In his noteworthy essay published in The Rambler (number 4), Samuel Johnson discusses a number of what he considers the essential characteristics of fiction, including the following:
- Good fiction should (as Horace taught) join profit and delight. In other words, it should offer valuable lessons but should also please. Ideally it should do the first by doing the second.
- Fiction should deal with events and characters that seem realistic and recognizable. It should not deal in fantasies or improbabilities. It should seem credible.
- It should avoid the kind of “wild strain of imagination” that pleased audiences in earlier ages.
- Effective fiction
must arise from general converse and accurate observation of the living world.
- It must not strike readers as unbelievable.
- It must provide worthy lessons to young readers and must not mislead them about the nature of reality.
- It should not corrupt the moral values of the young. By entertaining the young, it should also help teach them the differences between right and wrong and between good and evil.
- It must be realistic but not pernicious or corrupting:
It is justly considered as the greatest excellency of art, to imitate nature; but it is necessary to distinguish those parts of nature, which are most proper for imitation: greater care is still required in representing life, which is so often discoloured by passion, or deformed by wickedness.
- It should accentuate the goodness of the characters it presents more than their flaws.
- It should not be morally ambiguous or confusing.
- Evil should always be presented so that it seems unattractive and unappealing:
Vice, for vice is necessary to be shewn, should always disgust; nor should the graces of gaiety, or the dignity of courage, be so united with it, as to reconcile it to the mind. Wherever it appears, it should raise hatred by the malignity of its practices, and contempt by the meanness of its stratagems: for while it is supported by either parts or spirit, it will be seldom heartily abhorred.