9 Famous Pen Names and Their Origins

Since the rise of modern literature, authors have adopted pen names to disguise their identity for one reason or another. Pen names, or pseudonyms, are the names we see printed on the title page or by-lines of books and other written documents that are used in place of birth names. These fictitious signatures held more weight in previous decades, where women who historically had to hide their identities often chose aliases to garner better success within the male-dominated writing industry.

Today, fewer modern authors create a “nom de plume” like their literary predecessors, though they are still widely used nonetheless. One of the more notable recent examples was Stephen King’s rare copy of The Regulators, written under his pen name, which was auctioned in Maine in 2013 to benefit a homeless shelter.

The history of pen names dates back to the 1720s. In the early 18th century, freedom of speech was a concept that had not yet been established, so outspoken United States Founding Father and writer Benjamin Franklin used numerous pseudonyms to voice his opinion in printed publications. He developed entire characters to expose gossip, scandals, sexism, and other injustices. His most famous pen name, Richard Saunders, allowed him to write Poor Richard’s Almanac, an annual publication that contained timely, compelling information that included a calendar, weather updates, poems, and even the occasional math equation.

Pen Name Generator

From 19th century novelists to celebrated, present-day authors, pen names have allowed many to write under the identity they prefer. The concept of fictional names still remains relevant today and is widely embraced by authors of every genre.

Action, adventure, and horror authors have been known to choose names that lend a more daring, dangerous undertone while romance novelists often land on feminine, softer sounding ones. Poets usually keep their first names relatively short with surnames that easily flow off the tongue. Science fiction and mystery pen names are a bit more androgynous while satire writers pick quirkier pseudonyms that leave a lasting impression. For drama writers, more Germanic names dominate the genre.

Using our pen name generator, create your own nom de plume that might one day top the list of famous pen names of history.

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Why Authors Use Pen Names

There are countless reasons why authors have used pseudonyms, and their choice of name can often be a reflection of their impetus. Whether political, personal, or simply fun, below are some of the common reasons why authors have chosen to use a nom de plume to represent their literary identity.


Before the 20th century, the literary landscape was primarily dominated by men. Many female writers used pen names to establish themselves as serious authors within the male-commanded industry. The Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, wrote under the pen names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell to garner the respect their work deserved. Women authors often looked to gender-neutral initials accompanied by a catchy surname. None other than Joanne Rowling, popular author of the Harry Potter series, writes under the names J.K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith, for example.


Pen names also provided a sense of anonymity that famous authors might not have received otherwise. Political authors who wrote provocative works about the government or social system are a primary example. French Enlightenment writer, Francois-Marie Arouet, best known under his writing name Voltaire, likely took on his pseudonym to remain anonymous while writing works that criticized the government.

Other authors were simply a bit more modest and wanted their personal lives to remain private. Such was the case with Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who wrote under the name Lewis Carroll in the 19th century. Eric Arthur Blair, who wrote as George Orwell, remained anonymous so his family wouldn’t be embarrassed by his time in poverty.

Switching Genres

Authors who tended to genre-hop would establish various pen names to avoid being pigeonholed into one specific category. For example, author Iain Banks created the pen name Iain M. Banks when writing science fiction, and romance novelist Nora Roberts wrote as J.D. Robb for her Death series, but used Jill March and Sarah Hardesty for other narratives.

Trouble with the Law

Authors who had a criminal past often used pen names to shield their identity and protect their reputation. William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry, was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzlement, but wrote various short stories under different pseudonyms while in prison. Daniel Defoe also had frequent brushes with the law, so he adopted an alias to stay under wraps.

Works of O. Henry, 12 volumes, 1912. Sold for $700 via The Cobbs (March 2013).

Famous Pen Names

Some of our favorite authors from the past and present have long since used pen names to compose their most decorated masterpieces. Do you recognize these famous pen names from literary history?

famous pen names infographic

Sources | Mental Floss | Powell’s | Electric Lit | The Atlantic | Bookstr | Nameberry