Everyone knows that Mark Twain was really Samuel Longhorne Clemens. And really, if you were born with a name like that, why change it?
There are several reasons to use a pseudonym:
Anonymity (which goes right out the window if you, like Mr. Clemens, don’t hide your birth name and prefer, in mixed company to go by it instead). Plus these days, a Google search can render anonymity moot, unless your smart, and let’s face it, people aren’t (have you met people? Generally about as smart as house cats, on a good day).
It’s a good idea to use a pseudonym if you have the same name as someone famous or infamous and want to avoid confusion. Not that there are a lot of Babe Ruth’s running about, but John Smith (no, the other one) could really have used a nom de plume. And pretty much everyone named Adolf who was born before 1945 but lived through WW II understands this reason. Except Adolfo Buey Cesarus, but really if you’re the sort of person who’d mistake a gentle-hearted Brazilian fabulist with one of history’s greatest fiends, you really are a house cat.
If you’re hiding form a past life of crime and general skulduggery, or from skull duggers who might want to do you in for something you’ve seen, a pseudonym is probably in order, the more common and nondescript the better.
And sometimes you have a respectable career as a mathematics teacher like Charles Lutwidge Dawson and you don’t want to mix circles with the fans of your silly poetry and children’s fantasy, like Lewis Carroll. Maybe it’s simply illegal for a civil servant like Brian O’Nollan to publish under his own name, and so Flann O’Brian is born.
on the other hand, some people were born with outsized personalities that their drab names simply could not contain. Marion Robert Morrison just doesn’t sound butch, but John Wayne makes the ladies smile-in-that-way, and the men stick out their chin with envy. No one was ever going to give Archie Leach a job in movies, but Cary Grant? Who doesn’t love that guy?
Stage names for actors have become so common, I bet you’d be surprised to find out just how few given names appear on the big screen. Just ask Moses Horwitz, his brother Jerome and their partner, Louis Feinburg, better known to the world as Mo, Curly and Larry.
Unfortunately, women still have problems being taken seriously as authors. Just ask George Sand, James Tiptree Jr., D.C. Fontana, J.K. Rowlings, J.D. Robb, K.A. Applegate and S.E. Hinton.
And sometimes the name your born into just doesn’t fit. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the name Edward Alexander Crowley. It’s British through and through. But it just doesn’t have the same ring to it as Aleister Crowley, and when you want to conjure an image as a master occultist, ringing the right tone is the key to the temple. Pearl Grey is a perfectly respectable name, unless you write westerns for a living, then maybe Zane Gray is a bit more appropriate. Eric Blair is a fine, if plain name, but we know him better as George Orwell, which just resonates with authorial intent.
You’ll notice I haven’t even gotten into the cultural reasons for using a collective pseudonym. We simply don’t know who the authors were of the ancient Greek epics, so we call them all Homer. In Japan, Pen Names are almost universal. Or did you think Bosho was really named after a banana plant?
All of this is the long way of saying that I’ve decided to adopt a Pen Name for my writing. So, in the (very near) future when you want to find a new piece of fiction, look for the by-line of Keith Edwards. I hear that guy’s stuff is pretty great.