Researching pseudonyms for authors is an academic pursuit in and of itself, and an author’s pen name can reveal a lot about their life and time.
So today, we’re looking at 15 writers who’ve shed their “government names” in favor of something different.
- What Is a Pen Name or Pseudonym?
- Why Do Authors with Pen Names Use Them?
- 15 Famous Pen Names and the Writers Behind Them
- 1. Anne Rice / Anne Rampling / A.N. Roquelaure
- 2. Mark Twain
- 3. Elena Ferrante
- 4. Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell
- 5. Pablo Neruda
- 6. Andre Norton / Andrew North / Allen Weston
- 7. George Eliot
- 8. Silence Dogood / Anthony Afterwit / Poor Richard
- 9. Stan Lee
- 10. Alice Campion
- 11. Mary Westmacott
- 12. Voltaire
- 13. Bell Hooks
- 14. Mo Yan
- 15. Richard Bachman
- What Is the Best Pen Name?
What Is a Pen Name or Pseudonym?
Also called a nom de plume, literary double, or pseudonym, a writer’s pen name is either a wholly made-up moniker or a variant of a person’s real name.
Some writers also use the names of distant relatives or ancestors.
Sometimes, an author’s pen name is only known by their publishing team; the public knows others.
Why Do Authors with Pen Names Use Them?
Why do authors use pseudonym names? Reasons vary, but the most popular include:
- Literary freedom
- Protection of friends and family from public scrutiny and backlash
- Making the name more distinctive
- Coming up with a single name to represent several authors
- Marketing reasons
- Hiding Gender
15 Famous Pen Names and the Writers Behind Them
Let’s look at authors who use pen names — or used to use them.
1. Anne Rice / Anne Rampling / A.N. Roquelaure
Née: Howard Allen Frances O’Brien
Masterwork: The Vampire Chronicles
Named after her father, Howard Allen Frances O’Brien changed her name on the first day of kindergarten to avoid being bullied and went with “Anne O’Brien.” In 1961, she tied the knot with poet and painter Stan Rice and took his last name, becoming Anne Rice.
The author used the name Anne Rice for her most famous works, including The Vampire Chronicles. She also had two other pen names, Anne Rampling and A.N. Roquelaure.
The former was for her duet of erotica books, Exit to Eden and Belinda — the original 50 Shades of Gray, and the former for the Sleeping Beauty Quartet.
Over her decades-long career, Rice, Rampling, and Roquelaure sold over 100 million books.
2. Mark Twain
Née: Samuel Langhorne Clemens
Masterwork: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn / The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Samuel Clemens is one of the most celebrated American authors of all time. Most folks know him as Mark Twain, and for decades, stories have circulated about how Sam came upon his pen name.
One tall tale insisted Clemens had invented the phrase to signal that he wanted the barkeep to “mark two more drinks.” Why two? Twain means “two fathoms” in riverboat speak.
But according to Clemens, he appropriated the nickname of a stoic riverboat captain named Isaiah Sellers. “As he could no longer use that signature,” he once explained in a letter, “I laid violent hands upon it without asking permission of the proprietor’s remains.”
However, the leading theory is that Clemens actually cribbed it from a comedy team called the “Phunny Phellows,” who wrote for the short-lived humor magazine Vanity Fair (not the same one as today’s version), published between 1859 and 1863.
But Twain didn’t want to be associated with the magazine or the Phunny Phellows since they both fell out of favor quickly. So, he made up a more romantic origin story for his nom de plume.
Don’t believe the venerated Mark Twain would steal the creation of others? Think again. He once told Helen Keller that “ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms.”
In addition to Mark Twain, Clemens wrote under Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sergeant Fathom, and W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab.
3. Elena Ferrante
Masterworks: The Neapolitan Novels
An Italian novelist, who remains anonymous at the time of this writing, Elena Ferrante is one of today’s most respected and beloved writers, despite their true identity remaining a mystery.
There are several theories as to Ferrante’s true identity. Still, none have been confirmed, and the writer has remained anonymous since 1992, despite winning several prestigious awards, including being named one of the 100 most influential people in 2016 by TIME Magazine.
4. Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell
Née: Anne, Charlotte, and Emily Bronte
Masterworks: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne), Jane Eyre (Charlotte), Wuthering Heights (Emily)
A family of brilliant writers, the Brontes may not have produced a prolific collection of works, but what they did pen has stood the test of time. The sisters’ works still regularly land on “best books of all time” lists, and they’re often credited with being among the first feminist writers.
Though women published novels under their real names by the time the Brontes came onto the scene in the mid-1800s, it was still considered unseemly for women to headline volumes of poetry because…(utterly dumb) reasons.
