Amnesia in fiction

So, I’ve been once again trying to write a novel. This time, I’m working in the field of urban fantasy, something I’ve not really dipped a toe into before.

I’ve got a good chunk of the plotline worked out, but there’s a piece of it that just is -not- settling well with me. I’ve got a character who is missing a chunk of his memory.

The problem with this is that I -hate- when writers do this. It just seems like a sloppy crutch for character and mystery development. I’d originally thought about trying to get amnesia ‘right’, that is to say, to write it in a believable way that -doesn’t- feel like a cop-out, but I’m not only unsure how to go about it, I’m unsure that it -can- be done.

Anyone have any examples of ‘amnesia done right’? I’ve been tempted to say Memento, but really, that’s more about how the story is told and less about the nature of amnesia. Beyond that, I’m at a loss…

…Or maybe I just don’t remember!

As I understand it, the most common type of “real” amnesia is associated with fairly serious physical trauma (car accident, major beat down, etc.), and covers the only the time during and shortly before (seconds or a few minutes) the trauma. I haven’t heard much about whether or to what degree these memories are recovered.

The most suspect of amnesia is that associated with “recovered memories” of child abuse, which have been shown in several cases to be more or less taught to the “victims” by therapists.

If I were writing a story, I would play with the idea that no one, including the amnesia victim, is ever really sure about the reliability of returning memories. Or maybe that the memories never return, but the bad guys have to act as if they could return, as a matter of their own self-preservation.

If you’re working in urban fantasy, can your amnesiac be the victim of a magical spell, or a potion?

How about electro-shock therapy? Doesn’t that erase some memories?

The most typical form of amnesia is that the formation of long term memories is impaired, either temporarily or permanently, and therefore things remembered with short term memory are never permanently stored.

So you have the character in Memento, who can remember the past 15-20 minutes, and can remember his past before his “accident”, but can’t form new long-term memories.

Or, you have a guy who gets whacked on the head, and runs around and does various things, and later can’t remember the things he did. This has happened to me–once I was opening a garage door, and then something happened, and my head hurt. I was still standing, but the garage door was resting on my head. I couldn’t remember being hit on the head. The hit on the head prevented those memories from forming. So I didn’t “lose” those memories, there’s no way I can recover them, because they never formed in the first place. This is also what happens to people who get blackouts from drinking. They aren’t unconscious, they aren’t zombies, they aren’t sleepwalking. They just can’t remember the things they did.

Long term alcoholism can make this condition permanent, most people who end up like the Memento guy destroy their memory formation centers through alcohol, not through brain trauma.

Soap Opera style amnesia where the patient doesn’t know who they are, but are otherwise unaffected is pretty rare, to the point of not really existing. You can get dementia like Alzheimer’s where you don’t recognize people, don’t know where you are, and so on.

Completely aside from my feelings about the plot, I have to say that I appreciated the method that Jim Butcher used in Ghost Story.

On the upside, it was one of the more interesting approaches I’ve read recently, on the downside, that sort of tack can (doesn’t have to, but can) make people less interested in re-reading, if that’s something that you’re interested in with your writing.

Could you share what that method was?

Check out Gene Wolfe’s Soldier in the Mist and *Soldier of Arete *(collected together into a single volume called Latro in the Mist). From Wikipedia:

It’s very effective writing, to the point that after a while, I, the reader, started to doubt my own sanity.

Trouble with amnesia is, even when it’s real, it sounds like a story. I knew someone married to a woman who experienced it, and, as most of the creative types on the board remarked, the story of it came off just like a cheap plot device that none of them would have felt comfortable using.

In case it’s useful, here’s a little vocabulary. Anterograde amnesia is the Memento style amnesia where a person stops forming new memories. This is also what is happening when someone “blacks out” from alcohol and is unable the next morning to remember what they did. Retrograde amnesia is the type more familiar from TV characters getting hit on the head with coconuts, where memories of the past are lost.

A relative of mine, “Mary”, once suffered a serious head injury in a car accident, and was actually in a coma for a couple of weeks. After regaining consciousness she had anterograde amnesia for several days, and some degree of retrograde amnesia for the next few months. She had significant gaps in her memory going back about six months before the accident, and while she regained most of these memories in time AFAIK Mary never has been able to remember the day of the accident and is vague on the day or so before that. Of course, if nothing particularly memorable happened on those days they probably wouldn’t have remained vivid in her mind months later even under normal circumstances.

Something I don’t think I’ve ever seen depicted in fictional cases of amnesia was that Mary seemed to have limited awareness of the gaps in her memory. When asked about something that she couldn’t remember she’d either deny that it had happened or confabulate an answer. Either way she would be quite emphatic about it and was willing to argue with anyone who said she was wrong.

