Writing ambitious characters

How do you center a novel around one character’s ambition? This is something I’m wrestling with in my current project. You’d think it would be easy, since most fiction is driven by characters’ desires. But, like most things in writing, it’s deceptively difficult. Ambition is not so much a desire as a character trait. It may be focused on a specific goal, but if the character existed in a different setting, her ambition would latch onto something else. Sometimes readers ask why a character wants something, but there’s no why to ambition. It’s something people are born with; they either have it or they don’t.

I’ve noticed that many fictions use some sort of proxy to show that a character is ambitious. Academic characters want to get into Harvard or Yale or Stanford. Musical or theatrical characters want to go to Juilliard. Writers either publish in The New Yorker or write an instant bestseller. There are many problems with this strategy. First, it’s lazy. It relies on general associations, taking a short cut around details and development that would actually convince us the character is ambitious. Second, it’s cliché. This makes the character seem more like a stereotype than a person. Third, it’s unrealistic. For some reason, it’s rare for characters to fail at these goals. In many fictions, the character is accepted to an Ivy League school after minimal struggle. In TV shows, it’s common for a mere hobbyist to get into Juilliard after auditioning on a whim. This one especially bothers me. It takes years of training and hours of practice every day for a dancer or musician to be good enough for Juilliard. Such breezy portrayals undermine the difficult nature of achieving these things in real life. Also, real life is unpleasant and arbitrary. There are many more deserving students/musicians than there are spots at flashy schools. Unfair as it is, politics and luck play a role.

All of this leads to another problem. If you’re writing about characters who, in real life, would actually audition for Juilliard (i.e., serious high school musicians), then you have to somehow surpass all the clichés and fabrications that have built up around this plot point.

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