Fantastic Characters: Analyzing and Creating Superheroes and Villains
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In this lesson, students analyze and discuss familiar superheroes and super-villains to expand their understanding of character types and conventions. Then students consider social issues that confront their everyday reality and respond by incorporating those issues into the creation of their own superheroes or super-villains as well as the settings the superheroes or super-villains operate in.
- Compare and Contrast Graphic Organizer: Students use this printout to compare and contrast superheros and super-villains.
Superheroes & Villians: This website provides a comprehensive database of superheroes, villains, super powers, and elements pertaining to superheroes.
From Theory to Practice
"A substantial, expanding body of evidence asserts that using graphic novels and comics in the classroom produces effective learning opportunities over a wide range of subjects and benefits various student populations, from hesitant readers to gifted students" (1). In this lesson, students are encouraged to engage their imaginations while using critical analysis to respond to problems. They discover the excitement of creating their own fictitious character, which opens the door to further conceptualizing-of adventures and settings, conflicts, social concerns, and unique methods of resolution.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Materials and Technology
- Computers with Internet access
This website provides a comprehensive database of superheroes, villains, super powers, and elements pertaining to superheroes.
- Look over the Superheroes & Villians, or this Characters link, in order to make decisions about which superheroes and super-villains you want to show the class on the first day.
- Have a computer with Internet access and projector available in the classroom to show the Superheroes & Villians site.
- Make an overhead transparency and copies for each student of the Compare and Contrast Graphic Organizer and Superhero/Super-Villain Profile Form.
- Make an overhead transparency of the Superhero/Super-Villain Sample Characteristics list.
- Read over the lesson thoroughly to familiarize yourself with the various concepts.
- develop an awareness of literary/descriptive devices used in characterization through comparing and contrasting a familiar superhero and super-villain.
- brainstorm real-world, societal problems as a class and address them in imaginative ways, individually and in small groups, using the “Superhero/Super-Villain Profile Form.”
- apply their knowledge of characterization by creating their own superheroes or super-villains, gadgets, and settings by completing the “Superhero/Super-Villain Profile Form.”
- collaborate in small groups to exchange constructive feedback.
- reflect in writing on the ways in which people (and super-characters) solve problems.
- verbally present their characters to the class in an organized way.
- Explain that students will be studying superheroes and super-villains today to better understand “what makes them tick” before they make their own super-characters tomorrow who will have the power to change a problematic aspect of society.
- Start class with the Superheroes & Villians site and/or the Characters page, projected for the students to see. Show the students some superheroes they are likely to be familiar with, such as Superman, Spider-Man, or Elastigirl from The Incredibles. Ask students to talk about what they know about the characters generally (they have super powers, fight evil, wear costumes, live in cities, and so forth). The goal is to have students establish a basic understanding of “super-characters” before analyzing them more closely. Not all students will necessarily be familiar with the subjects or concepts, but that’s okay; the class discussion will provide the context and information they’ll need to proceed.
- From the same Characters page of the Superhero Database, show the class two or three super-villains. Ask the students what descriptive or physical clues let them (readers/viewers in general) know who is a hero and who is a villain, and have them discuss why. In all likelihood, they won’t have ready answers, but the goal here is to help them identify subtle details of characterization that make heroes and villains recognizable to us automatically. In this way, students begin to distinguish subtextual elements that contribute to their everyday perceptions.
- Ask students to name some of their favorite superheroes and super-villains from comic books or movies, and list their suggestions on the board or chart paper.
- Have the class vote for one superhero and one super-villain to talk about in more depth. Now make two new lists—one for each super-character—and have the students brainstorm each character’s distinctive qualities. Encourage students to name everything they can think of that applies. Some things to consider are (write these on the board or chart paper for students to refer to):
- Special powers—such as superhuman abilities, mutations, or scientific knowledge.
- Appearance—are they colorful, funny, serious, drab, dark, or menacing?
- Background—where did they come from, and did they go through a shocking experience that made them who they are?
- Public or “secret” identity—what is their social life like, do they have regular jobs, family, friends?
- Special equipment—such as tools, weapons, or vehicles.
- Place of residence—rural or urban, apartment or house, secret lair or in plain sight.
- Hand out the Compare and Contrast Graphic Organizer printout, and project a copy of the transparency on the overhead. Along with the students, fill in the name of the superhero on the line for Item #1 and the name of the super-villain on the line for Item #2.
- Go down the lists on the board of the super-characters’ qualities and ask students discuss the similarities and differences between the two. Fill in the worksheet with the class accordingly. You may find that you run out of room rather quickly in the “How are they alike?” category. This should help illustrate for students that the distinction between “good” and “evil” is not always clear, and that, surprisingly, heroes and villains are often as much or more alike than they are different. (In fact, generally what distinguishes them involves an irreversible choice at a crucial turning point in their history, rather than something inherent: a significant moment arrives wherein they are forced to make a decision to help, harm, or neglect, and they are forever changed by their actions.)
- Ask students what they think about heroes having so much in common with villains. What does this mean or suggest? Discuss choices the characters have made to show themselves to be “good” or “evil,” and whether or not such choices are straightforward or involve extraordinary circumstances. Do the characters appear to understand that their actions have consequences, and if so, how do they deal with this “enlightenment”? (Again, the purpose here is to get students thinking about characters from varying points of view, as well as the complexities of human behavior and actions, and to investigate beyond direct impressions.)
