How to choose a pseudonym

I realise the title of this post suggests I’m going to reveal some kind of ten step formula, perhaps a clever strategy of sorts to come up with a suitable pen name, but in the name of full disclosure I should probably state right now that I have no such knowledge.

In fact, quite the opposite.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot of late since writing my article about Females in Fantasy (check it out here), and how a great deal of female authors still choose ambiguous, androgynous or straight-out male pen names to help the sales of their novels.

There are unquestionably plenty of other reasons for authors, male and female, to put a name that is not their own on the front cover of a book, but what I want to know is how they come up with such a name.

To get an idea, I sourced out some of the more well-known authors and their pseudo counterparts.

J.K. Rowling uses her first initial (Joanne), her grandmother’s first initial (Kathleen) and her last name. Easy.

Robert Jordan, author of the Wheel of Time series, is actually James Oliver Rigney, Jr.. It is said the idea for his pseudo-surname came from using the initials of his full name: J.O.R.. It is also speculated that he adopted it from Ernest Hemingway’s character of the same name from For Whom the Bell Tolls.

George Orwell, aka Eric Blair, chose a pen name that “stressed his deep, lifelong affection for the English tradition and countryside: George is the patron saint of England (and George V was monarch at the time), while the River Orwell in Suffolk was one of his most beloved English sites.”¹

Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) - The Cat in the Hat

Theodor Seuss Geisel became Dr. Seuss, because apparently his father always wanted him to become a doctor.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson invented his pen name, Lewis Carroll, by translating his first and last names into Latin, Carolus Lodovicus, and then anglicizing it.

Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte, were published under Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, at a time when female authors lacked credibility. Each of their pseudonyms began with the first letter of their actual names.

Children’s writer Dav Pilkey came up with Sue Denim, which I think needs no explanation.

So if I wanted, or was asked, to choose a pseudonym how would I go about it?

My initials, K.M.H., are all consonants, so no help from Robert Jordan’s strategy.

I could get back to the origins of my name, like Lewis Carroll.  Katy, which is thought to derive from either the Greek Aikaterine, or even earlier Hekaterine, would be Katherine in Latin. Hulme derives from the Middle English Holm (someone who lived near a holly tree). Katherine Holm? Katherine Holly even? Maybe I could just do a Madonna and go with the single named Hekaterine. Hmmm.

If I wanted to follow the Brontes, Robin Hobb, or J.K. Rowling, with an ambiguous sounding name, ‘Kit’ is the diminutive of both Christopher or Katherine. Christopher Hulme? Kit Hulme?

Or perhaps I could follow Dr. Seuss’s reasoning and just add a title to my name. I’ve never wanted to be a doctor, but I could see myself as a noble. Lady Katherine? She wasn’t the most pleasant character in Pride and Prejudice. Countess Hulme? Hardy ha ha.

Failing these, maybe I could cheat and consult a name generator. The Leprechaun Name Generator has christened me Tweedle O’Gold. The Fantasy Name Generator, has me as Lena Amethystmace. Or more subtley, The Pen Name Generator tells me I’m Cindy Capleton.

I think I’m having a slight identity crisis.  Honestly, I feel no closer to finding my bestselling counterpart. For the time being I think I’ll stick with the name my parents bestowed upon me, and focus my attention on writing my novel, as opposed to the name that will appear on its cover.

Anyone else have any interesting pen name formulas to share? A pseudonym of your own perhaps? For those of you who don’t, any ideas what you’d like to call yourself if you were told to choose one?

~Tweedle O’Gold~

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83 comments on “How to choose a pseudonym

  1. I actually keep a list of pseudonyms, ranging from the ridiculous (Horatio Fairbrother, which I used a fair bit in high school for fun) to the real name derivative, which I will probably use professionally.

  2. I moved to the UK last year. It was a good opportunity to become the person I wanted to be, instead of the person I’d fallen into growing up in Australia. I started introducing myself as “Lissa” instead of my full name, Alissa, because three syllables are a pain and when people see my full name they panic because my surname is Slavic. They pronounce it Alicia or Alyssia or some crap like that. People now often call me Lisa, which is still incorrect. SIGH. However, I chose to brand myself Lissa because that’s who I feel like, more than Alissa. Alissa would only ever write university papers and non-fiction. Lissa writes exciting space adventures and urban fantasy and other fun genres.

