For centuries, writers have created pen names to publish their literary works. Adopting a pseudonym grants writers the ability to conceal their true identity for personal, political, and ethical reasons. Some of our literary world’s most beloved, bestselling authors have formulated their entire careers using alternative identities. Female writers, especially during the 19th century, have often used male pen names to combat sexism and prejudice in a traditionally male-dominated craft.
Other reasons for using a nom de plume include privacy, avoiding overexposure, crossing into different genres, creating a sense of individuality, and even simplifying one’s birth name in hopes of making it more memorable. Whatever the case may be, choosing a pen name remains a personal choice that ultimately aids writers in their publishing pursuits.
Here’s a list of 21 famous writers and their real names you might not have known until now!
1. Anne Rice
Real Name: Howard Allen Frances O’Brien
Originally named after her father, the author of Vampire Chronicles changed her name to “Anne” upon her first day of school to avoid being bullied. After marrying her now deceased husband Stan Rice, she used her married name to publish the majority of her work. Rice adopted a couple other pen names including Anne Rampling and A.N Roquelaure when she published some erotic novels.
2. Dr. Seuss
Real Name: Theodor Seuss Geisel
Dr. Seuss, one of the more well-known pen names, was adopted from Geisel’s middle name once he started writing children’s books. He added the “Dr.” because his father had always wanted him to pursue a career in medicine. Some say that Geisel was saving his real name to one day publish his “great American novel”; others suggest that Geisel simply felt more inclined to tell an “entertaining” story rather than a “true” one.
3. Mark Twain
Real Name: Samuel Clemens
While scholars have never been clear about the origin of Clemens’s pseudonym, the most recent investigations suggest that the name Mark Twain came from a short-lived, popular humor journal that he often read. Other stories indicate that Mark Twain had been used by Clemens’s former riverboat captain when he worked on the Mississippi river. If the man checking the depth called out “mark twain,” it meant a depth of twelve feet—meaning that the water was safe for riverboats that day.
4. Currer, Ellis, & Acton Bell
Real Names: Charlotte, Emily, & Anne Brontë
In 19th-century England, women were not permitted to publish poetry, so the Brontë sisters created the pen names of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Each male pseudonym matched the corresponding sisters’ names, helping them publish their first anthology of poetry in 1846. Initially, Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre were both published under their male names. It wasn’t until the Brontë sisters traveled to London to meet their publisher in person were their true identities revealed and, fortunately, they were given the credit they deserved.
Real Name: Charles Dickens
In the early stages of Dickens’s writing career, the author often published his work anonymously. It was not until one of Dickens’s earliest pieces of fiction titled “The Boarding House” featured an epithet that was signed by “The Inimitable Boz.” Boz was originally derived from the nickname Dickens had given his younger brother, Augustus. Dickens would call him “Moses” after a character in Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield. Pronounced through the nose, the name became Boses, and was easily shortened to Boz.
6. A.M. Barnard
Real Name: Louisa May Alcott
Early in her writing career, Alcott used the pen name Flora Fairfield to publish her poems and short stories throughout the 1850s. A decade later, some of Alcott’s melodramas were produced in Boston theatre under the pseudonym, A.M. Barnard. Knowledge of Alcott’s alias did not surface until the 1970s when historians discovered letters from the author signing off with the androgynous pseudonym. Digging deeper, they were able to find other works published by Barnard in various periodicals.
7. C.S. Lewis
Real Name: Clive Staple Lewis
Lewis published his first work titled Spirits in Bondage (1919) under the name, Clive Hamilton to avoid ruining his reputation as a tutor at Oxford University. The name was adapted from the author’s birth name and his mother’s maiden name. After Lewis’s wife passed away in 1960, he went on to publish a few more works under the name N.W. Clerk to again avoid being identified as the author. Eventually, Lewis published some of his greatest literary works under his abbreviated birth name.
8. Silence Dogood
Real Name: Benjamin Franklin
Franklin created several pseudonyms during his lifetime, each one possessing an ironically witty persona. His first pen name was Silence Dogood, a satirical middle-aged widower whom Franklin created when he was only fifteen years old. Some of his other pen names include Caelia Shortface, Martha Careful, Richard Saunders (Poor Richard’s Almanack), Busy Body, Anthony Afterwit, Polly Baker, and Benevolus. Franklin is one of the few male writers to take on a female alias—in fact, he often used his feminine personas to create a social critique of the patriarchy.
9. George Eliot
Real Name: Mary Ann Evans
Like the majority of female writers in the 19th century, Mary Ann Evans used a male pseudonym so that her works would be taken more seriously. Her pen name, George Eliot, came around 1857 when Evans published her first short story titled “Amos Barton.” Evans took the name “George” from philosopher and her lover George Henry Lewes to whom she never married but lived with until his death. Lewes oversaw Evans’s work and encouraged her to pursue her literary ambitions. Evans crafted her entire literary career and legacy under her pen name.
10. Lewis Caroll
Real Name: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson
Author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll was the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. As a scholar and instructor at Oxford, Dodgson valued his privacy—especially when it came to his literary works. He translated the first two parts of his name (Charles Lutwidge) into Latin, which gave him “Carolus Ludovicus.” He then reversed the order and translated the name back to English, which left him with“Lewis Carroll.”
