive Caste System; choosing one’s own life was something she wanted, and thought Humans Are Special for being able to do so. The reveal of Rose's war crimes and Steven having to deal with the fallout left him understandably bitter and resentful, and he assumes that Rose only had him just so she could run away from her own mistakes.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: Rainbow Dash, Applejack, and Rarity all turn their involvement with their little sisters' carts in the Applewood Derby into a way to either relive or fix their childhood experience with the Derby.

    Real Life 
  • In some of Louis Armstrong's biographies, his second wife Lil is portrayed that way. First, Louis was content playing second cornet for King Oliver's band, but Lil was convinced that King Oliver was holding Louis back, so she pushed him into seeking a bigger job elsewhere. The bigger job turned out to be Fletcher Henderson's orchestra. Louis was happy there, too, but Lil thought Louis wasn't getting enough exposure, so she negotiated a contract with OKeh Records for Louis to cut a series of records as the leader of his own band. This resulted in Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven bands, whose recordings were some of the most important in jazz history.
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