    • That’s so interesting that you associate your different names with your different styles/stages in your writing and your life. I can’t do a whole lot with my name apart from shorten it to Kate, which just seems dull, but I love the idea of moving overseas and reinventing your name! I like Lissa. I like Alissa too, but if you feel like a Lissa then that’s who you are!

  3. This was a 5 star brilliant read – really interesting. I had no suspicion at all JK Rowling hadn’t used her own first initials – and George Orwell wasn’t George Orwell, and Dr Seuss because his dad wanted him to be a doctor. This was great, thanks :)

  4. I like Kit Hulme. It’s snappy.

    What I’ve always wondered about the Bronte pseudonyms is how normal they were. I’ve never heard of anybody else called Currer or Acton. Did they make them up? If so, that’s one way to acquire a completely gender unspecific pen name…

    • I kinda like Kit Hulme too!

      I have no idea about the Brontes. I actually didn’t even know (or don’t remember learning) that they published under pen names until this week when I was browsing the internet for authors with pseudonyms. You’re right though, they’re not the most common names. In fact, I think when reading about it I saw it stated that they were particularly uncommon names for the time. Perhaps they wanted to stand out?!

      • I like Kit Hulme (or perhaps Kit Holm), but that might be because you mentioned it was the diminutive of Christopher (though I didn’t know that beforehand), a name for which I have a soft spot. ‘Chris Holm’ also works. The snappier the names -or possibly those easier to pronounce- seem to work.

  5. Oh….fun! My pseudonym came easy to me. I have a long first name. I shortened it to the last four letters: Nila. I have a middle name that starts with E. Cool, I’ll keep that. N.E. is easy to say, and Nila E. isn’t too bad. Then, for my last name, I just translated my maiden name to English: White. N.E. White. Simple and I hope it evokes memories of great writer’s like E.B. White.

    I like Kit Hulme, too, but it sounds more like a SciFi author’s name, and not fantasy. Katherine Holm is good, too. Maybe Kat Holm?

    Fun diversion, but like you said, better get back to writing. Thanks for the post! :)

    • I like N. E. White. It’s memorable. And it seems like you’ve stuck pretty close to your actual name, which is always nice!

      I like Kit too. I have never seen myself as a Katherine, but I guess my authorly self could certainly be her! The problem with my last name is that it’s so often mispronounced. It’s a silent ‘L’, so it reads as Hume. Holm and Holmes are more common, so I guess they would be good choices too.

      Thanks for the input, and yes, back to writing! :)

  6. I am not a fan of pen names. I can see the logic behind it for the Bronte sisters, but really, why do we need to hide behind a facade?

    • I’m of mixed opinion. I like the ‘idea’ of them, and certainly everyone has their reasons. But indeed, why hide behind a facade? I like to think that if I ever got published, that my real name would be on the cover. Who could resist that?! :P

    • While I agree about not wanting to hide behind a facade, think about the poor young writer whose parents named him Stephen, never thinking about the fact that their last name was King… Or young Marion Fields who marries Johnathon Keyes before embarking on her writing career. If your real name is the same as an established author, (for example) I totally see the benefit of a pen name!

      • A most valid point, Jo. Although, perhaps if I was named Stephen King I would keep the name anyway…my first book would sell like fire no doubt! ;)

  7. I have the name I was given at birth. I sometimes like to call myself the CravesAdventurer at times. Interesting post and gets me thinking what other names I would consider – Thanks!

    • You’re absolutely right! John Steele sounds like a Secret Agent or someone very important. But if all else fails, Hieronymous P. Taber works too…nice to see you’re prepared! ;)

  8. I’ve got no intention of using a pen name, but have one picked anyway. Because, why not? It’s fun. Mine would be: J.D. Hart.

    I quite proudly say that I’ll be using my own name, but I also have a story like Lissa’s. Jo is not my full name, but it’s a shortened version of it. I reinvented myself 12 years ago after a move from Townsville to Brisbane, and have been Jo ever since. I detest my full name, and shudder when people use it. To me, it’s not my name at all, but the name of a boring, weak-willed wallflower — someone I never want to be again.

