Tracking the Ways Writers Develop Heroes and Villains

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Estimated Time
Six 50-minute sessions plus reading sessions
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Everyone knows that Star Wars character Darth Vader is a villain. He ranks in third place on the American Film Institute List of Top 100 Heroes and Villains. This lesson asks students to explore how they know such things about the heroes, villains, and others they encounter in texts.

After examining how moviemakers communicate the villainy of Darth Vader, students examine a passage from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone that describes the villain Voldemort, noting how Rowling communicates details about the character. Students then read novels in small groups, with each group member tracking a character in a reading log. When they finish their novels, students design posters and present details on their novels to the class. After the presentations, students make observations on how authors develop character and write journal entries reflecting on what they learned.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

Character analysis represents one of the most common assignments given in literature classes. A successful character analysis demands that students infer abstract traits and values from literal details contained in a text. This lesson plan asks students to infer those traits and explore how they combine to build positive and negative characters in the novels. Incorporating well-known characters from both literature and popular culture not only makes the concepts more accessible to students but also increases their interest in the activity. As Dale Allender states: "Popular culture has affective and academic value. It should be used in a variety of ways as one would use texts generally in a constructivist, cultural studies classroom concerned with student achievement and transformative learning" (13-14).

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).
  • 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.
  • 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

  • Copies of the novels students are reading

  • General classroom supplies-markers, poster paper, chart paper, and so forth to be used as students work on their posters




Student Objectives

Students will

  • explore the literary element of character development.

  • complete character analysis using a reading log.

  • design posters and presentations that share their character analyses.

  • draw conclusions about how authors develop characters.

Session One

  1. Review the Three Elements of Characterization with students, passing out copies of the handout or using an overhead transparency of the information. Focus on the top half of the sheet. If necessary, refer to Character and Characterization from the University of Victoria.

  2. Applyng the details from Three Elements of Characterization, ask students to brainstorm facts that they know about the character Darth Vader from the Star Wars movies. Focus students' commentary on character traits rather than plot summary. List their responses on the board.

  3. If students need some additional details, have them review the Wikipedia entry on Darth Vader and the Darth Vader entry in the Star Wars Databank.

  4. Share that Darth Vader ranks in third place on the American Film Institute List of Top 100 Heroes and Villains.

  5. To provide additional background, share the AFI definitions of heroes and villains with the class:
    For voting purposes, a "hero" was defined as a character(s) who prevails in extreme circumstances and dramatizes a sense of morality, courage, and purpose. Though they may be ambiguous or flawed, they often sacrifice themselves to show humanity at its best.

    For voting purposes, a "villain" was defined as a character(s) whose wickedness of mind, selfishness of character and will to power are sometimes masked by beauty and nobility, while others may rage unmasked. They can be horribly evil or grandiosely funny, but are ultimately tragic.
  6. Ask students to review the list, keeping in mind the AFI definition, and identify those details that communicate to viewers that Darth Vader is a villain.

  7. Listen to Vader Unmasked: The Sounds and Psychology of Evil, from NPR. If computers are not available, pass out text copies of the article and ask students to read it. Whether they are reading or listening, have students note ways that the filmmakers communicate that Darth Vader is a villain.

  8. Return to the students' brainstormed list and ask students to reflect on the items that they have included and make any additions or revisions.

  9. As possible, align the items that have been identified with the Three Elements of Characterization. This process will connect to the analysis that students will do in the novels that they read.

  10. Pass out copies of the Looking for Character Development assignment, and review the activity to prepare students for the next class session.

  11. Be sure to discuss the different kinds of characters that students will read about. Characters can be very complex. Characters who are simply good or evil are hard to find. Even Darth Vader is developed in the full series of movies as more than a simple villain. The movies take care to develop his sympathetic circumstances as they flesh out a full-rounded character.

Session Two

  1. Review the Looking for Character Development assignment activity.

  2. Pass out copies of the Character Development Reading Log, or display an overhead transparency of the information and ask students to copy the column headers into their notebooks.

  3. Introduce the Excerpt from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. It's likely that students will be familiar with the characters from the novel, so you can ask them to identify each of the characters included in the passage: Harry, Malfoy, Voldemort, and Fang.

  4. Explain that the passage you will share is from the first book in the series and takes place later in the novel, when Harry and Malfoy are serving their detention by helping Hagrid in the Forbidden Forest.

  5. Pass out copies of the excerpt or display it using an overhead transparency. Read the passage aloud to the class, asking them to focus on the details that the author communicates about the character Voldemort.

  6. With students, work though the passage, using the reading log labels (e.g., appearance, action) to organize your analysis. As you work through the passage, model how to read and take notes on the character, making explicit reference to the task that students will complete in their small groups as they read.

