Standard Lesson

There Are No Small Parts: Minor Characters in David Copperfield

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Three 50-minute sessions
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Capitalizing on the enormous cast of characters in Dickens' novel-and students' interest in the phenomenon of social networking, this lesson asks students to "fill in the gaps" of the life story of a minor character from David Copperfield.  Small groups choose a minor character from the novel and determine everything they already know about him or her.  They then use Web research and imaginative thinking to create a "back story" for the character.  Groups share their new perspective on the character with a social networking page for him or her, with options for extending the activity in several different directions.

This lesson was adapted from material originally developed for Teaching Dickens: A Masterpiece Guide by Katherine Schulten and Georgia Scurletis, published by WBGH Boston. This companion guide accompanies the 2009 Masterpiece presentation of "The Tales of Charles Dickens."

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

In "You Gotta BE the Book": Teaching Engaged and Reflective Reading with Adolescents, Jeffrey Wilhelm outlines ten dimensions of response that he sees students using as they work with a literary text.  Wilhelm calls one of those dimensions "elaborating on the story world" and explains that students engaging in that connective dimension "build up clues from throughout the story to make meaning; play detective, flesh out clues, and fill in story gaps, often creating meaning that goes well beyond that suggested by the text" (68).  This lesson invites student to engage in that dimension of creative and inferential response, giving them a structure for such imaginative connection and allowing them to match imaginations with Charles Dickens.

Further Reading

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.

State Standards

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

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • 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).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 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.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

Materials and Technology




  • Students should have read David Copperfield, another novel by Charles Dickens, or another novel with a similarly rich cast of minor characters.

  • Although this lesson is a culminating activity and is intended to come after reading the novel, you may wish to prepare students by having them track a character as they read the book.

  • While this lesson includes some instruction and materials related to characterization and the Victorian Era, it assumes that these topics will have been part of the instruction during the reading of the novel.  ReadWriteThink lessons that support instruction related to characterization include Become a Character: Adjectives, Character Traits, and Perspective and Beyond the Story: A Dickens of a Party.  Use the links from the Dickens/Victorian Era Web resources to support learning about the historical era associated with Dickens's work.

  • Arrange for Internet access in a computer lab during Session Three.

  • Test the Profile Publisher tool and familiarize yourself with its contents and layout. Ensure that you have the proper Flash plug-ins installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • select a minor character and investigate what is already known about him or her through close review of the text.

  • determine what is unknown about the character that might be useful in developing a "back story" for the character.

  • use imaginative thinking to develop a plausible but creative "back story" for the character.

Session One

  1. Post the large piece of chart paper prominently in the room. 

  2. Prompt a review of David Copperfield by asking individual students to write the name of any character from the book on the paper.  The first student volunteer should write a name on the paper and pass the marker on to another student.

  3. As students add characters' names to the paper, ask them to draw lines between characters indicating connections that they have.  They should put a brief descriptor on the line indicating the nature of the relationship between the characters.  For example, the line between David Copperfield and Clara might say "mother, died when DC was young" while the line between David and Mr. Micawber might say "friendly landlord."  There would be no line connecting Clara Copperfield and Mr. Micawber.

  4. The paper will fill up quickly, and it will become more and more difficult for students to make complete and accurate connections (or find space for doing so). 

  5. After every student has had a turn, ask students if there are characters that have been missed.  Add these names to the chart paper.  Do not worry about completing connections at this point.  Simply providing a visual representation of the richness of the novel's cast of characters is the goal of this part of the activity.

  6. When the class is reasonably satisfied that the list is complete (a complete list is available), arrange students into small groups and ask each group to use the Major and Minor Characters chart to classify the characters on the chart paper into two categories: major and minor. 

  7. As students are doing so, prompt them to think about how they are making their choices.  Is a character minor because he or she appears only briefly?  Because his or her influence is not substantial?  Or is there some other way to determine who readers consider major or minor?

  8. Facilitate a brief discussion of the students' lists and, on the board or overhead, create a list of characters that the class agrees are "minor."

