Pen Names: A Question of Identity

(Mike is assistant editor at Firewords and this article was originally published on his blog

Many writers use pen names. I’ve actually never written anything under my real name. But why do writers feel the need to use an alternative guise?

Speaking for myself, the main reason was confidence. A writer bares their soul when they put pen to paper. It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is, what the genre is, or what the setting is; the moment a writer puts pen to paper it’s personal. I went into this writing lark expecting a sea of rejection slips. I didn’t want that level of rejection under my real name.

Writing under a pen name allowed me to hide, but it also gave me a freedom to express myself in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to under my real name. Back in those early days, only two people knew that I wrote. It’s ironic these days that I barely bat an eyelid at a rejection, and I don’t care who knows that I write. Again, ironically, it’s the continued practice of writing that’s given me confidence and belief.

The second reason for using a pen name was practicality, or maybe I mean marketability. Most people struggle to pronounce my real surname. If by some miracle of good fortune I happened to get a book deal it would hardly help my sales if people were wandering into bookshops asking for the latest book by Mike (insert long pause) er, I think it’s… You get the point. Even in the workplace I’ve always been referred to as Mike K.

Let’s look at some professional writers. Shaun Hutson has worked under seven different pen names to date. Dean Koontz has used various pen names. Stephen King had fun with Richard Bachman. Agatha Christie was also Mary Westmacott.

All the writers above used multiple pen names for reasons of identity. Agatha Christie used Mary Westmacott to separate out her historical romances from her crime fiction. Shaun Hutson’s seven pen names are utilised across seven different genres.

Identity is important.

If I want to read a horror story I’ll look for the latest Stephen King, or a James Herbert, or a Clive Barker. If I want to read a historical novel I’ll look for Bernard Cornwell or George MacDonald Fraser. Those writers have a very clear identity in terms of their output.

I’ll say it again… Identity is important. The last thing a writer wants to do is to confuse their reader.

My pen name, which has served me so well for so long, is now causing me a problem of identity. Who exactly is M. J. Wolfson? What does he write? Take a look at my genre output:

  • Drama
  • Black comedy
  • Comedy
  • Horror
  • Post apocalypse sci-fi
  • Social commentary
  • Speculative
  • Experimental stream of consciousness

Can you see the dilemma? I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to utilise more pen names. I know I need to be careful. I’m not sure I’d want to go down the Shaun Hutson route.

The majority of my work will remain under the brand of M. J. Wolfson, but I’ve already had two stories published as Jane Hunter. I’ve developed a persona and style of writing for Jane which is different to Mr. Wolfson’s.

One of my other stories The Proposal – accepted for publication but never actually published – is another work that is very different from anything else I’ve written as M. J. Wolfson or Jane Hunter. As a result, I’ve always struggled to know what to do with it after the initial acceptance failed to result in a publication. Lately I’ve considered using a different pen name and all of a sudden I’ve become enthused about the story again.

I accept that multiple pen names aren’t necessarily the answer for everyone. Dennis Wheatley, although lesser known these days, was a popular writer in his heyday being second only to Agatha Christie in terms of sales.

Dennis wrote black magic horrors, historical thrillers, murder mysteries, and non-fiction books, and he did it all under the name of Dennis Wheatley.

It’s like everything else in the creative world of the writer: You have to identify the approach that works best for you and embrace it!