Storytelling has always been part of the human experience, as demonstrated by our list of the most famous writers in history.
When compiling a list of the most famous writers in history, you’re guaranteed to exclude some obvious names. That is because so many authors have helped evolve writing, sharing their ideas and imaginations to reshape the world of literature. Our storytelling guide discusses the importance of narrative when discussing the human experience.
The best writers understand this process and, through their artistry and innovation, reshape how stories are told, hence why any list of writers who’ve changed literature will span centuries and cultures and is open to opinion and diverse interpretations. In other words, it’s almost impossible to distill a list of the most famous writers in history who have changed the face of literature… yet we will still try.
- Ancient Civilizations & Their Writers
- 1. The Epic of Gilgamesh – The World’s Oldest Known Piece of Literature
- 2. Homer (c. 8th Century BCE)
- 3. Confucius (551–479 BCE)
- Middle Ages To Renaissance
- 4. Dante Alighieri (1265–1321)
- 5. Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343–1400)
- 6. Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616)
- 7. William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
- 8. John Milton (1608–1674)
- Enlightenment and Romantic Period
- 9. Jane Austen (1775–1817)
- 10. Mary Shelley (1797–1851)
- 11. Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870)
- 12. Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)
- Victorian & 19th Century Realism
- 13. Charles Dickens (1812–1870)
- 14. Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881)
- 15. Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910)
- 16. Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)
- 17. Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888)
- 18. Lewis Carroll (1832–1898)
- 19. Mark Twain (1835–1910)
- 20. Thomas Hardy (1840–1928)
- 21. Bram Stoker (1847–1912)
- 22. Oscar Wilde (1854–1900)
- 23. Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930)
- 24. H.G. Wells (1866–1946)
- Modernism and Early 20th Century
- 25. James Joyce (1882-1941)
- 26. Virginia Woolf (1882–1941)
- 27. Franz Kafka (1883–1924)
- 20th Century Literature
- 28. Agatha Christie (1890–1976)
- 29. J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973)
- 30. F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940)
- 31. Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961)
- 32. John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
- 33. George Orwell (1903–1950)
- 34. Gabriel García Márquez (1927–2014)
- 35. Chinua Achebe (1930–2013)
- Post-WWII Writers & Contemporary Literature
- 36. Wole Soyinka (born 1934)
- 37. Joyce Carol Oates (born 1938)
- 38. Margaret Atwood (born 1939)
- 39. Haruki Murakami (born 1949)
- 40. J.K. Rowling (born 1965)
Ancient Civilizations & Their Writers
1. The Epic of Gilgamesh – The World’s Oldest Known Piece of Literature
To understand how literature has evolved through the years, looking back to where it originated may be helpful. Many people cite The Epic of Gilgamesh as the first literary work. It is an epic poem written in the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia.
This area, often called the “cradle of civilization,” was located near modern-day Iraq. It is thought that the poem is about the ancient ruler of the city-state Uruk, set around 2700 BC. The exact year the poem was written is unknown, but it is thought to be sometime between 2100 and 1200 BC.
The work’s authorship is also unknown, although it is thought that multiple writers had their place in penning it. In terms of themes, it touches on mortality, friendship, the search for meaning in life, and immortality.
It had an immense influence on subsequent literature and mythology, with elements of the epic found in later texts from various cultures, including the Bible and other ancient epics. It is a testament to the power of storytelling and its ability to convey timeless themes and insights about the human experience. Check it out on Amazon; click here.
“When the gods created man, they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping.”Anonymous, The Epic of Gilgamesh
2. Homer (c. 8th Century BCE)
When looking up early literature, it’s hard to overlook the written works of Ancient Greece. It heralded names such as Homer, the bard behind The Iliad, and The Odyssey. According to many experts, the Greek writer’s epic poems became the foundation of Western literature. They were often characterized by heroic themes, which included rich mythological tapestry and the exploration of the human condition.
Homer wasn’t the only writer from Ancient Greece to affect the future of literature, with the likes of Sapho and Herodotus also playing their part. Check out The Odyssey on Amazon; click here.
“Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending.”Homer, The Odyssey
3. Confucius (551–479 BCE)
The Ancient East also had an incredible effect on the development of modern-day literature.
Amongst the scholars who etched their wisdom into the annals of history was Confucius, a Chinese philosopher and educator. He lived during a tumultuous period in China’s history, and his teachings’ themes reflected this; they primarily focused on ethics, social harmony, and morals.
