On Pennames

A pseudonym has a lot of uses, and in the writing world especially there are two main reasons to use one.

The most obvious one is the anonymity. A name can disguise an author, and historically this has been done to protect an identity or even merely to allow publication. Without running into a giant lecture and pulling out the old history books, it’s worth mentioning that women have used men’s names (or non-gender specific names) because women couldn’t access publishing as easily, and that people of color have picked more “white” sounding names to merely allow their work to be published. It’s also helpful, I’m sure, in genres such as erotica or in works with heavily anti-(insert anything here) or pro-(again, insert anything here) agendas, where it would make the author’s personal life hell-ish if their name were attached the work. Of course, not all reasons for wanting to publish under a penname are so dark. JK Rowling (which is technically a pseudonym as it were) published her novel The Cuckoo’s Calling under the name Robert Galbraith allegedly because she wanted to see how it would do without the stigma, however pleasant, of being the Harry Potter novelist. (And might I add, “Galbraith” did swimmingly in his genre, even before the reveal.)

The second, and perhaps lately more commonly used reason, would be that a name can pull a reader in, all by itself. In that same vein of thought, a name can also very quickly disenchant a reader, and make them pass right over your book or piece of work without a second glance. It’s a strange but very real phenomenon. For instance, initial-heavy names is common in Fantasy and like genres – JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, George RR Martin. In romance, having a less common, more alluring name might pull readers in better.

My reasoning fell along the lines of the latter, and since I’m often complimented on my choice of penname (usually before people even know it’s a penname), I thought I’d share my process for picking one.

It started with the realization that I just didn’t think “Brittney Santos” sounded like someone who would write a fantasy novel. Aside from the fact that I’m not sure why my Puerto Rican and Filipino parents picked the name “Brittney” for me, I also struggled a lot as a kid with the fact that I thought my mom’s maiden name was way prettier than “Santos.” So, probably from the time I was twelve or so, I knew I would never publish under my given and surnames.

And then started the random name-picking.

I think the first instinct is to merely pick a name you like. And I’m not saying that’s wrong, but it was wrong for me. I went with names like Isabella, Veronica, Melanie – names I had grown up always liking. Usually I just slapped my mom’s maiden name onto the end of those and hoped for the best.

Then there was the phase where I looked up name meanings based on what I wanted to convey. My favorite was Parichecher—It means fairy, or pixie, I can’t remember which anymore, and I thought it was just so pretty. I don’t remember the surname I picked for that, to be honest, because again, this wasn’t the penname I ultimately ended up with.

I think it needs to be noted that in order for a penname to really be yours, you have to actually identify with it on some level. It has to be a name that will immediately turn your heard if someone said it. I can’t speak for everyone who has used a pseudonym, but I’ve always felt like the ones I thought were people’s real names were the ones they had a story behind—there was a girl about a year ago who was using a name that I didn’t realize wasn’t her actual name. When we talked about it, she told me that she was supposed to have an older sister, and she used that name to publish, and it worked well for her because she had an attachment to it.

Anyways, it was actually while I was trying to think of an avatar name for a game that I discovered at least the first part of my penname. There was a short character limit, and I had made this exotic looking tribal warrior woman and wanted a name that made more sense than slapping “Brittney” above it. So I did what I do when I create names when I write—I started making noises with my mouth, starting with “Bri” from Brittney. It was actually kind of a no-brainer that I fell into “Briari,” as then I merely took “Ari” from “Arielle” and smashed the two together. It was a name that was unique—I’d never heard it, or read it, and it was easy for my tongue to form. (“Bree-arr-ee,” in case anyone was wondering how I pronounce it.) Also, the sounds were familiar to me—they were sounds I already associated with my identity.

Now, the last name wasn’t as easy, but I feel like it is just as obvious. Maybe that’s because I’m already so used to it. I tried, for a long while, aside from using my mother’s maiden name, to just use a word that I liked. “Briari Wolf.” “Briari Lovelace.” “Briari Lionsbreath.” You know, silly things.

And what actually did it was when I was talking to someone about Halloween. I was in highschool and was seriously just recalling a lecture my 8th grade history teacher had given the class about what “Halloween” meant—it was “All Hallow’s Eve,” or the “Day Before All Saint’s Day.” And it clicked. My last name, “Santos,” is literally “Saint.”

Briari Hallow was born.

It’s a name that very easily turns my head if someone says it or I see it typed. Its second nature for me to sign it—doesn’t feel forced, and I like the way the signature looks.

Which, by the way, is another important part of picking a penname. It has to be something that, if needed, you could easily sign. Even if it’s just the initials, it shouldn’t feel too foreign to your hand to make the movement; it shouldn’t take ten minutes to write out a signature.

Anyways, I’ve been using Briari Hallow for long enough that my brain just accepts this as an identity I have. I respond to “Briari” just as much as “Britt,” and when I say my book title aloud, it sounds right to me. It sounds complete, like the two things were supposed to go together.

And at the end of it, if my books were to ever be published, that’s what needs to fit.