Ambition Is Evil

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

"Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault;
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it."

Antony, Scene II, Julius Caesar

So, you've got a character who aims to improve his/her situation in life, be it in terms of money, fame or power.

But if that character is one of the good guys, it never actually works.

Maybe the character realizes it's not what he wanted after all. Maybe he decides that his friends/family/love interest is more important, because inevitably getting any kind of social or economic mobility will always come at the price of losing what you already have. Anyway, it's all back to status quo.

If he still has any kinds of aspirations, however, get ready for a very fast Face Heel Turn. He/she will turn into The Social Darwinist, the Corrupt Corporate Executive, or a cold calculating monster who rises From Nobody to Nightmare, manipulating and destroying everyone that gets in his way because even the search for power corrupts. Naturally upon attaining this power, he'll forget whatever it was he wanted it for in the first place.

Unfortunately, the media have an annoying tendency to associate heartless backstabbing actions with the catch-all term "ambition". Which, if you consult a dictionary, doesn't belong to the definition at all. Those kinds of actions are more in line with "sociopathy." For this reason, Villains Act, Heroes React.

Justified when the existing society is seen as an evil Dystopia, or at least flawed -- "advancing" in such a society would mean complying (at the very least) with its systemic injustices.

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 his goal is usually to profit through his (supposed) protege, will usually be an example of this, and turn his protege into one, unless they realize in time.

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 slightly high levels of ambition are bad, insane amounts of determination are usually seen as good, or at least not bad. If you have high levels of both, you're probably The Unfettered. Heaven help the character intending to use their super powers this way; it guarantees Good Powers, Bad People. If a character wants to rise above the level of his or her fellows, it might be a case of The Complainer Is Always Wrong.

See also 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.

No real life examples, please; Calling real-life people "evil" is an extremely bad idea.

Examples of Ambition Is Evil include:

Anime and Manga

  • Well, hello, Griffith.
  • 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/subverted in Fullmetal Alchemist, where a number of characters (e.g. Mustang, Olivia Armstrong, Greed, and Ling) are insanely ambitious, but they are generally good because of this, not in spite of it (granted, it's kind of a tragic flaw in Ling's case, but ambition is a virtue for the rest of them).
    • In fact 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.
  • Mostly averted so far 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 Super-Powered Evil Side. Seemingly played straight and 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 Super-Powered 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.
    • That might fall more under Love Makes You Crazy, though.
    • But don't forget the Big Bad Aizen. His unlimited ambition is the sole reason for all his evil.
  • 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.
    • Not to mention Schneizel, described by Word of God as lacking ambition, ended up being the Big Bad since he would pursue whatever goal tickled his fancy at the moment without any overall or long-term interest.
  • 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 Enel, 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 it. The Big Bad, probably, too.
  • In Umineko no Naku Koro ni, 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 orginization. He promises to tell Slade where the group, known as Demon Card, has it's 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, he's already lost his father and sister (and tried to use the former for his own gain while he was dying), and 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 is pretty much the reason why he turned into the Big Bad.
    • Orochimaru, only? No, THE ENTIRE SERIES is about how ambition for anything other than being a good servant of your village is evil, even if said village doesn't like you. And the only character whose ambition and individuality didn't exactly mean villainous tendecies, Sasuke Uchiha, was turned into a Complete Monster who wants to kill innocent and guilty people alike because the author can't stop pointing out that "Vengeance is Baaad". But yes, apparently, the only reason Sarutobi denied Orochimaru the title of Hokage was because he thought Orochimaru a bit power-hungry, before either discovering Orochimaru's experiments or before they even started. Flashbacks shoot this logic down, showing Orochimaru wasn't always the Complete Monster he is and the Curse Mark was originally meant to help people achieve maximum potential. Really, What The Hell, Sarutobi?!
    • Sort of averted with Naruto himself, who isn't satisfied with being a good servant to his villiage. He wants to become the leader of said village. And start changing things.
      • Not exactly. His ambition is, still, helping everyone out, even if people don't like him or want him to. In the first part of the manga, his ambition WAS solely becoming Hokage and making everyone respect him(Not So Different from Orochimaru, maybe?), but the second part has him wanting to become Hokage for the overused goal of protecting his precious people only.
      • Which he then goes and shoots in the foot once he says that he'll sacrifice his own life to take down Sasuke. Even if Naruto is ninja Jesus, this doesn't explain how he could change the world and reform society from beyond the grave. What The Hell, Naruto?
  • 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.

Comic Books

  • 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 Antivillains 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 been revealed in flashbacks that he has a strong desire for love and adoration (See point on Politicians in Real Life, below). 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 just gave up on being a hero and instead just get back and ruin a world that he could never get to love him when his ambitions became fruitless.
  • The first Squadron Supreme miniseries (whose members are CaptainErsatzes 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 Marvel Civil War.
  • 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.

