However, concepts provide a couple of good things for developing and portraying any character. First off, they give a staging ground for developing the rest of the character. A Concept tells you the core of the character, what at their very most basic they are. With a concept in mind, fleshing out a back story, choosing mechanics for it, or even playing those initial sessions can be a lot easier because the core, the foundation, of what you want the character to be is solidly developed and firmly in mind. The second thing they do is that they give you something to go back to. As the story develops, and the character begins to grow and change, things can get convoluted and you can lose the way you wanted for a character. In those situations, you have something that you can fall back on, an open door that leads you straight back to the core of the character. Now, it could be the character has grown away from their concept too much for this, but even then you at least have a starting point on refinding the character.
So, what is in a concept?
A concept doesn't have to be long, in fact in my experience the better concepts are shorter. As short as one word, or a sentence or two are all you should need. Anything more and you aren't writing a concept, you are writing something else. As for what those few words should be, it can really be anything. A job the character does, a personality type, a key phrase that defines an aspect of the character, hell even a reference to a different character either fictional or real can work as a concept or part of a concept.
This is something that is a bit easier to show than really explain, so below I'm including the concepts for some of the characters I currently have in play or in the works in some way or another.
Oswald Brown: Oswald Brown is the character I play in a game that is run every other sunday. The game is a near-future (2031) Spec-Ops game where the characters are part of a new team put together by JSOC for special missions. Os is the groups Sniper, driver, and primary spotter.
Explanation: Oz's concept is one word, "sniper", and the phrase describes him nearly perfectly. As well as being his job, Oz is 3 of the big "P"s. He is precise, patient, and potent (capable doesn't begin with a P :P ). This character started off simply with me wanting the "sniper" job for the game for my character, but from that the entire character game out. Oz is a very patient man, but don't take that to mean hesitant. He is a man of action, he prefers to act than sit around thinking about ways to do things, however he also understands that sometimes part of acting is waiting for the opportune moment to act. Much like the weapon that Oz uses, he is a precise individual. He puts work into making sure that he doesn't need to do a task twice because it wasn't done right the first time. He puts in effort to getting things done properly, punctually, and precisely. As for the last P, anyone who says Oz isn't a potent or capable individual is in for a surprise. While part of this is due to the amount of points we were given to play with, Oz is one of, if not the, best snipers in the world. Above and beyond that, he is also a dangerously good driver, as well as a good shot with almost any kind of gun where patience and zeroing in the sights isn't a factor. Finally, as fitting the view of a sniper being a lone individual, Oz tends to keep his distance from the group. Not that he is not their friend, but their is a wall between him and them, maintained by his quirky sense of humor which makes light of almost any situation giving him an emotional buffer in case anything were to happen. In short though, Oswald Brown is a Sniper.
Matsu Mesutsume: Mesutsume is the character I play in a game run by the same GM as the Spec Ops game. It is an L5R game set in a heavily altered timeline (we're set in about 500) where the characters are members of a Lion clan Spear Elite Unit.
Concept: Lion, "Crane", Achilles
Explanation: Mesutsume is a Lion at heart, and by that I mean the clan. She puts a high stock in family and friends, and her brothers in arms. The ideals of the Lion are strong in her, and like many stereotypical Lion she has an idealistic view of Bushido.
The word Crane is in quotes because while being Crane is a part of Mesutsume, it is mostly a facade that she has. Mesutsume's father comes from the Crane clan (the big rival of the Lion for those not in the know), and the fact that she has Crane blood running through her has had a large impact on her life. Many in the Lion have mocked her for her Crane-like features, and in return she developed some Crane mental features. Mesutsume, despite primarily being a spear fighter, has a capability of using words to incite people into courses of action that are favorable to her. This trait, as well as all the impact being viewed as a Crane or not a real Lion has had on her is why this is here.
The final word of Mesu's concept is Achilles. Achilles is a reference to the Greek hero Achilles, a legendarily good fighter who died at Troy. I'm not a scholar on Greek myth (sadly!), so the basis for Achilles I am using is Brad Pitt's depiction from the movie Troy. Mesu is a very very capable spear fighter, she moves like water flowing from stance to stance and is always ready to go. She is also prideful and more than a little arrogant in her own way. She does not back down, she provokes, she jumps in. She is wild and passionate, yet at the same time restrained and controlled. Also, much like Achilles, Mesutsume intends to make sure her name will never die, a goal she will sacrifice almost anything for.
Looking At Them Again
Looking at the concepts for those two characters again, I can honestly say that they have followed them for the most part. Mesutsume has, of late, begun to develop a bit away from the Achilles part of her concept. Not that she is not still a capable fighter, she is just not necessarily as loud or arrogant about it. She has grown up, matured from the 14 year old girl she was when the game started. She has confidence in herself, knows what she can do, and doesn't feel as large a need to prove it to others. That being said, "Achilles" is still a big part of her character, and more than a few times in the game I have looked at this concept when stuck on how to respond to something. Each time, the results have been quite entertaining.
Hopefully, this shows you a bit of how a concept can help with explaining a character. Those 4 words give a lot of information (to me at least, and as the player that is what matters most really) about two characters who are, in my opinion, very complex and deep characters. They are not just stat sheets for combat, but actual 'people' in my head that come out to play on occasion.