A Zefram by Any Other Name: The Importance of Names in Life and Fiction

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Zefram Cochran

“Come on out. It’s okay.” I tried to coax the furry creature from behind the recliner where he had taken refuge. What happened to that playful cat at the pet store? After twenty-five minutes of meowing on the way home, he had decided these new humans were nothing but no good strangers.

My husband assured me the little guy would come around; we just needed to give him time. So we settled into the couch together and decided we would give this new friend a taste of what he’d gotten himself into.

Space . . . the final frontier. We fired up Star Trek: First Contact (just in case he hadn’t seen it yet) in hopes that the constant hum of the Enterprise would put the rescued cat at ease. As the Borg threat became imminent, our new arrival snuck out quietly and settled himself across the room, facing away from us.

What were we going to call this gorgeous little creature that wanted nothing to do with us? I tossed a “Picard” in his direction. Nothing. “Kirk!” He didn’t even flinch. “Geordi?” Nope. Surely the next idea would get some kind of reaction. “Riker!” It was as if we didn’t exist. The puffy faced beauty just wasn’t interested.

Rock and roll music blared out of the TV and a tall, slender drunkard stumbled out into the night. Here it was. The fun-loving, free-wheeling, afraid-of-fame focal character.

“Zefram!” Those pointed ears immediately took note and, as his head whipped around, his big beryl eyes gave us their full attention. He was a Zefram. Of course. He had claimed his identity. And thus our friendship had begun.

It was somewhat easy to choose a name for our new family addition. We were able to interact with him. He was able to give us feedback about the name; and in the end, he “chose” who he would be. He still comes when we call his name. Well, you know, when he’s in the mood to come.

Fictional characters are not always so easy to identify. They don’t exactly give us feedback or choose their own names. They can, however, take on a life of their own. Their personalities sometimes develop unexpectedly as the story unfolds, and you may find that the original name you’ve given them no longer seems to fit. So how do you choose appropriate names for your fictional characters? Here are some suggestions that might help you find your breakthrough and ensure your contrived entities are believable and relatable.

Do your research.

If your book is set in the real world, you need to research names in that area as well as that time period. Give consideration to how surnames would have come about. If you choose a name that originated in a different culture, give a believable reason for how that family ended up in the country where your book is set.

Look up the meaning of names.

Words carry meaning and the meaning of a name reflects the personality of your characters. You don’t want to name your hero something that means “evil, deceptive, and weak.” Unless of course, the irony of rising above expectations is an integral part of your story. If you are having trouble thinking of names, refer to a baby name book.

Fabricate names that sound similar to a character trait of the individual.

This is especially relevant when you are writing fantasy or science fiction. For example, in the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (okay, I might be a Trekkie), one of the characters is named Garak. Garak is a Cardassian tailor/spy who loves to talk. One of his most notable traits is his incessant telling of tall tales. Recently I heard someone use the word garrulous. I’ll admit I had to look it up because it hasn’t been part of my everyday vocabulary. It means excessively talkative in a rambling, roundabout manner, especially about trivial matters. No wonder Garak’s name fits him so well.

You can also use physical traits to inspire your names. For instance, if one of your characters is an alien with a face that reminds you of spaghetti, you might name him Noldar (reminiscent of noodle).

Have fun when choosing names for your characters.

Keep in mind that a person’s name is often the first thing revealed in an introduction. Seeing a name triggers an image that will form the foundation of the character’s appearance in your reader’s mind and will often affect the way that character is viewed throughout the entire book.

If you are still not convinced of the importance of names, let’s take a look at the book of books, the Bible. Abram, Jacob, Saul, and Simon were renamed Abraham, Israel, Paul, and Peter. God Himself changed their names. That should tell you something about the importance of a name.

Names are part of our identity.
They label us.
And they tell the world a little of who we are.

Names also carry authority. A person’s name becomes synonymous with that person. To do something in the name of another is the same as if that person were the one performing the task. The most profound demonstration of this truth is speaking and acting in the name of Jesus. Consider the following Scripture verses.

“But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (John 20:31).

“And his name through faith in his name hath made this man strong, whom ye see and know: yea, the faith which is by him hath given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all” (Acts 3:16).

“Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

“Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole” (Acts 4:10).

“[Y]e are washed . . .ye are sanctified . . . ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).

“Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth” (Philippians 2:9, 10).

Wow. I don’t know how many times I’ve read these Scriptures . . . a lot. And they still give me chills and stoke the fire burning in my heart. Because in addition to knowing that the name of Jesus carries power to affect our world, I have also come to know that He has given me His name to do the works He would do. How do you know what works those would be? Look at the works He did when he walked the earth, the works He told His disciples to do in His name. Spend time in His presence. Get to know Him intimately. As you bask in Him, His desires become your desires; and when your heart is moved with compassion, you know it is your chance to act in His name, on His behalf, in His will.

The name of Jesus is a precious gift.

But in addition to His name, God has also given us a new name. Look at Revelation 2:17. “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.”

How do you know if you are one of those who have overcome? First John 5:4 says, “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” And 1 John 5:5 adds, “Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?”

If you have been born of God and believe that Jesus is the Son of God, you are classified as an overcomer. You have been given the hidden manna (Jesus) to eat, and you have been given a new name written on a white stone. Here’s something that will rock your world. Take a look at the full definition of the word stone that is used in this passage. You can find the Greek word and definition here. This should tell you something about the nature of your new identity.

Now it’s your turn. Share with us why names are important in your life and fiction. Are there any names that have impacted you in a powerful way? How do you choose names for your fictional characters?

Pleasant penning!

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