People write me often to ask my advice on using online personas, pseudonyms and pen names. They have questions, and they’d like to know my thoughts. (It seems I’m considered somewhat of a go-to resource on the topic – like Aerosmith said, dude looks like a lady.)
I’ve noticed that most people who contact me aren’t just trying to satisfy their curiosity, though. They aren’t looking to philosophize. They aren’t interested in my story. They come to me because they have a question and seek an answer:
I can’t answer that. Whether you should use a pen name or use your own is entirely up to you, and it’s a very personal decision. It’s also a complex decision, not to be taken lightly, and it involves facets from psychology to perception to bias to stereotyping to privacy.
If you’re thinking about using a pen name (or if you’re just curious about the subject), the following common questions and answers might help you make your decision.
Why choose a pen name?
Musicians, actors and authors adopt pen names (or stage names) all the time. It certainly isn’t something new. Some of the reasons they adopt a pen name include setting boundaries, maintaining security, hiding identity, retaining privacy, and increasing opportunities. Others have done so to avoid persecution, prejudice and discrimination, like the Bronte sisters or thousands of Jews trying to fit in during the war.
Many choose pen names for marketing and branding reasons, like Grandma Mary or Kid Rock, and some people want to use pen names to separate association from a project, their job or business ventures, like Stephen King did with his pen name Richard Bachman and Garth Brooks did with Chris Gaines.
And it’s often a good idea: A rose by any other name smells just as sweet, but a romance novel written by Desirée Denial is probably going to sell more than one written by Bertha Hump.
Some just don’t like their name and prefer to use one that makes them feel better about themselves or that gives them more confidence. Some just want to be accepted and avoid getting laughed at.
Is it hard to take on a pen name?
No. You pick a name and start using it.
But what this question really means is, “Will using a pen name change me?” The answer to that is again no. A name is just a label we use, and changing your name doesn’t change you, the person.
Think of a couch – you could call it a sofa or a lounge or a chesterfield, and it generally all means the same thing. What people call you isn’t any different. Your mother named you Lila so that when she calls that word, you’re the one who answers and not your sister Sarah.
You actually probably answer to several names as it is. Nicknames and pet names are perfectly acceptable. My two daughters answer to several pet names without even thinking twice – they know I mean them, and they’re still the same person no matter what I call them.
Is using a pen name liberating?
Some say yes and some say no. It depends a great deal on your beliefs, how you use a pen name, why you use one and your psychology and the behaviours you adopt as you go about your affairs.
Method actors, for example, adopt full personas and take on a personality they wouldn’t normally. They literally “become” someone else temporarily. Other people feel a pen name gives them freedom, more strength or more fearlessness. Some feel less shy or as if they’ve finally become “who they are”.
Some people find pen names restrictive and limiting – they have to manage different personas for varying situations, or they become confused about which persona is truly theirs. The first tends to be caused by simple lack of organization or practice, and the second tends to come from weak knowledge of self-identity.
When you know who you are from the start, you rarely get confused.
Of course, we’re all in control of our own minds, and therefore we control our experiences. Whether you find using a pen name liberating or restrictive is entirely up to you.
Should I let people know I’m using a pen name?
If it makes you feel better, sure. Go ahead and tuck a little “Francis Fantastic is the pen name of a juggler from the corn fields of Iowa” in your About page. Nothing wrong with that.
But this raises two questions:
- If you don’t feel comfortable using a pen name, why are you?
- If you’re going to reveal you’re using a pen name, why bother?
I believe that if you’re going to use a pen name, do it. Embrace it. And be done with it.
What if people are upset that I’m using a pen name?
Then they’re upset, and there’s not much you can do about that. They simply have different beliefs than you do, and that’s cool. It takes all kinds to make a world, as they say. Accept their feelings and move on.
I’ll admit I’ve always found it intriguing that someone would be upset about a pen name in the first place. What difference does it make if you call yourself Sarah instead of Linda or John instead of Michael?
Sometimes people’s reactions say more about them than it does about you.
Does using a pen name mean I have multiple-personality disorder?
Not at all. MPD (or dissociative identity disorder) is a specific psychiatric disorder that includes some frankly nasty symptoms, such as severe memory loss, headaches, flashbacks, panic attacks, auditory hallucinations, and depersonalization. Its prevalence is a drop in the bucket of the world’s population.
You’re not MPD if you use a pen name. Far from it.
Slipping into different personas and roles happens all the time, with every person in the world today. We take on different roles all the time, depending on the situation. We don’t change our name, but we do speak, act, dress and behave differently in each situation.
For example, a woman might be a mother, a lover, a friend, and a businesswoman, and she rotates between these facets of personality naturally and nearly instinctively. No one thinks she’s MPD, do they?
Does using a pen name constitute a breach of trust?
That’s a question best answered by your personal set of beliefs and values. People have very different interpretations of the definition of “trust” and what might constitute a breach of values. One person might say a pen name shatters every iota of trust while another might shrug it off, laugh and say nothing’s changed.
Trust also has a lot to do with the expectations you’ve set for others that you feel they should uphold. They don’t have to, of course – they have their own self-expectations, just as you do.
Is it hard to do business using a pen name?
No, it’s not, especially if you choose a normal name that blends into daily life.
Some difficulties you might experience might be times when you feel the moralities of revealing your real name are more important than hiding it, or when you feel disappointed you might have to pass on an opportunity to rather than reveal your true identity, but even those cases are rare.
Other difficulties you might face might be more personal. For example, I was very proud to write my first book, The Unlimited Freelancer… but the feeling just wasn’t the same when I gave my mother her first copy. We both looked at the name on the cover, and it was bittersweet.
Is using a pen name legal?
Yes, it’s legal to use a pen name in business – though I add a disclaimer that I’m not a lawyer and that there are legal restrictions related to the use of a pen name, such as in the case of signing documents. If you’re going to use a pen name, get legal counsel and know what you can and can’t do.
Do you recommend using a pen name?
Using a pen name is a personal decision that you need to make for yourself. I don’t counsel for or against it because I feel everyone has the ability to make the decision that fits best with their needs and that my opinion or influence isn’t necessary.
Take some time to think over your reasons for wanting a pen name. Using a different name than your own has immediate consequences and future ones as well. Consider the pros and cons, your goals, and the usefulness (or uselessness).
Most importantly, think about the reasons you want to use a pen name, why you feel you need one, what you think using one will accomplish, and how you’ll handle it if it’s revealed.
Your turn: How do you feel about pen names? Would you use one? Why? Why not?