  7. Once you finish working through the notes, review the information and answer any questions that students have about taking notes on a character from a novel.

  8. Arrange students in small groups and pass out the novels that groups will read. Introduce each novel to group members, providing details on lead characters that students can follow as they read. As an example, here are some possible characters:
    Work Characters
    The Hobbit Bilbo, Gandalf, Smaug, Thorin
    To Kill a Mockingbird Scout, Jem, Boo, Tom Ewell
    Romeo and Juliet Romeo, Juliet, the Nurse, Mercutio
    The Color Purple Celie, Nettie, Mister, Shug
    Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Huck, Jim, the Duke and the King
    Ender's Game Ender, Peter, Valentine, Bean
    The Great Gatsby Gatsby, Daisy, Nick, George Wilson
    Death of a Salesman Willy, Biff, Bernard, Uncle Ben
    The House on Mango Street Esperanza, Mama, Papa, Alicia
  9. Allow the remaining class time for groups to decide on the character that each group member will explore and begin exploring the book.

Reading and Discussion Sessions

Students can read their novels in or out of class, depending upon your schedule and other activities that you need to complete. Regardless of where students read, allow class sessions for students to discuss their characters as they read the novels. Encourage students to share their reading logs and spot check their work. Remind students that they can use the AFI definitions to help them organize their thoughts about the characters they are tracking. Be sure to pay particular attention early in the project and provide feedback to students who need to improve their notetaking.

Session Three

  1. Once students have completed reading and taking notes on their novels, return to the Looking for Character Development assignment and discuss the poster and presentation that groups will share with the class.

  2. Explain the presentation session that is planned for the class, covering the following key points:

    • Identify the purpose of the posters, to share details on the novels and convince classmates of their analysis of the characters. Like book reports, the sessions will also be a chance for students to encourage others in the class to read the novel.

    • Provide details on the event, explaining when it will take place, what kind of resources students can use, how much participation is required for group members, and so forth.

    • Describe the physical space and the resources that will be available during the poster session.

    • Discuss how the Character Presentation Rubric will be used to assess students' work.

  3. Overview the Persuasion Map, explaining that students will use the tool to gather details for the position they are taking on their characters. Use the Persuasion Map Planning Sheet to overview the different kinds of information that the tool gathers.

  4. Emphasize that students should use their reading logs as a resource, finding support for the positions that they take on their characters.

  5. Allow the rest of the session for students to complete their Persuasion Map. In any additional time, students can begin planning their posters asnd presentations.

Session Four

  1. Share the resources available for students to use on their posters.

  2. Allow students additional time to work on their group presentations in class. At the beginning of the session, remind students of the assignment and the requirements of the Character Presentation Rubric.

  3. As students work in their groups, circulate and monitor student progress.

  4. If students need additional support for their character analysis, encourage them to return to their reading logs.

  5. Let them know a few minutes before the work period will conclude so that they have time to wrap up their thoughts.

  6. Allow additional work sessions as necessary for students to prepare for their presentations.

Sessions Five and Six

  1. Give students five to ten minutes to make last-minute preparations and to practice their presentations.

  2. Gather the class and ask students to count off by threes.

  3. Ask all the "ones" to pay particular attention during the sessions to positive character development.

  4. Ask all the "twos" to listen for details that point to development of more negative characters.

  5. Ask all the "threes" to focus on characters who fall in the middle or vacillate between good and bad.

  6. Have groups present their characters and posters to the entire class.

  7. Encourage students to ask questions and interact with presenters.

  8. Once all groups have presented, ask each of the three groups of students to make observations on how authors develop character. Ask students to make concrete connections to the presentations and the characters from the different novels.

  9. As a concluding review, ask students to freewrite a journal entry on the unit that focuses on what they've learned about how authors develop characters.

  10. If desired, at the beginning of the next session, have students share their freewriting. As a more formal conclusion to the activity, ask students to compose a list of class tips on evaluating characters. Apply the tips as you read additional works in future sessions.


  • Expand on students' focus on a particular character from the novel by having them write a character diary entry from their adopted character's point of view. Use a diary prompt from Traci's Lists of Ten, or let students make up their own topics.

  • Bring the exploration full circle by having students create Character and Author Business Cards for the characters that communicate the kind of character they have studied. As they choose images and design for their cards, students will be making the same kinds of decisions that authors make as they create characters.

  • Have student pairs use the Profile Publisher to create a profile of a character, highlighting the character's heroic or villainous traits.

  • If students are studying heroes that follow the hero's journey monomyth, have them use the The Hero's Journey Interactive to chart the hero's development.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Monitor student interaction and progress during group work to assess social skills and assist any students having problems with the project. Check reading logs and Persuasion Maps as students work for completion and effort.

  • Use the Character Presentation Rubric to assess group presentations.

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