    But moving away from my neuroses and back to you… Katy Hulme reads remarkably similarly to Katie Holmes. (At least to me.) Which you could exploit or steer away from. Kit is a great gender-neutral name, and Kat is a great shortened version of Katy (if you didn’t want to go Kate or Katherine). Or go with something completely different, choose your favourite character and morph their name.

    • J.D. Hart is very cool! But Jo Eberhardt is a unique looking name, so I can see why you wouldn’t need the pseudonym! I find it fascinating that people associate a name with a past ‘version’ if you will, of themselves. It just goes to show the power of words, and why so many books place enormous value on the names of characters. In Robin Hobb’s The Farseer Trilogy, the tradition in the story is to name the children after a virtue, which is thought to influence that character as he/she grows; So there’s names like Verity, Regal, Dutiful, Lady Patience etc.

      I actually got a letter once addressing me as Katie Holmes. I wonder if they thought I had misspelled my name, or rather if they just saw what they expected to see. I suspect the latter. I’m really warming to Kit. Kat irks me, no idea why, but I don’t see myself as a Kat. Funny that, isn’t it? What does a ‘Kat’ look like? Hmm Hmmm…

  9. Dear Tweedle,
    I have thought on this many times in the past and have come up with nothing. For my children, however, I have come up with one for each of them. All of which I have forgotten. I think I’d better stick with my own name or I won’t know who they’re talking to when they call my made-up name!!

  10. The problem is there are too many names that I love. I came up with several possible pen names once, but I just couldn’t decide which one I wanted to commit to. Besides, I didn’t want to lose sales because my friends would be looking for my books under the wrong name. Still, it is fun to think of possibilities. :-D

    • I’m with you there; it would be nice to be able to tell friends to simply search for my name and voila! Plus, let’s be honest, I’d be too excited at the opportunity to see my real name in print to bother with pseudonyms! ;)

  11. What a fun and interesting post! How cool that those links give you a pseudonym! Haha! The pseudonym my Monster Moon (children’s spooky mystery series) co-authors and I use is BBH McChiller. McChiller sounds kid friendly, yet scary story-ish, right? And BBH stands for the critique group where we met and decided to collaborate together, Books Born Here.

    • Hey Lynn! Thanks for stopping by :) McChiller is an awesome name for a children’s author. So fun! And I like the Books Born Here/BBH too. Very cool!

  12. i enjoyed your post! of course, i had to check out the automatic name generators. fun! I was Little O’Taters (sounds like a small time stripper),
    Phoebe Amberblade: Psarina of the grey mermaids (my granddaughter would love that one! it does sound dramatic.)
    and Star Noble (simple and to the point!)

    and now, the day is done. thanks for the fun. martha

    • Ooo, you got good ones! I like Phoebe Amberblade and Star Noble the best. They’d be good character names even?! Little O’Taters had me thinking of Samwise Gamgee from the Lord of the Rings, talking about his taters, aka potatoes! Give that one a miss maybe? :P

  13. I have mixed feelings about pseudonyms. I understand their value and why writers use them, but I just can’t ever grasp putting one of my “babies” out into the world, and basically saying, “Yes, I’m your daddy, but tell the world you belong to somebody else”.
    This might have something to do with the fact that I have an overwhelming urge to become a well known author and stuff it in my former classmates FACES! Ahem… sorry. Anyways, just my thought.
    Great post though Ms. Katy!

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  15. We all tell little fictions about ourselves, putting different masks on for different audiences; a pseudonym is just an extension of that. A good name can assist in creating a persona, segregating away those bits of yourself that don’t tell the story of ourselves that we want to tell. Plus, they can be fun – a little bit of dress-up.

    Mine is – for what it’s worth – not worth sharing with the world. It’s something that a few people would guess the significance of – it’s a little private joke, something that may generate the scarcest smattering of shared smiles and knowing nods. All that said, I primarily chose it because I find it far more interesting and cover-worthy than my own name.

    Mind you, I spent a week aged 10 convincing the world (unsuccessfully) that my name was Wolfgang, so perhaps I’m not the best arbiter of taste when it comes to these things.