Confucius imparted teachings through his Analects. Other writers from Ancient China included Laozi, who shared profound philosophical insights, and the poet Qu Yuan, whose work remains a symbol of passion and loyalty. Check out The Analects on Amazon; click here.
“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”Confucius
Middle Ages To Renaissance
4. Dante Alighieri (1265–1321)
Dante Alighieri existed during a time of great change in Europe. The Divine Comedy was his masterpiece, an epic poem that touched upon the theological discussion that was a talking point of the day. That poem also provided imagery that is still discussed to this day.
Dante’s writing style is not for everyone, but those who enjoy allegory and vivid religious writing will embrace his work. Some believe that his use of vocabulary revolutionized literature, helping to shape the development of modern language. Check out The Divine Comedy on Amazon; click here.
“In His will is our peace.”Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
5. Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343–1400)
Some people refer to Chaucer as the “Father of English Literature,” this is largely down to Canterbury Tales, which offers a diverse portrait of medieval society.
It blends vivid characterization, social commentary, and humor to great effect, with the poem giving contemporary audiences an excellent insight into the human experience during the Middle Ages. Its lasting effect on society can be seen in the fact that James Nesbitt and Bill Nighy starred in a 2003 TV adaptation of the work. Check out Canterbury Tales on Amazon; click here.
“And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.”Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
6. Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616)
When lists of the best novels of all time are compiled, Miguel de Cervantes, a Spanish novelist, is often included. His magnum opus, Don Quixote, is a satirical work often considered one of the greatest pieces of storytelling ever. His skills in blending humor, social critique, and metafiction influenced many future writers. Check out Don Quixote on Amazon; click here.
“Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.”Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote
7. William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
Regarding famous writers, names don’t get much bigger than this guy. Shakespeare may have been born hundreds of years ago in the Elizabethan era, but his influence persists today.
His writing spans tragedy, comedy, and history, reflecting the breadth of human emotions and experiences. Just consider the difference in mood between the likes of Hamlet and Twelfth Night to see the span of this man’s talent and range. Few writers have helped shape the English language in the way Shakespeare has.
His work has not only changed writing forever but also changed how we think and speak about stories. Check out Hamlet on Amazon; click here.
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”William Shakespeare, “As You Like It”
8. John Milton (1608–1674)
Milton is a writer whose work has stood the test of time, not least because of its grandeur, intricate verse, and philosophical depth. He also explored themes that weren’t commonplace in writing at the time, such as free will and the nature of evil. He thought in a way that few people of his time could manage, which helped him create work of immense quality and value. Check out Paradise Lost on Amazon; click here.
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”John Milton, Paradise Lost
Enlightenment and Romantic Period
9. Jane Austen (1775–1817)
Austen’s works are still regularly adapted for stage and screen. That is a clear sign of her everlasting effect on the English language. The novelist’s writing focuses on social commentary in Regency-era England and is characterized by wit, satire, and observation of the day’s trends.
Her lasting legacy is that of a brilliant writer who wrote complex male and female characters. Some of her most notable works include Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility. Check out Ausetn’s novels on Amazon; click here.
“Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love.”Jane Austen
10. Mary Shelley (1797–1851)
The English novelist Mary Shelley is best known for creating one of literature’s most iconic characters, Frankenstein. Expectations were skewed in this novel, with readers looking at ethical dilemmas they may not have expected within a gothic novel. Her ability to reel the reader in, touching on both virtuous and monstrous emotions, ensured that her writing would be discussed long into the future. Check out Frankenstein on Amazon; click here.
“Beware; for I am fearless and therefore powerful.”Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
11. Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870)
French author Alexandre Dumas was a playwright and novelist known for his extensive contributions to literature. His historical novels were him apart from other writers of the day, particularly The Three Musketeers (Les Trois Mousquetaires) and The Count of Monte Cristo (Le Comte de Monte-Cristo). His ability to mix excitement, drama, and intrigue around complex plots ensured that he would be remembered as one of France’s greatest-ever writers. Check The Three Musketeers on Amazon; click here.
