I have 100% been in this space. I have a novel that I outlined years ago using the Snowflake Method (one of the methods I used as inspiration in building The Story Map). And I have a 1-inch binder full of double-sided printed pages, just of this outline (and a good chunk of it is character outlines). I found an outline template that asks you everything from your character's eye color to political views and religion. After I finished the whole process for each of my characters, I was able to step away from it all and examine my novel objectively. And I realized that I didn't see a situation pertaining to the story in which my character's political views would come up. That begged the question -- why did I need to spend the energy defining that?
I'm a big fan of simplicity, especially in something as large as a novel. In novel-writing, characters and story have a symbiotic relationship: The characters help to drive the story forward, and the story helps create likability and connection between the characters and the reader. But neither is really more important than the other.
The more I thought about character outlines, the more I realized that there are two components to them. The first I'll go into more detail about here -- it's a sense of who the character is. This is the goal behind every outline you'll find online. It's why I was asked the political view of my guy. The more I knew about him, the better I can write him.
But there are really only three things your character needs:
- Identification by communication (a name)
- Identification by observation (a general look about them)
- Identification by association (an idea of their personality and how they get along with others)
Identification by communication
As an example. let's use the main character from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Here's the first paragraph of that novel:
My father's family name being Pirrip, and my christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.
Identification by observation
Can I let you in on a little secret? Unless the café au lait mark or the mole is significant to the story, it doesn't matter. Does your character have tattoos? If they're mentioned and they mean something to the story, then it should be defined. If not, you don't need to spend the energy to figure it out.
That said, you should have a general idea of what they look like. Characters, while (technically speaking) figments of our imagination, do exist within the context of the story. Your reader needs some way to identify them, even if it's just "he was a tall man with cropped dark hair, hazel eyes, and broad shoulders."
Regardless of how you describe your characters, your reader is going to get a mental picture in their mind and their image of your character may be completely different than your intention. This is okay. It's part of the dialogue between author and reader.
Identification by association
But there's another angle to this: Maybe your character doesn't spend time with people. Maybe he is a recluse who only leaves his house after the sun sets. Maybe she is a sorority sister because her mother (and her mother before her) was a part of the same sorority in her day, and she joins out of obligation despite no connection to her fellow sisters. This is also telling to your reader. These little details give so much depth to your character, without you having to answer a survey about who they would have voted for in the 1992 election.
I'm going to take a short break here. The second component of character development expands on this final point about identification through association, so stay tuned.