The idea for this post came from Kelley’s review of Arclight over at AnotherNovelRead.
Amnesia is very rare in real life, so why are there so many fictional characters who’ve suffered amnesia?
There are several types of amnesia, but the kind of amnesia most useful to a story’s plot is retrograde amnesia, where people aren’t able to recall memories before the onset of their amnesia. Such amnesia could be caused by a traumatic experience, such as being assaulted and suffering a head injury, or by experiencing something psychologically disturbing. Whatever the actual cause, it lends itself to limitless story arcs.
The reader could be left wondering what caused the amnesia – why was the main character assaulted and who did it? Or, what terrible thing did the character witness that made them dissociate and forget so much? Were they innocent bystanders or were they forced to take part, worse still? Are they now what they used to be? Our interest is immediately peaked.
I think that amnesia in books is perhaps a little less cliché than in soap operas. In soap operas, we usually know the character quite well before they develop amnesia, and memory loss becomes a tool to undo character development and force unlikely relationships between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people. Which is a device I find frustrating in a soap opera, but less so a book.
Unlike soap operas, many films and books start with the viewer or reader meeting an amnesiac for the first time. It all feels less ‘convenient’ and far more suspenseful without their life history to hand. The story unfolds in the form of a mystery, and the pace of discovery of the main character dictates when we learn more. We’re likely to grow close to the protagonist because we’re on their voyage of discovery.
From the writer’s point-of-view, these stories can help avoid pacing issues; they don’t have to worry about presenting the reader with a ton of background information by shoehorning it into the narrative – background information feels fresh and new. The main character can have fascinating conversations that provide insight into the past, or they could experience flashbacks with snippets of essential information they need to piece together. It can equally turn out implausible and trite; it all depends on the skill of the author.
My Favourite YA Amnesiacs feature in The Adoration of Jenna Fox:
My review of The Adoration of Jenna Fox: here.)
If you have a favourite amnesiac, I’d love to know who they are 🙂
One of my favorite series is the Hush, Hush series by Becca Fitzpatrick, and the MC gets amnesia in one of the books. It was done really well, too. Loved it.
Glad Becca Fitzpatrick made it work, takes a lot of talent I think 🙂
I still must read Jenna Fox! Thanks for the reminder. I’m watching the Jodi Arias murder trial (glued to it) and she claims to have murdered her ex in a fog. The defense is arguing PTSD, which creates a brain overload of chemicals that crowd out memory formation. Pretty fascinating, whether or not you buy her claim. I think amnesia in fiction has to be done very skillfully to avoid the super-convenient contrived aspect.
would love your thoughts on it when you do get round to it, Catherine 🙂
I’m not a fan of amnesia in soaps, movies or books. It just feels gimmicky to me. The same for the “Chosen One” trope in Fantasy. (It was awesome 40 years ago, like in the Dragonriders series by Anne McCaffrey, but by now it’s been done to death yet Fantasy writers just keep doing it.) And have you noticed how many parents have been killed in car crashes in YA? It’s just another gimmick to get parents out of the way.
I can understand that Lexa, in soap operas it really bugs me. In some books too, yet in the three books I enjoyed there’s a great reason for the memory loss which left me surprisingly satisfied. Yes, orphaned MC’s is oh so convenient…or the parents who leave kids entirely to their own devices. Sure some parents can be disinterested, but rarely to the extent that let’s them be passed over almost entirely. Ah, The Chosen One 🙂 that makes me think of the scene in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince – movie – where Hermione’s very unimpressed by Harry’s “The Chosen One” fame. Youtube link, 40 seconds into the clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYRzpg2ETuo
Wow, I guess there are a lot of YA books that use this device, aren’t there? Funny, it didn’t even register that this happens in Cinder, but you’re so right! I guess I was focused on so many other great things in the book, that that part kind of fell into the background. So interesting. And it appears that some people like this more (or have more patience for it) than others.
Actually, Cinder was really young so it could just be about her age that doesn’t let her remember that crucial thing. Though I did like this quote of hers 🙂
“I don’t know. I don’t actually remember anything from before the surgery.”
His eyebrows rose, his blue eyes sucking in all the light of the room. “The cybernetic operation?”
“No, the sex change.”
The doctor’s smile faltered.
― Marissa Meyer, Cinder
Hahaha! Yes, I LOVE Cinder’s sense of humor. 😀
I actually don’t think I’ve read any books with amnesia, not yet. But, I own both The Maze Runner and White Cat and plan on reading them soon, so I’ll be getting sucked into the amnesia bit shortly. It does seem to be quite a trend with books. But I think you’re right when you say it adds to the suspense of the story and doesn’t necessarily feel like some convenient tool to change characters like in soaps. (Of course, I can’t really stand soaps to begin with, so anything is better in my opinion. 😉
I’ve probably read a book or seen a film about an amenesiac but I can’t remember. 🙂 But you’re right, the writer would have to be skilled for the amensia not to come off as a tool or gimmick. Like avoiding “Did you know…Bob?” dialogue as an example.
I see what you did there, Elizabeth 🙂
I didn’t even realize Cinder had that element in it until now. But yeah, I’m with you. It’s overdone. I don’t know about you, but a book that solely focuses on Amnesiac character doesn’t hold my attention. Sure, the mystery behind it is engaging, but I don’t think it’s for me.
Speaking of Amnesia, I was writing a character who suffered from memory loss in my first draft. However, when I researched, I found out it’s very rare, so I changed that part.
Good luck with your book Reem, I know how it is writing a character one way and then changing or removing them entirely!