“All for one and one for all.”Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers
12. Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)
Edgar Allan Poe was an American writer heralded as one of the greatest horror writers ever. His dark, atmospheric prose and exploration of the human psyche bring the reader on a journey that was once beautiful and terrifying. His themes of madness, guilt, and the unknown have impacted the horror genre. He even featured on a ‘Treehouse of Horror’ episode of The Simpsons. Check out Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry on Amazon; click here.
“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”Edgar Allan Poe, “A Dream within a Dream”
Victorian & 19th Century Realism
13. Charles Dickens (1812–1870)
Charles Dickens captured the public’s imagination with exciting, examining work, which often veered between genres. Some of his work was released in serialized form, where readers would have to purchase each section to find out what happened next. His work is still regularly adapted for stage and screen, with his lasting influence illustrated by the fact that The Muppets have even created a version of his iconic A Christmas Carol story. Check out A Christmas Carol on Amazon; click here.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
14. Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881)
Dostoevsky is a Russian novelist who has made a mark on literature. His work delved into existential questions, often examining the human psyche, morality, and the conflict between good and evil. His work isn’t for everyone, but those who love it really love it. Check out his best-known novel, Crime and Punishment, on Amazon; click here.
“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
15. Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910)
Few writers explored the human spirit, as well as Tolstoy. Warning, though, his works are generally mammoth in size and require a focus that is not as common today as it once was. However, within those mammoth works, he creates fully formed characters and investigates society in Russia in a way that not many have done before or since his time.
Tolstoy wrote about Russian social issues but in a way that delved into the depths of human nature and morality. Psychological insight, intricate characters, and philosophical introspection mark his writing. His novel Anna Karenina is often called one of the greatest works of literature of all time. Check it out on Amazon; click here.
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
16. Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)
In her innovative poetry, American poet Dickinson is heralded for dealing with complex themes of death, nature, and the human soul. Her innovative use of language and punctuation set her apart from other poets of the day. She saw a set of rules and bent them to her style and desire, giving her work its unique style and allowing future poets to do the same. Check out Emily Dickinson’s poetry on Amazon; click here.
“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”Emily Dickinson, “ Hope is the Thing with Feathers”
17. Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888)
Alcott’s Little Women remains a beloved classic, emphasizing family, personal growth, and female empowerment. Her ability to write relatable characters and themes continues to resonate with readers of all ages, proven by the adaptation of the work in the recent Academy Award-nominated movie starring Saoirse Ronan. Check out Little Women on Amazon; click here.
“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.”Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
18. Lewis Carroll (1832–1898)
Born in the same year as Alcott, Carroll’s subject matter could not have differed more from the last writer listed. He was a master of whimsy and wordplay, creating imaginative tales that defy logic but still managed to touch upon our emotions. Carroll’s creations were that of a man with a mind like no other, with iconic characters such as Alice and The Mad Hatter as part of his lore. Check out Alice in Wonderland on Amazon; click here.
“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
19. Mark Twain (1835–1910)
Mark Twain, the pen name of Samuel Clemens, was an American writer and humorist who perfected the ‘coming of age’ style novel. His writing is a time capsule for 19th-century America, taking on colloquial language, humor, and social commentary, with the everlasting legacy of some of the world’s most iconic characters, including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Check out The Adventures of Tom Sawyer on Amazon; click here.
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.”Mark Twain
20. Thomas Hardy (1840–1928)
Hardy gave a voice to rural people and the constraints of their lives in his work. His writing also delves into the subject class and the conflict between individual desires and societal expectations, depicting the struggles of individuals in a deterministic world. He gave representation to people who weren’t always well represented within fiction.
“Time changes everything except something within us which is always surprised by change.”Thomas Hardy
21. Bram Stoker (1847–1912)
Stoker is arguably the most famous classic horror writer out there. His gothic novel, Dracula, spawned an entire horror fiction genre, not just because of his ghoulish characters. It’s also because of Stoker’s writing talent, where he combines horror and folklore to create something beautiful and terrifying.
Although his fiction is not largely set in Ireland, the writer’s home still holds an annual Stoker festival where his work is celebrated. Check out Dracula on Amazon; click here.
“I am all in a sea of wonders. I doubt; I fear; I think strange things, which I dare not confess to my own soul.”Bran Stoker, Dracula
22. Oscar Wilde (1854–1900)
When Oscar Wilde was alive, he hardly imagined that he would be so widely quoted on a thing called ‘the internet’ in the 21st century. Nonetheless, it is a testament to his wit and humor that people still regularly use phrases penned by the Irish writer when looking for a clever yet funny quote.
