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I am writing a book about an amnesia patient. I do not know much about amnesia, which is quite shameful, but I want to know how to write this book in a way that does not make it cliché.

My protagonist doesn't remember her past but she does remember basic stuff like the language for example, names of companies, names of alcohol and even names of clothing brands. My book is supposed to be a thriller and I do not see it going the way I wanted it to go.

What do I do and also how do I describe how an amnesia patient should feel about everything?

  • Don't you want to conduct a basic study of amnesia? – Alexander May 29 '18 at 19:13
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    If you are writing a book about amnesia and don't understand much about it, you should go do a lot of research, and make sure your book is logical and true. – Sweet_Cherry May 29 '18 at 21:28
  • Read Elizabeth is Missing for a lovely non-cliche novel in this area. It may inspire you! – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio May 30 '18 at 10:05
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Research, Research, Research

Sometimes it is said that "half of all writing is re-writing". If that proportion is correct (and I think it's a low estimate, myself), then most of the other half is research.

You said it yourself, you don't know much about amnesia. That's actually good! Now you get to learn all you can about amnesia. This is one of the fun parts about being a writer! We get to learn enough to be dangerous/convincing about all kinds of fascinating topics.

The web search

The easiest way to get started is to start searching the Internet. Obviously, first stop is Wikipedia. While you're there, look at the cited sources at the bottom of the page. If there are other web sites cited there, then you can easily go to those to learn more. But don't limit yourself to just web sites. Go through any book references and see which ones are available digitally, or in an affordable paperback format. Buy those if you've got some money available. If not...

The library

They might seem like relics from a bygone era, but there are still plenty of resources that are gathered in libraries that aren't necessarily available online. At the very least, part of your web research should include a search of your local library's catalog on the subject.

All along, keep an eye out for two things:

  1. References for other materials to track down
  2. Surprising facts and anecdotes about the subject that can lead to new story ideas

Finally, if you can swing it, work to achieve the holy grail of all research:

Interviews

An in-person interview with someone who will allow you to record it and is a doctor specializing in memory loss or a patient who has suffered memory loss will be the best possible thing you can do to prepare for your story. Ideally, you would interview at least one of each, and you might be able to get referrals from one to the other.

Some important points about interviewing:

  • Be respectful of the interviewer's time and their story - Giving you an interview is time the interviewee is spending away from their work and their family and friends. Ask them for an appointment, don't push if they don't want to meet, show up on time, end the interview on time, come prepared with questions, allow them to not answer, etc.
  • Try to have the subject do as much talking as possible. Start with a few yes/no questions about things that you really feel like you need to know to write your story, then ask open ended questions that will hopefully encourage them to talk about things that you wouldn't even think to ask about.
  • If the subject doesn't mind, record and take notes. That might seem redundant, but really you want to be writing your thoughts and impressions, and the recording is a backup and fail safe. It also allows helps you not have to ask the same question twice because you weren't paying attention to the first answer - you can just go back later and listen for anything you missed.
  • Establish and respect any anonymity requested by the subject. In your particular case, it's likely illegal for a doctor to give you the names of any patients, but you can give the doctor your contact info and ask them if they are willing to talk to patients about reaching out to you. If you're telling a positive story, some patients may be very happy to have their experience told to a wider audience.
  • Offer to thank all subjects in your acknowledgements, and then follow through on their preference. Sending thank you notes and even small gifts after the interview isn't a bad idea, depending on your culture. Assume you will want to interview all of your subjects again and treat them as kindly as possible.

If you can't find anyone who will agree to an interview, that's ok. Interviews are wonderful types of research, the ultimate, in my opinion, but you can learn a lot and write well without them.

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I think amnesia is a pretty commonly-written-on medical condition, you can even find forms of it in thrillers like the Bourne Identity series, so if you wanted to search for books involving amnesia and read your 5 favorites to see how others have portrayed it that wouldn't be a bad start.

Building in research on amnesia itself should also be a big part of your writing process. Just like you would read about a location or machine you want to use in your story, find out the basics of what amnesia is and how it works while you're outlining/writing. The scientific journal papers may be a little dense, but there are plenty of mainstream nonfiction books on psychology and psychiatry in which I'm sure you could find some cases of amnesia in a more understandable form. For example, Oliver Sacks once wrote about a very interesting case involving a musician, I believe. Also read about H.M. (we can use his name now but I forget what it is), who lost some memory-forming abilities after a brain surgery to treat his epilepsy.

If you can access a doctor or professor of psychology, while they could not discuss patient cases with you they could probably speak in general terms about the symptoms and habits of amnesiacs. Your character might adopt some of these habits, like perhaps keeping a diary, and examining their days from different points would help keep the story from getting repetitive if that's the way things are in her mind.

It is not my area of study, but as I understand it there are two main types and a great range of forms/effects amnesia can have so you will have some creative freedom in how you portray it.

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Totally depends.

What you're describing is called retrograde amnesia affecting autobiographical memory but not skills such as speech and movement patterns. Your character may react to her amnesia in several ways.

You should consider the personality of your protagonist. Is she stressed out easily? How would she score on a Big Five personality test? For instance, would she score high on neuroticism and conscientiousness? I can imagine if she is an agreeable person she is less likely to be suspicious of people. In a thriller that wouldn't be very interesting. Or, would it? How would she score on the Myer-Briggs Type Indicator? Is she the logical type that can objectively see the situation she is in, and respond calmly?

Every character reacts differently to amnesia. I think you want the character to be suspicious of people, because you are writing a thriller. If that's the case you could make her suspicious about many people in order to build tension for the reader. The other option would be to make her suspect only one person. Then midway it turns out someone else was the culprit. Maybe she was the culprit all along, or maybe she starts think she is.

Besides personality you could build your character by denoting her skills, and previous experience. For instance, she could be great at knife throwing (wasn't that a movie?). She could have been a surgeon before which could make her stand the sight of blood. Skills acquired in an occupation carry-over to other parts of a person's life, even when a character has amnesia the skills will determine how she can react and will likely react.

For the thriller genre you want to have intermittent dangers. But just because it's a thriller you don't have to create tension with dangers all the time. You can also regulate tension by more trivial events. Maybe the protagonist meets an old lover, but she cannot remember. This can help build story arc, and build the character while keeping the reader interested.

Everything will be a cliche when repeated enough. You could get creative and think up some crazy stuff. Perhaps a character can fool the protagonist into thinking they're friends, the protagonist starts to doubt her, then finds out they're probably not friends, and starts to fool the other that she believes they are indeed friends. In the end it turns out they were really friends, that they both suffer from amnesia, but meanwhile they started to doubt eachother and get into a conflict.

It would greatly help your writing if you can find out on which specific part you get stuck. And don't get stuck on the idea that your book is supposed to be a thriller; I've read plenty of thrillers which were less thrilling than non-thrillers.

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