Maybe you’ve just started your writing journey and you’re wondering whether you should have a pen name, or maybe you’re an established author wondering if it’s too late to switch it up. Either way, the question you’re asking is the same: is a pen name right for you?
People often assume that pen names are purely for the sake of anonymity, and while this is basically true, it’s more complicated than that. There are a ton of reasons why someone might want to use a pen name, some of which you might not have considered!
If you have considered it, you may have run into a separate issue: finding a pen name that works for you. I’ve had this issue before and I’ve burned countless pieces of paper trying to glue first and last names together into something respectable. It can feel impossible! It doesn’t have to.
In this article, we’ll talk about what pen names are, why they’re used, how to pick a pen name that works for you, and which pen name generators might be helpful to you.
This guide to the best pen name generator tools covers:
- What is a pen name?
- Why use a pen name?
- How to pick a pen name
- List of pen name generators
- Next step
What is a pen name?
A pen name is a name under which an author publishes. It is different from the name they go by in their personal life.
A pen name can be a completely different name, but it could also be a variation on an author’s name. An author might choose to use only their initials (G.R.R. Martin, R.F. Kuang, and J.R.R. Tolkien are examples of this), or they might choose to change just their first or last name.
Think of Hollywood stars or musical artists like Marilyn Monroe, Nicki Minaj, Lil Nas X, Blake Lively, or Miley Cyrus. These people chose these names as part of their public-facing personas—the name is part of an aesthetic. It’s a stage name.
Although pen names aren’t always attached to a real person’s face, they function much in the same way. A pen name is like your author persona, and it can be whatever you’d like it to be.
Why use a pen name?
At first, it might sound silly to use a pen name. “It took me years to write and publish this book, so it had better be my full first and last name on the cover,” you might be thinking. And that’s completely valid—it’s very common to use your real name to publish, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing that.
But let’s take a look at some of the reasons why you might actually benefit from a pen name.
1. Pen names keep your writing life private
Most obviously, pen names give the author a bit of anonymity. This isn’t always absolute—everyone knows who G.R.R. Martin is, for example, despite the fact that it’s only his first and middle initials on his books.
But let’s say, for example, you’re writing erotica. Really, really niche erotica. You want to publish it, but you’d also like to be able to attend family gatherings without your distant relatives asking you questions about your wolf shifter erotica. You might not want everyone knowing what you write, so a pen name could be an easy way to hide it from people in your personal life.
Even if your writing isn’t particularly X-rated, you might still prefer to keep it private. There’s a billion reasons why someone might not want the world to know they’re an author, and that’s completely okay. A pen name will let you keep publishing your books and amassing a readership without attaching it to your personal life.
2. Pen names make it easy to switch up genres
Let’s say you’re an author with an established readership in the high fantasy community. You’re using either your real name or a pen name you created for your high fantasy series. You love that series and you intend to keep writing high fantasy, but you’ve also always wanted to write a historical romance series.
If you’re keeping it all under one name, this can be tricky. Your audience expects a certain genre from you, and not everyone who’s into high fantasy will be into historical romance. That’s fine, but you run the risk of turning some of your readers off—they might see it as a permanent shift instead of an additional project.
It could also pose a problem for attracting new readers. You want historical romance readers to come looking for your historical romance series, but they’ll find high fantasy when they look you up.
Using a pen name can solve this problem. You can either start a new readership from scratch and keep it totally secret from your existing readership, or you can let the two audiences know about each other—this way you can benefit from your existing readership.
Whichever you choose, this solution lets you dabble in new projects without attaching them to the author platform you already have.
3. Pen names are fun!
Last but certainly not least: pen names can just be fun!
Remember what I said earlier about stage names? An author name is the chance to craft an aesthetically cool name associated with your work. Maybe you’ve never liked your given name and you want the chance to switch it up.
If you want to publish under a pen name because you think it’d be cool, that’s fine!
How to pick a pen name
Once you’ve decided you want to use a pen name, you have to pick one.
This process can be really, really stressful, but don’t worry! We’re here to help. Here are five tips you can use to create the perfect pen name.