He was much more than fuel for internet bromides, though; Wilde’s writing was razor-sharp, and his plays touched on subjects of class and vanity. If you have never seen or read An Ideal Husband, we recommend that you do, as it is one of the wittiest and sharpest plays ever written. Check out the works of Oscar Wilde on Amazon; click here.
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”Oscar Wilde
23. Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930)
Arthur Conan Doyle created the brilliant Sherlock Holmes character with unmatched deductive prowess. Doyle’s writing contained intricate plots and attention to detail and resonated with readers when published. The Sherlock Holmes series included novels and short stories and introduced such iconic characters as Dr. John Watson. Holmes and Moriarty.
“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles
24. H.G. Wells (1866–1946)
Wells did for science fiction what Stoker did for horror, bringing it to the mainstream and ensuring that people who may not be interested in the genre got a taste of this style of prose.
Like all good science fiction writing, Wells discussed much more than what would appear at first glance, touching on imaginative premises, social commentary, and speculative themes. Check out War Of The Worlds, one of H.G. Wells’s novels, on Amazon; click here.
“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligence greater than man’s.”H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
Check out our list of the best science fiction writers of all time.
Modernism and Early 20th Century
25. James Joyce (1882-1941)
James Joyce is one of the most famous writers of all time. His masterpiece, Ulysses, is still an example of how budding writers should not be afraid of either honesty or exploration. His mark on literature will never be forgotten, with several cities, including Dublin, Trieste, and Paris, heralding that the writer resided within their city walls. Check out Ulysses on Amazon; click here.
“History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”James Joyce, Ulysses
26. Virginia Woolf (1882–1941)
Born in the same year as Joyce, Virginia Woolf is a central figure of the modernist movement in literature. Her best work examined consciousness, perception, and the inner lives of complex characters. She wrote about the human experience in a way that signaled a marked departure from traditional storytelling, introducing a stream-of-conscious style narrative that was revolutionary at the time. Check out A Room of One’s Own on Amazon; click here.
“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
27. Franz Kafka (1883–1924)
There aren’t many writers whose names have become an adjective, but that is an honor that has been part of Kafka’s legacy.
If something is ‘Kafka-esque,’ it explores themes of alienation, bureaucracy, and the struggle to find meaning. Considering that his work has greatly impacted the language, there is little doubt that Kafka’s work is amongst the most influential writing ever. Don’t read it if you’re feeling a little existential, as his subject matters can be nihilistic. Check out The Metamorphosis on Amazon; click here.
“I am a cage, in search of a bird.”Franz Kafka
20th Century Literature
28. Agatha Christie (1890–1976)
Agatha Christie, the “Queen of Mystery,” forged an unparalleled legacy as a British author who elevated the mystery genre to new heights. Christie’s style has often been copied, but never equaled, in the murder-mystery genre.
Her ability to carve a meticulous yet believable plot around fantastical characters made her one of the best-selling authors ever. Her stories are iconic, with Murder on the Orient Express being one of those novels everybody should read at least once. Check out Murder on the Orient Express on Amazon; click here.
“The impossible could not have happened therefore, the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances.”Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express
29. J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973)
Regarding fantasy fiction, J.R.R. Tolkien’s name is at the top of the list. His work is crafted through myth, magic, and intricate languages, bringing readers on a journey they will never forget. Tolkien’s fanbase is dedicated, which is hardly surprising considering the author’s talent for building immersive worlds and stories. Check out the Fellowship of the Ring on Amazon; click here.
“Not all those who wander are lost.”J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
30. F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940)
Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were friends and contemporaries (with Hemingway writing about their time in France together in A Moveable Feast), but their writing styles were vastly different. Where Hemingway would use terse emotional language in his study of love, loss, and masculinity, Fitzgerald’s writing is marked by its romantic, lyrical beauty, acute social observation, and exploration of the American Dream’s complexities.
His masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, is often held up as one of the finest novels of the 20th century. Within it and through the enigmatic Jay Gatsby, readers are transported to a world of extravagant parties, unrequited love, and the quest for an unattainable ideal. It is a beautiful book and one of the finest examples of American literature. Check out The Great Gatsby on Amazon; click here.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
31. Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961)
Hemingway is considered by many to be the quintessential American Author. His work has something to appeal to everyone, with it examining themes of human courage, love, and vulnerability.
