Another enjoyable talk at the RNA Conference in Penrith was Rachel Summerson's (she writes as Elizabeth Hawksley but has no webpage to link to) on what a villain can do for your story.
Rachel/Elizabeth has written some good villains herself, most notably the evil Mr Balquidder in Frost Fair, but for her talk she focused on the villains in Jane Austen, and in particular on Mr Wickham.
Wickham serves a very valuable narrative purpose, and one which only villains (with or with moustachios to twirl) can really achieve, which is to cast light on other characters (in this case primarily Darcy) from a different angle, and thus give them additional depth. Rachel pointed out that when Wickham appears, we do not know that he is a villain at all. We (and the character with whom we probably most empathise with, Lizzie) therefore take his opinions on Darcy at face value, or at least as being as valid as any other, until we learn the truth about our informant.
Whether we ever learn the whole truth about Wickham is a matter for speculation - something that Paperback Writer has been indulging in today.
But the point is that because we have seen Darcy through Wickham's eyes, as well as through those of his friends, we have a much more rounded view of him than we would if Wickham had never existed, and that is achieved even without the latter's act of greatest villainy: running off with Lydia.
That event does, however, give Darcy a chance to prove himself by his deeds, as well as his words, and that is, of course, another function of villains; to throw obstacles into the course of true love that forms the main plot of any romance.
In real life I subscribe to Hanlon's Razor, which is most simply expressed as "never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity", but when it comes to fiction I much prefer things to go wrong through somebody's malevolence, rather than the Big Misunderstanding, or any other demonstration of the hero's or heroine's fundamental stupidity (we're supposed to identify with one or the other of these two - do we really want to think of ourselves as dim?)
It is not surprising therefore that I have villains in my books. However I do find villains who are villainous "just because" to be a bit irritating. I prefer my villains to have a reason for their villainy, and the more wicked they are, the more compelling a reason I need to believe it. I'll make an exception for fantasy, where the universe may well exist within some Manichean struggle between the dark and the light, good and evil, or law and chaos, but in fiction set in the real world I struggle to accept people - contemporary or historical, simply being bad by nature.
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