  9. Then share the following quote from an interview with Simon Curtis, director of the Masterpiece film adaptation of David Copperfield:

    Every single character in Dickens has something about him or her that's very actable. Even if it's just a one-line part, every character has a back story and a life. That's what draws actors to these parts.
  10. Ask students to consider Curtis's comment about the "back story" and "life" of the minor characters on the list.  Give groups time to look over the list and choose one minor character they would like to investigate further and "fill in the gaps" through creative thinking.  Have them record and explain their choice on the Major and Minor Characters chart.

Session Two

  1. Begin the session by asking students to recall the character their group chose.  Distribute the Filling in the Gaps in a Minor Character Planning Sheet and ask students to complete independently the first column for their character with everything they already know or remember about him or her.

  2. Then ask students to get back into their groups and share their brainstormed individual lists.  At this point, they should return to the text to get a complete and accurate picture of the character as he or she is presented in the novel. 

  3. When students have completed a close look at the novel, ask them to start thinking about the second column on the planning sheet:  What information does Dickens not give about their character?  What do they still want to know?  What part of that character's story would they still like to hear?

  4. Share some basic information on characterization by distributing the Analyzing Character and Elaborating on the Story World handout and prompting students to think about areas they would like to explore further.

  5. By the end of the session, the groups should have consensus on the elements they plan to develop for their character.

  6. Make students aware of the Dickens/Victorian Era Web resources if they need to do research to remain historically accurate or to spark some ideas.

  7. As homework for the next session, each member of the group should complete the last column of the chart with creative ideas that "fill in the gaps" about their character's life and personality.

Session Three

  1. Begin the session by sharing a completed example of the project for this lesson: an online social networking profile for a minor character.  Though this kind of networking technology certainly did not exist in the Victorian era, ask students to consider the attraction it might have held for Dickens, especially its ability to make connections among disparate people (just as the chart from Session One demonstrates.)

  2. Distribute copies or share an overhead of a completed profile for the character of Herbert Pocket from Dickens' novel Great Expectations.  Share the Minor Character Online Profile Rubric to clarify expectations for the assignment, pointing out that they will be completing a profile for the character at one specific point of the book. 

  3. Have students return to their groups and give them time to share the creative ideas they generated from the third column of their Filling in the Gaps in a Minor Character Planning Sheet.

  4. Direct students to the Profile Publisher and ask them to complete the sections of the tool for their character.  They should combine information from the text with the imaginative work they did.

  5. Have students present their profiles and facilitate a conversation about their choices. Given the characters students chose for their profiles, have them consider who would likely be online "friends" with one another.

  6. At the close of that conversation, ask students to complete the Reflection Questions.


  • Though this lesson invites students to focus on minor characters for further exploration, the richness of Dickens's major characters would allow for similar imaginative exploration as well.

  • Have students write a letter to an actor who has been cast to play the part of their character.  Watch the Masterpiece Theater version of David Copperfield and have students reflect on how well their imagined back story seems to compare with the choices made by the actor in the part.

  • Let students further develop their characters' back stories using the online Bio-cube tool.

  • Ask students to write the character's back story in a chapter written in Dickens' style.  Use resources from the ReadWriteThink lesson Style: Defining and Exploring an Author's Stylistic Choices to support students in this activity.

  • Though this lesson takes a creative approach to thinking about a minor character in the novel, the initial thinking can give rise to a more traditional essay in which students explore the significance of a character they initially considered minor or insignificant.

  • Find other teaching ideas for David Copperfield and other works by Charles Dickens at Teaching Dickens: A Masterpiece Guide.

  • To provide context for David Copperfield, have students read about Charles Dickens' life and work at A Charles Dickens Journal or Dickens on PBS.
  • Explore how Dickens’s skill in creating memorable secondary characters help make his works not only memorable, but has kept them popular for more than 160 years in this video excerpt from the MASTERPIECE adaptation of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield.

Student Assessment / Reflections

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