The story of how their first publication came to be is interesting. Apparently, Charlotte — the most ambitious of the crew — stumbled upon Emily’s poems while looking for something else in her sister’s room.
According to legend, Emily was furious, and it took several days to convince her that the trio should publish a book of poetry.
To avoid gender-related rejections, the sisters each chose a male pen name corresponding to the first letter of their real name. Anne became Acton, Emily morphed into Ellis, and Charlotte went with Currer.
They used “Bell,” the vicar’s name in their parish, to preserve the “B” for Bronte.
Notably, their first poetry analogy — (which they funded) — only went on to sell three copies. But the sisters kept at it — and now, almost 200 years later, we still know their names — and pen names!
5. Pablo Neruda
Née: Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto
Masterwork: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair
Venerated Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda was born in 1904 as Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto. His mom passed away two months after his birth, and from early on, Ricardo expressed an interest in literature and poetry.
Unfortunately, his father was an overly practical man who wanted his son to pursue more stable career goals. But writing was in Ricardo’s blood. At age 13, he published his first essay, Enthusiasm and Perseverance, in a local paper under his first pen name, Neftalí Reyes.
By the 1920s — after selling all his possessions to publish his first full-length work, Crepusculario (“Twilight”) — he was starting to make a name for himself, but his father still objected.
So, when Basoalto began writing for “Selva Austral,” a literary journal, he adopted the name Pablo Neruda — in honor of Czech writer Jan Neruda — to avoid his father’s wrath.
After enjoying much recognition and subsequent cultural and political status, Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto officially changed his name to Pablo Neruda in 1946.
6. Andre Norton / Andrew North / Allen Weston
Née: Alice Mary Norton
Masterwork: Witch World
The first woman to receive the Gandalf Grand Master of Fantasy award and the first female inductee to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, Alice Mary Norton used Andre Norton, Andrew North, and Allen Weston as her pen names.
A voracious reader, Norton was born in 1912 in Cleveland, Ohio, and began seriously writing in high school. Over her 70-year career, she wrote over a dozen speculative fiction series and was instrumental in starting the High Hallack Library near her home in Memphis, Tennessee.
7. George Eliot
Née: Mary Ann Evans
Born Mary Ann Evans in November 1819, George Eliot created one of the most famous pen names in history. Intelligent and forward-thinking, Mary Ann always knew she wanted to be a writer.
Because she wasn’t considered a typical beauty, her father decided to invest in her education, as he thought she wouldn’t have much luck in the romance realm and would need a way to support herself.
But the joke was on her father, as she ended up in a passionate relationship with French philosopher George Henry Lewes and enjoyed both aspects of life.
Evans and Lewes were ahead of their time, and Lewes was in an open relationship with his wife, Agnes Jervis. Ultimately, all parties agreed that the writer and philosopher should live together to support their academic pursuits.
Evans became a noted translator and cultural critic, but she also wanted to write novels.
To separate herself from her previous work — and avoid scrutiny of her unconventional love life — she adopted the pen name George Eliot, under which she wrote her most famous work, Middlemarch — which Virginia Woolf praised as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”
8. Silence Dogood / Anthony Afterwit / Poor Richard
Née: Benjamin Franklin
Masterwork: The Silence Dogood column, assorted essays and letters
One of the most enigmatic and influential founding fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin is one of the most beloved figures of American history.
While much of his work is credited to him, he also used several pen names throughout his life to both remain anonymous or present two sides of an issue in a point-counterpoint format.
His most famous pseudonym was Silence Dogood, who had a column in the New England Courant for 14 pieces in 1722. Franklin also used Anthony Afterwit and Poor Richard.
More Related Articles
9. Stan Lee
Née: Stanley Martin Lieber
Masterwork: The Marvel Universe
Today, the Marvel Universe is a multi-billion-dollar film franchise. But it all started in the imagination of a lower-class kid from the Bronx who grew up in “a third-floor apartment facing out back” where he and his brother shared the one bedroom, and his parents slept on the couch.
The apocryphal tale is that Lieber used the last name Lee to hide his Jewish heritage, but, in truth, he was saving his surname for more serious works.
You see, Stanley dreamed of becoming a great literary talent and, for a time, was chasing the Great American Novel. He didn’t want people to dismiss his serious efforts because of his comic book work, so he developed the pseudonym Stan Lee.
But Stanley fell in love with his beloved universe — as did millions of others — and he eventually changed his name.