- Explain that in the next session, students will create their own super-characters and choose a problem in society for their characters to tackle, the ways superheroes and super-villains in comic books and movies usually take on large-scale issues. Encourage students to start thinking about issues in society or in their own lives that they think a super-character should be concerned with.
- Ask students to turn in their Compare and Contrast Graphic Organizers until tomorrow when they will use their comparisons as examples for working on their own superheroes or super-villains.
- Review with students some of the superheroes and super-villains they discussed yesterday from the Superheroes & Villians site and from their favorites. List some of them (5-7) on the board. Ask the class how the characters impact society and the world at large; what issues do they focus on? (Often the answer will be something basic like stopping crime and fighting a particular villain who’s attempting to wreak havoc in the world; encourage students to elaborate, ask deeper questions such as, What are the root causes of the crime they fight?, or, Where did the villain come from and why is he up to no good?)
- Now ask students to give examples of real-world issues of particular concern to s/he or to society in general. These can be broad issues such as global warming, poverty, or disease, or more personal issues such as bullying or troubles with school. List their answers on the board.
- Explain that students are going to create their own superheroes or super-villains motivated by and linked to one of these social issues. Have each student choose one of the issues from the board to be his or her character’s “symbolic issue.” (For example, if a student chooses “global warming” and plans to create a super-villain, he or she might make the super-villain’s goal to set off a giant volcano, melt the polar ice caps, and flood New York City. Conversely, a superhero might have “super-breath” and be able to create powerful winds to turn wind turbines for an alternative energy source.)
- Return students’ Compare and Contrast Graphic Organizers to them to use as references to yesterday’s discussion.
- Now it’s time to create the super-characters. Assign students to groups of four, forming cooperative teams. Give each student a Superhero/Super-Villain Profile Form, and project the Superhero/Super-Villain Sample Characteristics on the overhead to provide helpful examples of “super qualities.”
- Explain that each student is to create his or her own superhero or super-villain by completing his/her own Profile Form. Further instruct students that they are to help their team members with suggestions if any of them has trouble coming up with particular characteristics. The Superhero/Super-Villain Sample Characteristics overhead is simply meant to be an aid to help trigger the imagination, but tell students to feel free to use the examples if they want. You might suggest that student-teams group their characters in teams too, as an option of their collaboration: perhaps they create four-person teams of superheroes or super-villains, or rival pairs of “dynamic duos.” Tell students if they don’t quite finish in the allotted time, not to worry; they can add to or revise their ideas at the beginning of the next session. Have them use extra paper if they run out of space.
- Give students 10-15 minutes to return to their groups and finish their Profile Forms if necessary. Have students who are already finished continue to help their team members with suggestions, or prepare to share their super-character information.
- Give each student a chance to share his or her superhero or super-villain’s name, encouraging the class to guess at the nature of each character based on that name. Ask students to share their characters’ goals or purposes—their characters’ “symbolic issues.” Have them share two or three of their characters’ qualities that help to achieve those goals or solve those issues.
- Ask students to take out a piece of paper (or a writing notebook that can be turned in) and, in at least one paragraph, reflect in writing about the ways in which their characters tackle problems (or achieve their goals) compared to the students’ own methods. Write the following questions on the board for students to respond:
- How are their problem-solving methods different from or similar to those of the students?
- What is “right” or “wrong” about the ways the characters solve problems, according to the students’ judgment?
- Can we learn anything from the ways these characters interact with each other and their environment?
- Why do we think people create superheroes and super-villains? What is important and helpful about having them as characters in our books and movies?
- Have students turn in their Compare and Contrast Graphic Organizers, Profile Forms, and written reflections for assessment.
- Have students expand on their reflections, turning them into action plans for ways they might personally start to solve a problem in society or in their own lives.
- Bring in (or have students bring in) a variety of examples of heroes and villains from books, comic books, movies, or television for the class to consider. Have students analyze what makes them memorable, vivid, or successful—or not. What characteristics do we see again and again? Students might also compare various super-characters to their own to see how closely theirs follow common superhero/villain formulas and in what ways their characters are original.
- Have students make up a back story—or “origin” story—for their characters using the Bio-Cube Student Interactive to help organize and outline the character’s history.
- Have students create a sidekick for their character, someone with ancillary but helpful attributes to help the main super-character get his or her job done.
- Have students draw their creations. They can draw the characters, gadgets, residences, vehicles, or all. Some children like to draw figures, while others like to draw mechanical things or landscapes; in this extension, they get to express themselves the way they like best. You might also suggest that students label their drawings, pointing out the parts that most contribute to their super-characters’ powers or abilities.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- Check students’ Compare and Contrast Graphic Organizers for completion.
- As students work on their Superhero/Super-Villain Profile Forms in groups, monitor their progress and provide feedback and encouragement for their ideas as a method of formative assessment. Focus on what distinguishes their super-characters from “regular folks” as well as what makes them interesting or complex.
- Review each student’s Superhero/Super-Villain Profile Form for completion and for a coherent understanding of the distinctions between heroes and villains; since students will have their own unique perceptions of “heroism” and “villainy,” it’s important to assess for effective characterization of their ideas rather than judge their notions of “right” and “wrong.” Also, look for a logical correlation between their characters’ properties/abilities and the possible application of those characteristics toward their “symbolic issues.”
- Check that students complete the written reflection with quality and effort. The reflection should be written in complete sentences and should be at least one paragraph long. It should compare and contrast the ways in which their characters approach problems versus the ways students attend to problems in real life.