    • Wolfgang is pretty excellent as far as pseudonyms go! ;) Thanks for sharing your pen name story, Hugh. I like your theory of pseudonyms being an extension of the little fictions we tell about ourselves; so very well put!

  16. Pen names are so hard to choose… I can totally understand. but give it time, something might eventually come to you that just feels right:)

    • There are just so many ways of going about it! I’m not too worried, in fact, I haven’t actually decided that I want one. I just find it a bit of fun to think about; creating an alter ego and all ;)

  17. You get used to the name (I’ve been writing under this one for over 20 years, and it feels quite natural — I do wonder when Google + is going to kick me off, though. :-) ).

    Anthony was my father’s name (he was a writer — not successful, but he always had a lot of fun doing it). Lee was William Burroughs’ early pen name. Collins was because I’ve always been a huge Dark Shadows fan.

    To me, the difficult thing is naming characters. When I started writing mystery stories, I suddenly needed a whole new crop of suspects for each one. That was a shock, so I started to develop systems.

    • 20 years! Do you feel like you actually are Anthony Lee Collins now?! I like pseudonyms with a little story behind them; yours is one of them. I don’t seem to have too much trouble picking character names, although sometimes I know I’ve chosen the wrong one and need to spend a little more time thinking about it. But you have systems? Intriguing!

      • I have two characters who went through a few different names. I chose the final ones (even though it led to an unfortunate rhyme with the name of another character) because I knew one of them had very religious parents, so I figured they would have used biblical names for their three kids. Mostly the first name I use is the one that sticks, though I have a lot of characters who use names other than the names they were born with, so sometimes it’s a while before we learn their birth names.

        I talked about my name-choosing systems here: http://u-town.com/collins/?p=190 (scroll down to the part titled “Names”).

  18. I tend to agree with those who say your pen name should fit what you write. I think Amy Keeley will work for fantasy, but if I go into romance I would probably use something with a more romantic sweep to it, like Alicia Cavanaugh. Even before I read your article, I felt names were part of marketing (just didn’t think there might be bias). I think writers need to be aware of that even if they decide to use their real name for the byline.

    Now I just need to get published and prove my theory. :P

    Signed,

    Dirt-foot Cloverhopper
    (Thanks for the link to the leprechaun name site!)

  19. Hi Tweedle
    Fun post! I’ve always thought that when I’m a rich and famous author I’ll have gone J. K Rowling style – J. D Hoadley. True initials, unisex, doesn’t lend itself to any genre really. But, if my first book is crap, and it has my real name on it… awkward. Change it for the next one? :P

    I was kinda shattered as a kid though when I found out my favourite author (Mary-Anne Dickinson of the Charm Bracelet series) wasn’t a real name. Found out she was really Emily Rodda, and loved all the Emily Rodda books (Rowan of Rin, Deltora Quest etc.) Then found out Emily Rodda wasn’t her real name either- it’s Jennifer Rowe. She writes adult fiction under her real name, and kids books under the other two. Confusing right?

    ~Sneaky Twinkletoes

    • Ah yes, this is a good point – what if you use your real name and the book is a flop?! Awkward indeed! Lol

      And shame on you Jennifer Rowe for confusing us all! ;) Thanks for commenting, Sneaky Twinkletoes!

  20. I like Katy (yes, I’m a Katy Perry fan — part of the interest from her fans could transfer to interest into your novels if your target audience overlap).

    So you could always stick with your first name and turn your surname into something “fantastical”. You could try and evoke meaning from the type of fantasy you like to write.

    • Thank goodness for Katy Perry! People have finally started calling me Katy and not Kathy, and are no longer quite so confused when I explain it’s Katy with a ‘y’, not ‘ie’. Maybe a fantastical last name is the way to go. Hulme is a still a bit of a struggle for most as it’s a silent ‘l’, pronounce Hume. Sigh. Thanks for the suggestions, Rebecca!

  21. After a run in with an a fake account I dealt with during my years in Costumer Service, I put all my deviant and adult material under the name “Redlie Cakepunch” or Captain Cakepunch.