1. Consider your genre and audience
Let’s look at the names I listed earlier: R.F. Kuang, G.R.R. Martin, J.R.R. Tolkien. These are all fantasy authors, and in fact, it’s a pretty common decision for fantasy authors to use their first and middle initials with their full last name. So, if you’re writing a fantasy novel, maybe play around with your first and middle initials. You could use the initials you have, invent new ones, or use a combo of both—whatever works best!
(Side note: while prevalent in the genre, initials aren’t exclusive to fantasy novels. They can help shorten longer names for the sake of saving space on a cover and provide just a slight air of mystery. Readers can’t project much onto a set of initials.)
Whether you’re writing erotica, romance, or historical fiction, your pen name should point to that. A historical romance series might boast a slightly old-fashioned pen name, while a contemporary erotica might have a trendier, sexier pen name attached. Take a look at other authors’ names in your genre and subgenre to get a feel for what they sound like (especially if you’re writing erotica or romance).
2. Pick a name that’s believable
While you want a name that points to your genre, you don’t want it to be too on-the-nose. Victoria Lovingston, for example, might be a bit excessive for a romance novel.
This comes down to wanting your name to be interesting, but still unique. If you’re writing action stories and your pen name is basically “Coolguy McAction Hero,” this is going to seem a little silly to the reader, and that’s going to make them think that maybe the book is a little silly, too.
This isn’t an absolute rule, but for the most part, think of it like this: if someone introduced themselves to you as your pen name, would you believe that it was their real name? If not, you might want to tone it down. If so, great!
3. Pick a name that’s memorable
I know, I know—your pen name should be unique, but not too unique, but just unique enough!
It’s kind of tricky. I promise you’ll get there.
When I say your pen name should be memorable, I don’t mean it should be so bizarre that someone can’t help but remember it. Of course, someone’s going to remember the pen name Speedy Ashtray, but they’re probably not going to take that author super seriously, even if that author swears he writes the coolest thrillers in the whole wide world.
What I mean is that your pen name should be catchy. It should be easy to remember. This is one huge benefit of using initials—I forget authors’ names all the time, but I remembered R.F. Kuang forever after the first time I heard it.
Say the name out loud, or better yet, get a friend (sworn to secrecy, obviously) to say it back to you. Does it roll off the tongue, or does it sound forced? If it sounds forced to you, it’ll probably be harder for the reader to remember.
4. Check your pen name’s availability
Once you’ve got a pen name you like, do yourself a favor and check to make sure it’s not already taken. Seriously. This happens more often than you might think—you’ve been spending days mulling over a pen name that doesn’t sound too bizarre, you finally find one, you set up a Twitter account, and BAM! There’s another author with an established following already using that name.
It’s not the end of the world if this happens, especially if you haven’t already published anything. Just change it before you get more than a couple followers. But it’ll save you some grief to look it up in advance!
5. Start with a pen name generator
Alright, so you’ve looked at other authors’ names within your genre and subgenre. You’ve written down every first and last name that appeals to you, every combination of your initials and your imagined initials that seems palatable, you’ve gone through half a composition notebook trying to mix and remix names, and absolutely nothing seems right.
If you’re ready to tear your hair out, it might be time to try a pen name generator.
Pen name generators aren’t perfect, but they’re often, at the very least, a great place to start. They’ll give you names you might not have thought of and combine them in ways you didn’t consider. Even if you don’t love the names a generator spits out, tinkering with them might yield better results than furiously rearranging your own name over and over again.
And where might you find a pen name generator? So glad you asked!
List of pen name generators
Below, I’ve listed a couple pen name generators you can use to kick-start your brainstorming session.
This pen name generator asks for a lot more information—a weapon, your full real name, “an adjective that could be used to describe the weapon,” the make of your first car, and so on. If you don’t have an answer ready, the site suggests them for you. These vary in seriousness, but I was able to get a couple reasonable pen names out of it, and it’s honestly just fun to fill out.
If you’re looking for a more classic pen name, this is your best bet. This article also includes interesting information about the history of pen names and the reasons why people have used them, and it’s well worth the read!
Select your pen name, and get started on your book! Here's an outline that can help you get started.