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 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 seeing as he seems to be willing to kill his long-time rival The King by causing a horrible crash. Ironically 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.

Film - Live-Action

  • Commodus in Gladiator tells his father, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, that while he doesn't have the traditional virtues of Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude, he does have Courage ("Perhaps not on the battlefield, but there are many kinds of courage..."—and in truth, he's actually a pretty good fighter, he just never saw real battle), Love for his family (especially his sister) and Ambition, which drives him to excel. He then murders his father and assumes the Imperial throne for himself. This is especially Anvilicious, considering that Marcus Aurelius was going to hand power over to General Maximus specifically because Maximus didn't want to rule. In fairness, he wanted Rome to be a Republic again, and knew that would never happen if his ambitious and power-hungry son, however just a ruler he might turn out to be, assumed the throne.
    • Perhaps especially if he turned out to be a just ruler. "Why would we go back to being a Republic after the system that gave us Commodus the Just?" In real life, of course, Commodus enjoyed over ten years of popular rule (though some people thought he was weird for participating in various sports since he was basically pretending to be a slave) before being killed by a wrestler
  • 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 having her career, and will stop at nothing to get it.
  • Averted in L.A. Confidential where the protagonist Exley is clearly ambitious, even to the extent of antagonizing his police colleagues by testifying in a police brutality case. He changes over the course of the film, but that doesn't stop Exley from putting himself up for another medal at the end.
    • This is a subversion, though, because testifying in the police brutality case is clearly the right thing to do. Admittedly, he's doing it more to get ahead than because it's a just cause, but this doesn't make him wrong.
    • Albeit a well deserved medal.
  • Quite a few romantic comedies feature ambitious women being brought down to earth because they forsook relationships and families for their careers (see The Proposal, Baby Mama, any of Katherine Heigl's films).
  • Septimus of Stardust is easily the most ambitious of the Princes of Stormhold, but he's also the most evil and unscrupulous.
    • All of the Stormhold princes were ambitious enough to murder each other off and none were shown to be particularly kind. The only heir to the throne who had no interest (Tristan) was easily the most selfless. Granted he didn't know he was in line for almost all of the movie, but still....
    • Primus could be an exception. He gives a ride to Tristan, and was described by the priest as potentially being the first benevolent king of Stormhold.
  • 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.
  • "Greed, for a lack of a better word, is good". Pretty sure he wanted to use Ambition...
  • The Johnny Depp remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory features this. Violet Beauregard is no longer just a "disgusting gum chewer," she's an ambitious, competitive fanatic with a Stage Mom—with a trophy from a gum chewing contest.
    • That's taken from the book, actually.
  • 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.


  • 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 Anti-Hero to a more conventional protagonist over the course of the series, 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.
  • The Pearl by John Steinbeck teaches us that attempting to escape the crushing poverty that life has dealt you by seizing a lucky and profitable opportunity is wrong and will result in your baby getting accidentally shot in the face.
    • This description actually makes it sound better than it is.
    • Mind, his Winter of Our Discontent deals with the same issues in a far more interesting way.
    • Actually, the moral was more about the dangers of greed. Considering the time period it takes place in, the offer he was given was actually more than generous, given that pearl divers, even today, are paid for labor and on commission.
  • The "darkest" of the four houses in Harry Potter, Slytherin, has ambition and cunning as its main valued qualities.
  • 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 Kingdom The 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...
    • The dichotomy is explained when you look at how the various characters attain their high rank, power, etc. The series is promoting an Aesop that wealth and power attained by 'good' methods (such as hard work, legitimate brilliance, honorable business conduct, making legitimate improvements to the world) is good, while wealth and power attained by 'bad' methods (influence peddling, bribery, slash-and-burn exploitation, slavery) is, y'know, bad. Which is an entirely valid Aesop.
  • 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 Jerkass, but gradually becomes a more ambitious Jerkass. Godwyn plays it straight, going much murkier routes than you'd expect a monk to go. Godwyn is a Chessmaster, a Complete Monster 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.
  • Warrior Cats takes great care to mention "Tigerstar's ambition" everywhere it can. The series likes to twist the meaning of "ambition" around to mean "being a Complete Monster".
    • To be more specific, pretty much every villain so far has been notably 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.
  • The short story "How Much Land Does A Man Need?" is this trope personified. The main character, Pahom, keeps wanting to own more and more land, but goes about it in a series of deals that make perfect sense (except the last one that costs him his life). In order to make it plain that ambition is a bad thing, the character is (supposedly) being tempted by The Devil.
    • This story is actually about Greed, not ambition—the character is a farmer and never intends to be anything but a farmer, he just wants lots of land to farm on. His initial deals aren't presented as being bad, it's the final deal—which involves him trying to lay his hands on more land than any one working man could possibly ever use to its full potential—which is is downfall.
  • Ebenezer Scrooge, in A Christmas Carol. He became, well, The Scrooge after allowing himself to be consumed with ambition and greed. At one point he 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 PG 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 Pillars of the Earth—Waleran Bigod was a cunning, devious, morally bankrupt cleric, who constantly schemed his way into more power. Allied himself with the Hamleighs and often plotted with William to bring about Philip's and Aliena's downfall. Eventually he outwit himself: he accused Philip of fornication and being Jonathan's father, but Ellen exposes his perjury (which had falsely condemned Jack Shareburg for theft) and ends his career
    • People often accuse Prior Phillip of being too ambitious in building his cathedral.