  22. I’m liking Kit Hulme! Don’t forget, loads of people pronounced JK Rowling’s name a little bit funny at first too – everyone I know called her JK Rowing. Not really sure how they lost the L, but it just goes to show that good things come to those who wait :)

    My pen name’s actually a joke. The French definition of Charlotte is ‘small and womanly’ – my friends daily remind me that I’m considered tiny compared to them! (For the record, I’m 5’3″) I haven’t mentioned this fact to them yet, but it’ll certainly be amusing when they find out.

    -Fluffy Shortlegs (See, even the leprechaun name generator mocks me :P)

    • “See, even the leprechaun name generator mocks me” … massive lols!

      You’re right about Rowling! I suppose people will either learn or continue mispronouncing a name; But I guess what’s more important is that they’ve noticed enough to say it at all!

      Thanks for stopping by, Charlotte!

  23. Awesome post. I have a friend who’s been worrying over her pen-name for a while; I’ll show her this to prove that she’s not alone.
    My pseudonym came about entirely by accident about three years ago, because I needed a username for a website account. I had currently a rather big crush on a man with the surname ‘Sumner’, and I considered myself to be his protector, his angel, so ‘SumnerzAngel’ turned into the username as I was doodling the words together. Then I realised that I could swap the words around to form ‘Angel Sumner’, a name that just seemed to stick.
    I’m not sure if he actually found out about that in the end *guilty look*
    -Alexandrina Brant x

    • Ahh yes, a common cause for concern amongst aspiring writers. I hope she feels better once she’s read the post!

      What an excellent story behind your pen name! If that was how all pen names were determined then my pseudo-surname would be Bloom, or Boreanaz, or Skarsgard, or…I think I should stop now.

      Thanks for stopping by Mrs Sumner! ;)

  24. Very entertaining post, Katy. I tried the pen name generator, and ended up with Lady Schwarz – which I actually quite like!

    I’m publishing a fiction book soon, and have decided to use a pen name when I do, as I’m already well-published in non-fiction under my real name. I want to keep fiction and non-fiction a bit separate.

  25. Willow Rose Seanchai is my pen name. I love Willow Trees (and the lore surrounding them), my granmda called me Rosebud when I was little, and Seanchai is Gaelic for “storyteller”~ :)

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  27. My mother calls me “Boo” which I’ve published quite a few pieces for school under, haha. (That didn’t go down too well) Usually I just write under E.M Hastings of which I took the “E.M” from my favourite novelist E.M Forster and “Hastings” is my best friend’s last name :P

    • Boo! Love it. And E.M. Hastings has a very classical sound to it, made even better knowing the lovely reasoning behind it. Thanks for sharing Em!

  28. My current pseudonym actually began as a character in the story that always plays in my head. Eventually I came to associate my ideals with a persona, and gave the name of my favourite character to that persona. It carries with it an air, a chill, an element of the heart-racing thrill and inexorably soothing calm of midnight. I use it because I wanted to be open, honest, and unafraid of comment. Rather than have my own name tied to the dreams, evils, and secrets I harbor, I resolved to give them unto my better self- that he might in his strength speak truth without fear or reserve.
    I also have an alias I use for online transactions, so that if someone tries to steal my identity they will have a fake name/address/birthday and low-value prepaid cards bought with cash. It makes me feel like I’m off the grid, even if I’m not.
    -Dark

    • That’s quite cool; your pseudonym being a self-invented character! I also like the idea of having a second identity, it sounds quite thrilling!

      • If I had fewer compunctions about breaking the law, I might get a fake I.D. and keep some colored contacts and hair dye handy. But as yet there is no reason for it. It is an amusing line of thought to entertain though ^_^
        -Dark

  29. I’m not a writer yet, but here’s how I got my pen name:
    1. Random name generator of all the names I liked
    2. First initial of my favourite book character (Prim Everdeen)
    3. A surname that has been stuck in my head for weeks, even though I have no idea where I heard it.
    Hence:
    Lilyin* P. Cleverwood**
    *More interesting variant of Lillian
    ** Pronounced CLAY~ver-wood
    What do you think?
    — Lilyin P. Cleverwood
    (Charl)

  30. I’ve always liked the idea of using gender neutral names. my name is already that and the same can be said for my middle name (Charlie). what would you think about an author called AJ Hathoway (using my dads initials and a surname I think goes with)

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