Hi Mythcreants team.
Many stories paint ambition as a very bad thing, the “go down the dark side” free ticket – unless there’s some easy, half-baked excuse like “I wanna be strong but only to protect my loved ones” (totally evil free sentiment, suuure).
And most of the time it just sounds like “know your place little people.”
But on the other hand it IS a very real source of conflict and suffering IRL. So is there a way to depict personal ambition without the concerned character looking unpleasant? How can a character be shown to work towards leadership/greatness/glory for its own fulfillment without it coming out as bad?
Hey Thomas, great to hear from you again!
In this case, I think there’s a fairly simple answer: if your character’s ambition is to do something good, then audiences will view it positively. If it’s to do something bad, they’ll view it negatively. If the goal is more complex, then it’ll be more complicated.
For example: overthrowing an authoritarian empire and restoring a democratic republic is very ambitious. It’s also an unambiguously good goal that audiences will love, assuming it’s portrayed sympathetically. Now, if your character uses questionable means to achieve their noble ambition, that’ll depend on context. Audiences will probably forgive blowing up an enemy garrison in the middle of the night, but they’re less likely to forgive blowing up enemy apartment complexes.
Even that isn’t a certainty though, as you can see in stories like Deep Space Nine. In that show, Kira is unapologetic about her terrorist past, which included killing civilians. Her people were in a desperate situation and had to hurt the occupying Cardassians any way they could. Of course, DS9 does everything it can to present Kira in a sympathetic light, but it shows how you can have a character who’s done immoral things and still be likable.
On the other hand, purely personal ambition is less likely to interest audiences. This isn’t because the audience thinks ambition is bad, but because the stakes are less compelling. If your story is about a guy who wants to be the first person to build an airplane, that won’t hook audiences the same way a more selfless goal would. That said, it’s still possible to make that goal compelling. Perhaps the character is from a marginalized background, and being first to fly would break prejudiced limitations. Or perhaps they were wronged by an evil Plane Corporation and now they have to compete with their own stolen designs. You have options is what I’m saying.
Finally, when people think that ambition in storytelling is wrong, I suspect they are reacting to the string of villains who do bad things but “have a point.” A lot of these villains are badly done and their ambition is a cheap way of generating sympathy from audiences who don’t think about it too much. Thanos from the MCU, the secret villain in Wanderers, Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Kingsman: these are all villains that we’re supposed to sympathize with because they’re fighting climate change or whatever. Never mind that their methods are absurd and they are targeting the very people hurt worst by climate change.
This kind of cheap sympathy generation is a problem, but it doesn’t actually have much bearing on how well audiences will react to an ambitious character.
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your story!