11. Mary Westmacott
Real Name: Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller Christie
Under the pen name Mary Westmacott, Agatha Christie was able to divert from her usual realm of writing mystery and crime novels. The alias allowed Christie to explore writing about human psychology and love without expectations from her already established mystery fan base. Agatha chose her new name by combining her middle name (Mary) and the family name of distant relatives (Westmacott). She successfully used the pseudonym for nearly twenty years without revealing her true identity.
Real Name: François‐Marie Arouet
With a literary career stretching over 60 years, Voltaire may be one of the most immortal pen names of literature. While the origins of François‐Marie Arouet’s pen name are unclear, it’s been suggested that the adoption of Voltaire was a result of rejecting Arounet’s family name due to a strained relationship with his father. The most popular theory remains that “Voltaire” was an anagram of a Latinized spelling of “Arouet,” but others claim it could have been Arouet’s nickname “Voluntaire” (French for “volunteer”), which may have been a sarcastic nod to the writer’s stubbornness.
13. George Orwell
Real Name: Eric Blair
Before Animal Farm and 1984, Eric Blair published a memoir titled Down and Out in Paris and London in 1933. He adopted the name George Orwell so his family would not be embarrassed as he recounted his experiences growing up in poverty. Being a fan of English tradition, Blair also felt that Orwell sounded like a reputable British name.
14. Ayn Rand
Real Name: Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum
Author of bestselling books The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand is known for promoting her philosophy of Objectivism. Rand adopted her pen name when she moved to the United States to pursue a writing career. Because her family was still living in Soviet Russia, Rand did not want to risk putting her family in danger with her outspoken, and often critical, works.
15. Pablo Neruda
Real Name: Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto
A young Neruda adopted his pen name around 1920 when he started writing for the literary journal “Selva Austral.” To avoid conflict with his family, who disapproved of his occupation, Neruda crafted his alias from the deceased Czechoslovak poet Jan Neruda. By 1946, Neruda legally changed his name to match and embrace the poetic and politically charged identity he had created for himself over the years.
16. Maya Angelou
Real Name: Marguerite Annie Johnson
Now a household name, Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in 1928. Married briefly to a Greek sailor named Tosh Angelos, the pen name Maya Angelou was created when the writer combined her nickname (Maya) with an alternative version of her ex-husband’s last name.
17. Richard Bachman
Real Name: Stephen King
The “King of Horror” has published seven novels under the alias Richard Bachman. Apparently, King came up with the name on a whim while on the phone with his publisher; with a Richard Stark book on his desk and a Bachman–Turner Overdrive song playing in the background, Richard Bachman was born. King concealed his true identity for about five years until a bookstore clerk named Steve Brown determined that the two authors were the same person. Once the secret was out, King retired Richard Bachman, crediting his death to the “cancer of the pseudonym.”
18. bell hooks
Real Name: Gloria Jean Watkins
One of the most prominent feminist voices of our generation, Watkins derived her pen name from her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks. Watkins never capitalizes her pen name in order to preserve and honor the memory of her great-grandmother; a women she admired for her sharp opinions. Watkins established a reputation of a woman that “talked back”, for she was not afraid to speak up against the injustice she experienced in everyday life. She first used her pen name to publish a short book of poetry and made the grammatical decision to never capitalize the name in order to place the focus solely on her writing rather than the person behind it.
19. Lemony Snicket
Real Name: Daniel Handler
Lemony Snicket is both the author and the narrator of Handler’s A Series of Unfortunate Events; essentially, Lemony Snicket is Handler’s alter ego. During public appearances, Handler will introduce himself as Snicket’s representative explaining to the audience that the real author could not be in attendance due to some unforeseen disaster.
Real Name: Joanne Rowling
The bestselling author of the Harry Potter series has adopted a few different pen names throughout the course of her career. Originally, publishers feared young boys would not be inclined to read her series once they saw it was published by a female author. Rowling, who has no middle name, took the “K” from her grandmother’s name, Kathleen. As a dynamic writer, Rowling ventured into writing crime fiction where she adopted the pseudonym Robert Galbraith to release new work without hype or expectation. In fact, no one had any idea Rowling was Galbraith until an investigation into forensic linguistics led by England’s Sunday Times revealed an extremely similar writing style between the author’s works.
21. E.L. James
Real Name: Erika Leonard
The British author of the bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey series initially used the pen name “Snowqueens Icedragon” in an online Twilight fan-fiction forum where she first showcased an early version of Fifty Shades of Grey titled Master of the Universe. Once Leonard’s works started gaining popularity and she began transitioning to print, she adopted a new pen name that, in her opinion, was a little more professional. E.L. James was derived from Leonard’s family name (James) plus her first and middle initial. Ultimately, Leonard’s use of a pseudonym granted her the ability to keep her success as an erotic romance author separate from her soft-spoken, housewife reality.
Choosing a pen name is sometimes more than just a marketing strategy, and there are many ways an author decides on a pen name to embody the essence of their chosen alias. As we’ve seen as well, the majority of writers adapt them from their birth names—using abbreviations, translations from foreign languages, or variations of nicknames—to mark a personal claim on their chosen pseudonym. Regardless of why or how writers choose their noms de plume, there is no right or wrong way to go about it, for the work is bound to speak for itself.
There are several pen-name generators sprinkled about the internet that provide witty and humorous suggestions for contemporary writers. Tell us what your pen name would be!
Do you want to learn more about these authors and their other literary works? Check out eNotes.com to find detailed biographies of your favorite authors alongside full summaries and study guides!