In this article, I explain what a pseudonym, alias or nickname is, and what it is used for, particularly in literature.
- a name someone uses instead of their real name, especially on a written work.
- a number or name with no meaning that is used instead of information relating to a particular person. For example, a name or email address, so that it is impossible to see who the information relates to.
- used when giving the name that a person is generally known by, after giving their real name.
- a false name that someone is known by.
- an informal name for someone or something, especially a name that you are called by your friends or family, usually based on your real name or your character.
Reading the definition, a doubt arises. Why would anyone want to hide their identity or use a name apart from their own?
For example, in a conservative society such as the American or the British, women authors used to use pseudonyms to hide that they are women. J.K. Rowling, C.J. Cherryh or James Tiptree Jr.. In the first two cases, the pseudonyms (or “pen name”) don’t say “I am a man” and they don’t say “I am a woman” either, and the editorial tendency is to catalogue them within the male gender.
In the case of James Tiptree Jr., the author’s real name is Alice Bradley Sheldon, and she is recognized for breaking the paradigm of exclusively male science fiction authors.
Another case is that of Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks. Both are the same person, but the first published novels and stories of “mainstream” literature and the second published science fiction novels. It is recognized that it is the same author, but it is enough to see the letter M of his middle name to understand that it is a book of another literary genre.
There are authors who have founded their careers around a literary genre, related to the same name or pseudonym. That is the recommended strategy. And when they write a story outside that niche using the same author name, readers feel out of place, “this is not the kind of story I wanted to read”. And they usually lose readers, or that book intended for another type of reader doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.
Surely, there are more cases and options. I use «Dan Guajars» as my author’s pseudonym. First, because “Guajars” is my nickname since my years in college; and second, because it is my social media handler, where I build my contacts around fantasy reading and writing, horror and science fiction.
Dan is a diminutive of Daniel. Dan is not my real name, but it’s so similar that there’s no way to separate the pseudonym from the real person. And people who know me, call me Guajars, almost all the time.
Why a writer uses a pseudonym
If you write and are thinking of using a pseudonym instead of your real name, here are some reasons that can help you make the decision:
Your real name is very common: many people are called the same as you.
There is another author with the same name: it could lend itself to misunderstandings.
Your name embarrasses you: this should not happen, think about it. Maybe your name is “strange” and that makes it much more interesting than a pseudonym; but if you’re really embarrassed, to the point that you want to change your name in the real world with all what that implies, then come up with a pseudonym that’s more comfortable for you.
Your name is too long or hard to pronounce.
Your name can’t be easily associated with the literary genre you write: it’s as if your last name is Doglover and all you write is about cats.
You don’t want your name to be associated with the literary genre you write: for example, if you write erotic literature* and being recognized as an author could bring problems in your work or social group.
What a literary pseudonym should “sound” like
There is no fixed rule around this. You can use a pseudonym according to your needs. Think about its sonority, its pronunciation, and how that name can be associated with the literary genre you write.
If you can’t think of names, use Google Translate and transform a powerful word into different languages. Not just any word, but the one that will be your pillar as the author of a particular literary genre, and translate it into all the languages on the list. Some translations may have the appropriate sound for what you want to represent.
Can you think of more reasons to have a pseudonym? Leave a comment and I’ll update the list.
*I use the genre of “erotic literature” only as a reference; I have no criticism about the genre or those who read and / or write it.