He was known for his concise prose style, where the language was stripped down to tell life’s essential truths. It’s reported that Hemingway once referenced his use of language in a retort to William Faulkner, who had previously criticized his style. Hemingway said: “Poor Faulkner. Does he think big emotions come from big words?”
Hemingway even served as a correspondent for the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA), covering several key events during World War II. Check out the works of Ernest Hemingway on Amazon; click here.
“There is no friend as loyal as a book.”Ernest Hemingway
32. John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
American author Steinbeck left a lasting impact on literature and has received recognition for his contributions, winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. He was also the winner of The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1940 for The Grapes of Wrath.
Steinbeck’s writing style, characterized by his compassion for the underprivileged and his portrayal of the American landscape, has had a lasting influence on American literature. Check out The Grapes of Wrath on Amazon; click here.
“I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.”John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent
33. George Orwell (1903–1950)
We previously said there aren’t many writers whose names are used to describe things, but Orwell sits alongside Kafka in that regard. If something is ‘Orwellian,’ it relates to the erosion of truth and individual freedoms. His ability to use fiction to write about abuses of power ensured his lasting legacy in English language literature. Check out 1984, one of Orwell’s most famous novels, on Amazon; click here.
“In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”George Orwell
34. Gabriel García Márquez (1927–2014)
Gabriel García Márquez is a Colombian novelist and Nobel laureate who pioneered magical realism, intertwining the extraordinary with the everyday. Vivid imagery, nonlinear narratives, and blending of reality and fantasy epitomize his writing. Check out Love in the Time of Cholera on Amazon; click here.
“He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
35. Chinua Achebe (1930–2013)
Chinua Achebe was a literary luminary of African literature whose writing is marked by its unflinching exploration of colonialism and cultural identity. His work emerged as a much-needed response to the often distorted portrayal of Africa in Western literature. Achebe’s legacy reminds us of the importance of narrative as a tool for empathy and social change. Check out Things Fall Apart on Amazon; click here.
“If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.”Chinua Achebe
Post-WWII Writers & Contemporary Literature
36. Wole Soyinka (born 1934)
Soyinka was the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and is known for his plays, poetry, and as a keen essayist. Like Achebe, he is an iconic figure in African literature and has illuminated the complexities of Nigeria’s history and the human condition through his brilliant writing. Check out Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth on Amazon; click here.
“The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism.”Wole Soyinka
37. Joyce Carol Oates (born 1938)
Oates is known for her courage in tackling subject matters that many writers try to avoid, exploring the dark corners of the psyche, and tackling themes of identity, trauma, and the intricacies of human nature.
Her extensive work includes novels, essays, poetry, and even some work as a short story writer. Through these works, Oates earned numerous awards and accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award. Check out Solstice on Amazon; click here.
“I never change, I simply become more myself.”Joyce Carol Oates, Solstice
38. Margaret Atwood (born 1939)
Margaret Atwood is a Canadian whose fiction was brought to a new generation of readers when The Handmaid’s Tale was brought to our screens in the 10s. Atwood has also won The Booker Prize for Fiction twice, for The Blind Assassin and The Testaments. If you haven’t read her writing, we recommend getting your hands on Oryx and Crake and Alias Grace, two excellent works of fiction. Check out The Blind Assassin on Amazon; click here.
“In the end, we’ll all become stories.”Margaret Atwood
39. Haruki Murakami (born 1949)
Haruki Murakami is a Japanese novelist who blends the mundane and the surreal, often exploring themes of loneliness and existentialism. His writing has gained critical acclaim worldwide, with a new release from the writer still considered a massive event within his home country and further afield. Murakami is mostly known for his fiction, but he has also written about his love of jazz and The Beatles. Check out What I Talk About When I Talk About Running on Amazon; click here.
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
40. J.K. Rowling (born 1965)
Rowling’s influence on generations of new writers cannot be overstated, with the Harry Potter author creating a universe that readers all over this world went crazy for. At the core of the English writer’s work were relatable characters and themes of friendship, bravery, and the battle between good and evil. Her series has become a global phenomenon, inspiring generations of readers. Check out Harry Potter on Amazon; click here.
“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Looking for more? Check out our round-up of the best Bolivian authors!