10. Alice Campion
Née: Denise Tart, Jane Richards, Mary Jane St Vincent Welch, Jenny Crocker
Masterwork: The Painted Sky
Denise Tart, Jane Richards, Mary Jane St Vincent Welch, and Jenny Crocker all belonged to a Sydney-based reading club called “The Book Sluts.” After reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, they conjured a plan to write a “bestseller” that was a “21st-century version of the Thorn Birds” to fund a trip to Russia for the whole crew.
The result was The Painted Sky, which, as hoped, proved to be a success. The ladies went on their trip and kept banging out books. Currently, Jane, Mary, Denise, and Jenny are the world’s only commercial collaboration fiction group.
The group almost went with Beth Kloostus (an anagram of The Book Sluts) and Khira Hussey (“khira” being the Belarusian word for book, and Hussey, another slang term for “sluts”).
11. Mary Westmacott
Née: Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller; After First Marriage: Agatha Christie
Masterwork: The Murder of Roger Acroyd / Murder on the Orient Express
Did you know that the grand dame of mystery fiction, Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie, Lady Mallowan, DBE — aka Agatha Christie — also wrote a half dozen erotica novels?
When writing outside her genre, the prolific Christie used the name Mary Westmacott. Mary was her middle name, and Westmacott was the surname of a distant relative.
In addition to her 66 detective novels and 14 short story compilations, Christie also wrote six romance novels, including
Giant’s Bread, The Rose and the Yew Tree, The Burden, and Unfinished Portrait as Westmacott. Impressively, she used the name for decades with nobody none the wiser.
Née: Francois-Marie Arouet
Over his 83 years on Earth, Francois-Marie Arouet used at least 178 pen names, the most famous of which was Voltaire.
Nobody is positive about how he came up with the pen name, but common wisdom is that it was a pointed rejection of his family name because of his strained relationship with his strict father, who wanted him to be a lawyer.
Most believe Voltaire is an anagram of the Latinized spelling of Arouet; others insist it stemmed from his childhood nickname “Voluntaire,” a sarcastic nod to his infamous stubbornness.
According to the writer, he was “so unhappy under the name of Arouet that” he took another name.
Fascinatingly, Voltaire and a group of his friends exploited a loophole in the french lottery that set him up for life and allowed him to dedicate his life to thinking and writing.
13. Bell Hooks
Née: Gloria Jean Watkins
Masterwork: Belonging: A Culture of Place / Soul Sister: Women, Friendship, and Fulfillment
During her long career, public academic Bell Hooks published around 40 tomes, ranging from cultural criticism to children’s books.
Born in a segregated Kentucky town, Watkin’s mother was a maid, and her father a janitor. From an early age, Gloria Jean devoured books. William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Langston Hughes were her favorites.
A brilliant woman, Watkins earned a BA from Stanford University, an MA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a doctorate from the University of California.
She began publishing in the 1970s under the name of her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Hooks. Before passing, Hooks taught at universities around the world — including Stanford and Yale — before returning to Kentucky for good to head up a department at Berea College.
14. Mo Yan
Née: Guan Moye
Masterwork: Red Sorghum Clan
Labeled by TIME Magazine as “one of the most famous, oft-banned and widely pirated of all Chinese writers,” Guan Moye is the Franz Kafka of Asia.
Over the years, he has won numerous awards, including a Nobel Prize for literature.
Born in the pheasant town of Ping’an Village, Moye adopted the pen name Mo Yan, which means “don’t speak” in Chinese — a call back to his parents’ insistence that he shouldn’t speak his mind outside because of the political atmosphere during the time of his upbringing.
15. Richard Bachman
Née: Stephen King
Masterwork: The Bachman Books (Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, and The Running Man)
When Stephen King first became a popular author, common wisdom held that good writers couldn’t publish more than one book a year, so the prolific King needed a workaround.
He enlisted his team, and they developed an alter ego that was supposed to remain secret for years. A professional friend of King’s agent agreed to let them use his picture for author bios, and King made up a whole backstory.
How’d they come up with the name Richard Bachman? It’s part homage to Donald E. Westlake’s pen name, Richard Stark, and the rock band Turner-Bachman Overdrive.
King was able to release four books as his literary double until the secret spilled. He was reportedly upset about the reveal, wishing he had more time to write books anonymously.
What Is the Best Pen Name?
Picking the right pen name is essential! After all, if you become a literary sensation, it’s what people will know you by. So, what should you consider before choosing? The best nom de plumes are:
- Genre appropriate
- Age appropriate
- Easy to spell and remember
- Not offensive
- Not in use (to avoid legal tangles)
We hope you enjoyed our list of pen names. May they inspire you to come up with your own. Happy writing!