In Defense of the Villain: Teaching Persuasive Writing


With shows like The Making of a Murderer, How to Get Away With Murder, Bull, Criminal Minds, and Law and Order: SVU (and even the podcast Serial), the legal system becomes ever-popular among teenagers and adults alike. And we all know how many internet users fancy themselves law students when any controversial case pushes its way into the public arena. Unfortunately, so many teenagers and adults adhere to the “I believe it, so it must be true, which means you must believe it, too” policy even if they present no credible evidence or coherent logic to defend their argument effectively. Well, let us educators take some of these examples from popular culture and offer opportunities for students to practice the art of successful persuasion.

One of the things I always told my students who whined, “But, I don’t want to be on that side of the debate. I don’t agree with it” is that it should, in fact, be easier for you to make a case for the side with which you disagree because you already know what its opposition would say. All you have to do is come up with the counterarguments to what you would say if you were on the side you want to be on. Plus, it’s good to be in uncomfortable intellectual territory sometimes. Like your biceps, your brain is a muscle; if you never challenge that muscle to move differently, then your results will lack definition (so said the woman with the tiniest of twig-like arms).

Anyway, I see the following activity as more of an informal assessment than a heavily-weighted project. It serves more as a precursor to a persuasive project or even a review of a text.

Engagement Possibilities: I think videos are great engagement tactics, especially with how relevant videos (Snapchat stories, Vine, YouTube, or whatever the popular video apps are at the time you are reading this post) are to teenagers. Here are some suggestions for introducing persuasion.

  •   Watch this video on an introduction to persuasive techniques using commercials
    • The creator put the answers to the video’s questions in the description for the video. 🙂
  • This list of commercials using ethos, logos, and pathos is a cool way to get students to see if they can see which rhetorical appeal is being used in each commercial. (It’s a YouTube playlist of 13 commercials.)
  • This is a really interesting video by Business Insider about the four most persuasive words in the English language. The first word is “you,” which goes back to that rhetorical appeal of pathos. Cool connection to make for students.
  • The persuasive closing argument of A Time to Kill, which is a movie that’s kind of reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird.
    • Such a good movie, but there is no way you could ever show it in school. However, the closing argument should be fair game!
  • If you do not like the idea of a video for engagement, ask students to write a list of “likeable” villains/antagonists/bad guys and what makes them likeable. (Ex: Gru from Despicable Me is technically a villain, but we totally root for him. Granted, he is a dynamic character because he makes a turn around, but we even kind of like him before that. Spiderman in Spiderman 3 is another good example.)

Whichever engagement possibility that you choose will depend on what you really want out of the students’ end product. Do you want students’ assessments to be advertisement-based? Do you want them to write an opening statement or closing argument for a trial prosecuting a famous villain? Do you want them to engage in mini debates with one another? Or, maybe you could give them a choice.

Informal Assessment Possibilities: I like giving choices whenever possible so that I can reach more students’ skill sets, so I am doing the same for you here.

  • Mini debate about guilt/innocence of famous characters
  • Advertisements that deify the villain of the story instead of the hero (for the more visual learner)
  • Draft of the defense/prosecution for a famous antagonist/villain (in literature or in movies)
  • Opening statement/closing argument for a trial that is prosecuting a famous villain/antagonist
    • Have students do this for the defense!

Literature Connections:

  • Have students defend/prosecute Boo Radley of To Kill a Mockingbird — to save you the trouble of having a long classroom trial, maybe you can have students simply write opening statements/closing arguments.
  • Have students determine what charges could be brought up against Huck Finn and debate the innocence of Huck Finn. I had my AP students hold a mock trial, but that takes a significant amount of class time, so you might choose to turn it into a debate or a mini trial of opening and closing statements.
  • Pretend Macbeth did not die and pretend put him on trial instead. How would you form his defense? Did his wife brainwash him? Does he suffer from PTSD? What evidence from the text supports your defense?
    • Again, in the interest of time, you could have students plan their defense or prosecution instead of carrying it out.

Naptime has ended, so that is all I have for you today, but I will definitely be back with more ideas for teaching persuasion. Today’s post is just a fraction of our big toe in the water.

As always, let me know if you have any questions, suggestions, or additional ideas in the comments. Or, you can always email me at


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