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I'm writing for an amnesiac protagonist, in spite of the fact that I feel amnesia in fiction is usually a bad cliché used to avoid some of the background work of creating a character's family, friends, hometown, career, etc. Ideally, I'd like to hear an answer from someone who has written an amnesiac character before, and struggled with this same "interesting vs cliché" problem. How do you make the character's amnesia something interesting and engaging for your audience? How do you avoid making your audience groan? What kind of problems do you throw at your heroes? I'm more interested in plot considerations than character considerations. Examples of successful properties are appreciated.

Why I'm using amnesia: My big bad has used magic to (accidentally) cause the amnesia in the protagonist and his allies, and that's what causes them to become involved. I intend for all of the amnesiacs to have fully realized histories that may or may not come up down the road, but I don't have those histories created yet.

On realism and offense: This is magically-induced retrograde amnesia according to the typical trope - the characters might remember their names, they remember how the world works and retain their physical skills, but they don't remember their past. (They may recover it over time, but may not) I am not overly concerned with medical accuracy - this is magic, after all. I am aware that amnesia is a real problem that real people have to deal with, but this story is not about that, and is more aimed at entertainment than education. I do not intend to offend anyone - I'm just not aiming for that kind of depth here.

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    We've had a few questions recently dealing with "not wanting to cause offence", to the extent we've got a general question about the topic. But this is the one that confuses me the most. As you've said, inaccurate portrayals of amnesia are so common they've become a tired cliché. What makes you believe that yours will be any more offensive to real-world amnesiacs than the other five hundred? – F1Krazy Aug 26 at 20:11
  • @F1Krazy, I don't think it will be. Actually, the odds are very high that this will stay a "for fun" project and never be seen by an amnesiac. I was just trying to explain in advance why I'm not trying to be medically accurate and hopefully prevent the question from devolving into a debate about political correctness and media with a political agenda. – Josh Aug 26 at 20:29
  • Looks like you are asking at least two different questions here. One is how to make amnesia-based story interesting to the reader, the other is how to make amnesia look "authentic" and don't offend anyone. – Alexander Aug 27 at 0:12
  • @Alexander: No, I just meant to clarify that I'm not interested in the topic of offending people. I was trying to specify that I am not asking that question. Do you have a suggestion on how I could change the question to avoid confusion? – Josh Aug 27 at 14:33
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The challenge of the day is to rename your magical process as 'memory erasing' and the person affected as 'memory cleansed' or 'memoryless' (or variations thereof). No more worries about amnesia, especially if you don't want to provide any realism, nor portray it to any degree of accuracy.

As a side note, an Italian friend once mentioned that in Italian there is a distinction between two kinds of forgetting: from the mind and from the heart. My knowledge of English does not get far enough that I can say whether such a nuance exists. However, for reference: dimenticare (from the mind) and scordare (from the heart). Perhaps you can find an inspiration for a good magical terminology that can discern between forgetting the (recent) past, but not being oblivious to one's own physical skills.

  • Thanks for the answer. I'm not too concerned about the semantics of it, but those are good points. The separation of mind and heart forgetting is interesting - I'll spend some time researching that. There is no nuance like that in English, at least not in individual words, as far as I know. (I'm a native speaker) I have seen discussions on different types of memory that attempt to describe something similar, but it takes a paragraph or two to explain the concept, not a single word :) – Josh Aug 27 at 14:40
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I thought both The Bourne Identity and the beginning of the TV Series Blindspot did a decent job with amnesiac MCs.

In both cases, the MC was obviously worried about their lack of memory, but also not much interested in the "hero" route at all, they didn't know how they got their skills (in Blindspot I think she didn't know she had skills until she was attacked), which were good guys and which were bad. They did not know which side they were on, or if they were good guys or bad guys.

The lack of knowledge about their own ideology, the failure to know anybody including loved ones, basically removes their motivation to be a hero; though I think you could include a natural inclination toward altruism: I will stop to help a complete stranger in distress. So write as if everybody is a complete stranger to the amnesiac, and not one of them is fully trusted.

Amnesiac stories done right get driven by outside actors, attacks by enemies that know who they are (and perhaps fear them), or actors that believe the amnesiac knows a secret (which they have forgotten but their former self does know), or people that believe if anybody finds the amnesiac then they (the attacker) will be in trouble. Or somebody comes to the hero for help and finds an amnesiac, so they help the hero, that doesn't know or trust them. You find the amnesiac reacting by muscle memory (which is not lost) and instincts and their own base inclinations.

As for recovering memory, I'd avoid "convenient" recovery; I would expect a real amnesiac to first recover the memories most important to them, the ones that (IRL) have a lot of physical associations, actual neural pathways laid down in their brain. The people they live with, interact with, love, hate, etc. The things they know and use every day, the pathways and places they know and use every day. Think of these as similar to muscle-memory and instinct. Along with traumatic memories (which burn in fast), They would be recalled first, and probably the most recent non-traumatic memories would be recalled very late, or more realistically not at all (because short-term memory since the last sleep period, or even in the last week, can be lost forever IRL amnesia. e.g. many people in car accidents have "last memories" 20 or 30 minutes before the accident, and may recall one or two traumatic images right after the accident, but zero in-between.)

  • Great answer - thanks! This is the kind of information I'm looking for, primarily. I think my big bad can serve up plenty of "outside attackers." I'm thinking about having multiple characters in this predicament so that I can take multiple angles on the recovery thing. I might have 1 of them recover memories of his/her loved ones, while the other has to learn to move on without his/her memory. None of the recovery will be convenient, though, for sure. I agree that's to be avoided. They won't be solving any mysteries or taking down enemies with recovered memory. – Josh Aug 27 at 14:53
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How to make a non-cliche amnesia MC story?

It is not possible.

The very genre itself its cliche

The only way to make it so cliche that it is not is to add the other uber cliche plot drivers to your story... Make it a story about mad Time traveling Amnesic on a quest of prophecy. (Wait.. that's just 12 monkeys..)

Seriously.. I hate amnesia as a plot driver. Because all the stories are the same... The MC with amnesia conveniently remembers a key thing to move to the next scene (Bourne Identity)

  • Thanks for the answer. I'm actually not planning on amnesia driving the main plot, though it will drive sub-plots. I'm not sure if I'll allow the characters to recover their memory, or if those sub-plots will be more about them moving on without it. The only impact it should have on the main plot is motivation for them to investigate and anger directed at the big bad for what he took from them. – Josh Aug 27 at 14:37

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