Butt munch, of course, being the PG version of asshole.
According to my theatre professors, the answer is no. Characters never do something that they think is wrong and they always believe they are good.
This is, like many things they have said, simplified bullshit.
Self-awareness is definitely a spectrum issue, especially when you consider that the asshole can be in the eye of the beholder. (Take in that visual for a moment.) You have the dickish behavior which may or may not actually be dickish, depending on whose perspective we’re considering. Person A sends a message that says, “Hi,” to Person B. Person B, who has gotten many messages that say, “Hi,” which usually end in a penis picture, doesn’t respond. Person A, finding Person B incredibly rude, bluntly informs Person B of his feelings, which makes Person B pissed because not responding was the politest way to say, “Not interested.”
Who’s the asshole there? Whose feelings are legitimate?
But even in circumstances where true intent is not concealed, misunderstanding from tone does not occur, and a person does something that the majority of onlookers would determine to be assholish, (Spelling?) does that person recognize the wrongness of what he is doing, or is it valid in his head?
And, of course, it could be either.
When my acting professors would argue with students about their characters’ self-loathing and disgust at their choices, what they really meant was we, the creators, can’t judge the characters on our own morals or the characters’ decisions will never seem genuine. But we all know we can make bad decisions and hate ourselves, so to say we are never aware of when we are being cruel is ridiculous.
There are actually several levels of self-awareness when it becomes to dickish behavior.
The first is action before thought, in which we do something that later we will not approve of, but in the moment it either feels right or we’re prioritizing something over kindness.
In the heat of the moment, consumed with rage and the desire to punish someone who has wronged us, we’ll say something that only is meant to hurt them and nothing else. Later we’ll look back on it and realize how unhelpful or cruel that was. So, at the time we might have determined it to be the best decision, but afterwards we realized it was not.
It also includes unintentional dickishness where we don’t realize how something will sound until after we have said it. Prior to speaking it, we are unaware of the cruelty. Afterwards, we still didn’t mean the hostility, but it came out wrong.
The other is legitimization. We are aware that what we’ve done is “bad,” but we form arguments to suggest that it wasn’t. Things like, “Well, I wasn’t really being rude because he deserved it. I was standing up for myself,” or, “Well, I was being an asshole, but it’s for his own good. Now he knows his story sucks and he can move on.”
Legitimization is one of the more common occurrences, in which the character is somewhat aware he is doing something wrong, but is in denial about it being inappropriate.
Next you have the oblivious member who truly does not comprehend how his words or actions affect other people. He thinks he’s being funny. He doesn’t even consider if everyone else has gotten a cookie before he takes the last one. He just knows that he wants it. This person tends to live in the present and lack empathy. He is often the least dickish, however, because he has no malicious intent. Unlike the person who behaves in a way she doesn’t think she should—and then makes arguments to allow her to do that without guilt—he seriously just lacks any sort of moral questioning.
And then you have the last category, one very similar to the legitimization category, but much worse because there’s not that sneaking suspicion at the back of his head which may allow the “victim” to argue her point; the asshole truly believes whatever lies he tells himself. This is where the asshole isn’t just oblivious, isn’t coming up with arguments to defend her behavior, he is just deluded. Pure and simple delusion. Unlike the oblivious person—who doesn’t stop to think, “Does someone else want this cookie?”—the deluded person knows someone else might want it, but truly believes that he deserves it.
In summation, you could have the person who is at a party, drunk, who engages in a conversation with a beautiful woman which leads to a kiss. That person, fueled by lust in the heat of the moment, later acknowledges the selfish act as being the poor choice. Yes, he is very much aware he is an asshole, but, in the moment, prioritized the good feeling over considering the morality of it.
Then you have the person who, like the above, cheated, and now is trying to make excuses why it’s okay, still feeling guilty for his actions. “I’ve been neglected,” “It’s natural to be attracted to others,” “Sex doesn’t really mean anything…” Perhaps he hasn’t even actually cheated yet, but is attempting to find reasons why it’s okay for him to do so in the future.
Sometimes you have the person who really just doesn’t think; the boyfriend who decides to spend his day off with his ex-girlfriend without even a thought that it might bother his current. When confronted, he legitimately does not empathize (either lacking the capacity or the desire) with why she’s upset. He honestly does not see why she might think he’s being an ass.
Or, there’s the last category, the person who is completely convinced he did nothing wrong.
Recently, I bared witness to a “not” love triangle. A girlfriend was upset that the boyfriend was talking to another woman so much. He claimed she was just a friend. This “gal pal’s” argument? It included how she, personally, “was not even a girl.”
I have to say, from my perspective, I agree with the girlfriend.
Sure. You’re not really a girl. You’re one of the guys. Harmless and cool. Just a pal. Which is why your conversations and texts are so typically masculine like…
“I’m so ugly.”
“No, you’re not. Stop it. I hate when you do that.”
“I miss you.”
“I miss you too.”
“Sometimes I don’t feel you do.”
“Do you ever consider cheating?”
I believe she believes this. I believe the boyfriend believes they’re just friends. It has to do with the tone, the facial expressions, but also because I see no legitimization like, “We’re clearly just friends because…” no arguments adding to her belief, “I’m one of the boys, you know?” She just says it and expects it to be obvious.
You keep telling yourself that. You keep believing that he’d still be talking to you if you were a guy, that he’d let your banal self-deprecation fly if he didn’t want to screw you.
This woman enraged me more so than any aware asshole could. At least there would be some dignity in recognizing that the girlfriend had valid reason to want you out of his life and then choosing to continue the emotional affair. But this read as deliberate stupidity, a moment in which the woman refused to acknowledge her actions, but then judged those who do as being deluded themselves.
When it comes to my forgiveness, I never want an apology. Either you were unaware of how your actions would affect me, in which case an apology is not necessary, or you did it intentionally, in which case an apology isn’t enough. All that I need to make amends with someone is for them to understand where I am coming from, to recognize the validity in my perspective.
This is why I think the deluded villain is the worst of them all, and the question of whether or not your characters are aware of their actions affect others, but how much of their excuses they’re willing to believe. Are assholes self-aware? I’d argue the worst ones aren’t.