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 🙂