Character Jam à la Barry

Was trying to pull off one of Lynda Barry’s class exercises on my own, but it was tricky. Spent an evening hacking together a substitute for friends so I could do a solo “Character Jam”.

Lynda Barry has a lot of good tips for how to unclog your creativity. In a couple of her books (Syllabus and Making Comics), she presents an exercise she calls a “Character Jam”.

There are some great examples on her tumblr.

Drawing exercises from Lynda Barry’s books “Syllabus” and “Making Comics”

Drawing exercises in Barry’s “Syllabus” (front) and “Making Comics” (back).

For the Character Jam, you split a sheet of paper into 16 frames, and make little caption boxes underneath each frame. Then you fill in one caption box with some kind of name or character description “that make you picture someone” and pass the sheet to your neighbor. You keep passing papers around until all 16 captions are filled.

Lynda’s suggestions for character captions
  • Type of criminal
  • Character from a fairy tale
  • Personality type, like ‘snob’ or ‘stoner’ or ‘sports fiend’
  • Name of former teacher
  • A celebrity
  • A title – like Lord or Judge or Senator followed by name of fruit or vegetable
  • A silly name both first and last beginning with the same letter
  • Someone you didn’t like when you were little
  • Awful occupation
  • Name of a neighbor
  • Cartoon character

(From Making Comics)

The suggested rules for filling these sheets are:

  • Draw the first character doing something
  • Include their face and entire body.
  • NO stick figures
  • NO dialog
  • Draw for the whole minute
  • Pass the page
  • Repeat until all 16 characters have arrived

(I love that phrase, “until the characters have arrived”.)

The idea is that her class can generate any amount of characters in less than half an hour, and then use those as jumping-off points for little comic strips.

It all sounds super fun, but for people like myself, with no access to cartooning students or friends who like to draw, a solo character jam can be difficult to get going. That’s why I spent a lonely evening creating the Character Jam Sheet Generator, to simulate the random input from a roomful of buddies.

It’s just a few lists of occupations, stereotypes, fictional characters, adjectives, titles, and dog names that are mashed together in a dozen different ways, but it cranks out a staggering amount of random character captions, in a grid, ready to be printed on sheets of paper.

They don’t always rarely make sense, but they can be kinda funny. They seem pretty effective for conjuring up images of something or someone, at least.

Character sketches from random prompts.

Some frames from my first printed sheet. Not too strict about the rules this time (not drawing with a timer, not always showing faces or full bodies), just having fun.

You can try it out here!

Advanced user manual

The top menu lets you select between 4, 9, 12 or 16 frames for your sheet. (The number of frames will not update until you press “Refresh” or “New Sheet”.)

“New sheet” will always make a brand new sheet with the selected number of frames, but “Refresh” will only overwrite the frames you haven’t opted to hold.

Each frame has two buttons: “New character” and “Hold”. “New character” will update that frame with a new character caption. “Hold” will let you refresh the whole rest of the sheet (using the “Refresh” button in the top menu) without overwriting the held frames. Press “Release” to release it again.