Walran Bigod: (after the stone vault collapsed) this is was becomes of your damned arrogance Phillip!

"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 it's original form.
  • 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. Not only he murders and betrays 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 indirecly 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.
  • 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 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.

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.)
  • In the Doctor Who episode "Evolution of the Daleks", Human-Dalek hybrid Dalek Sec spouts the following line after his transformation (note the other words besides "ambition"):

Dalek Sec: I feel... everything we wanted for mankind. Which is... ambition. Hatred. Aggression. And war. Such a genius for war...

  • 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.
  • 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 runs on using this as a justified trope; the series is largely dedicated to arguing that you can't do the right thing and get ahead, because doing the right thing means stepping on the toes of too many other people trying to get themselves ahead.
  • 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 that 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 Mash 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.
    • With the exceptions of Colonels Blake and Potter, generals and colonels are portrayed as people who care more about their careers than anything else, including their troops, and in one case, the life of one general's son.
    • 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 Jerkass 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!
  • 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, 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).
  • 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 DENSITY destiny 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 horribly, horribly inverted.
    • Particularly inverted 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.
  • 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.

Newspaper Comics

Tabletop Games

  • Averted in 90% of Dungeons & Dragons games, where characters accumulate incredible quantities of wealth without compromising what they already have. Usually.
    • Then again, in most games, it's not their amount of ambition but their moral disposition that's in question.
    • Alain the cavalier, from Pathfinder, is technically Lawful Neutral, not evil. However, he belongs to an order that prizes self-advancement above all else. As a result, he's a self-aggrandizing, gloryhound Jerkass whose ambitions tend to get a lot of hirelings killed.
  • In Scion, one of the Dark Virtues is Ambition.
  • In Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Warhammer 40,000 Tzeentch is the Chaos god of ambition, also: hope, change, mutation, psychic powers, lies, plotting, ravens, Etc.
    • Better to Die for the Emperor, than live for yourself.
    • The Tau are all about this, to a point were they can be a Deconstruction, Everything they do it for "The Greater Good" they don't love in the romantic sense (breed by eugenics with couplings determined by genetic analysis), they will throw themselves to a meat-grinder knowing full well they will die, 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 Exclusively 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 Emporer and take over his throne. Both ended poorly for the individual in question.


  • 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 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.

Video Games

  • In 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.
  • In Dynasty Warriors, most of Cao Cao's speeches links to the term 'Ambition'. And he is the bad guy in the novel.
  • In the JRPG Dragon Quest VIII, Marcello is obsessed with gaining power and status because he was born to a peasant woman and a nobleman. It doesn't end well.
  • This is actually one of the major themes of Valkyria Chronicles; 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 pacificism (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.
  • In 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.
  • 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.
  • This is the sin that sent Fuka Kazamatsuri in Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten 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!
  • Justified in Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future. 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.

Web Comics

Web Original

  • Averted In the Whateley Universe: Phase used to be the White Prince and is now fairly obsessed with regaining wealth, power, control, and the ability to do stuff with that power...but is a good guy.

Western Animation

  • 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.
  • Triple subverted 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 chldren 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 after apparently playing the trope straight after all, we see Lisa turn to the side with a depressed look. It turns out she was lying about her feelings, really wanted to remain at the school and probably would turn out better if she could stay there.
  • 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 shows 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.
    • Rarity and Rainbow Dash both have fairly lofty goals, with Rarity wanting to be a part of high society and a top-class dressmaker, and Dash wanting to join her worlds equivalent of the Blue Angels. While the characters can sometimes cause trouble because of these goals, this behavior is generally treated as character flaws apart from the ambition, with the idea of lofty goals being lauded, as long as one doesn't hurt others along the way.
      • It is now several seasons later and both characters have been allowed to succeed at their ambitions; Rarity is now a famous designer with boutiques in several cities and an entire rolodex full of royal and high society clients, and Dash has finally made the Wonderbolts. Neither character has been shown as getting worse due to this elevation; if anything, both of them are now better ponies thanks to multiple seasons' worth of character development.
      • Also, Twilight Sparkle is now royalty and has, if anything, gotten humbler.
  • 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."
  • 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.