Off the top of my head:

Memento is a fairly accurate depiction of anterograde amnesia, but that’s not what you’re going for.

In the case of short-term memory impairment (like when someone gets hit on the head and gets a concussion), you should bear in mind that memories are generally missing from both before and after the injury. So-called “islands of memory” from during that time period are possible.

Hm. So, with retrograde, it would be possible / likely to just have ‘missing spaces’ in one’s memory? Because, really, such a thing serves the story -much- better than a ‘tabula rasa’ character.
Also, are there instances of such things happening outside of physical trauma? Could extreme mental distress, say, something PTSD-like, induce this?

I don’t think you’re looking for retrograde amnesia. It’s also called Korsakov’s syndrome, from what is casually called “Wet Brain” in late-stage alcoholism. In that, the patient can’t make any new memories. So, if he moves to a new place, he has to look for the bathroom in that strange house for however many years he lives afterwards. He can read a new book, and then just read it over and over after that because he won’t even know he read it. Deep Korsakov’s requires hospitalization and constant monitoring.

Anteriograde amnesia is what is usually portrayed in novels and film as when a person suddenly doesn’t know who he is, where he’s from, or how he got to wherever he is discovered. The latter complete type of situation has never been fully documented so far as I know. It’s a story-telling device.

The short-term loss of a specific, circumscribed chunk of time is usually limited, incomplete, and often subject to full recovery. As someone above mentioned, it is generally trauma induced.

If you want to see a great portrayal of what some claim is full-on anteriograde amnesia, see the documentary “Unidentified White Male.” It’s fascinating and gives a real feel for what full-blown anteriograde memory loss would entail.

The tragic heroine Nienor’s amnesia in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin is imposed on her by an evil dragon, and is a vital and effective element of the plot.

I don’t know anything about clinical amnesia, but an interesting depiction of it ina thriller that seems to have been researched is the film Mirage. It’s written by Peter Stone, who wriote the excellent comedy-thriller Charade, and even has some of the same stars, but it’s completely missing the light tone of the other film. Gregory Peck plays a man whohas amnesia and thinks he’s being followed by people with designs on his life – only he’s not paranoid. He really is i trouble, and thinks he’s had amnesia for a couple of years. He gets hold of a psychiatrist and tries to figure out what has happened, and why he has amnesia (no getting-hit-on-the-head in this film).
Definitely worth a look. Think of it as charade’s evil twin. As I say, I don’t know if the depiction holds water, but it certainly seems more believable and serious than the usua; depiction in the movies.

Based on what I know on the subject (and I’m definitely not an expert), it’s far more common for someone with retrograde amnesia to have partial memory loss than to have completely forgotten their entire past life.

I don’t know about PTSD – I think people with PTSD are more likely to suffer from being unable to stop thinking about their traumatic memories – but there have been cases of people whose amnesia was brought on by psychological rather than physical trauma. (Here’s Wikipedia on psychogenic amnesia.) However, if this were something I was writing I don’t think I’d go in that direction. It seems cheesy and cliched to me, although it could still work depending on the specifics of your story and how well you write it.

No, it’s the other way around. Retrograde (“moving backward”) amnesia is when someone loses memories from their past, and anterograde (“moving forward”) amnesia is when they lose the ability to form new long-term memories.

I had not heard of Korsakoff’s syndrome before, but according to Wikipedia it is not simply another name for either retrograde or anterograde amnesia but is a more complicated neurological problem that involves both of these forms of amnesia plus other symptoms.

Oh! Thanks for pointing that out. I must have mindlessly gotten the two terms mixed up and then blithely written on about it. Yes, the inability to form new memories is anteriograde amnesia. (Of course.)

As for Korsakov’s, I was just trying to simplify. There is really not much in neuropsych that is plain and simple. Most of the classic descriptions and anecdotes about anteriograde amnesia can be disputed and even explained away by alternative analyses. It’s so much simpler to portray in books and film!

My understanding is that Korsakov’s syndrome can be quickly described as a combination of anterograde and retrograde amnesia. The patient loses the ability to form new long-term memories, and existing long-term memories are destroyed. I recently read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks; it’s an interesting read, and contains an account of someone with Korsakov’s syndrome (the chapter The Lost Mariner). In that case at least, it appears that Korsakov’s is progressive; the retrograde amnesia goes farther and farther back in time as the subject abuses alcohol. Technically, it’s caused by thiamine deficiency, but problem drinkers get the double whammy of getting very little thiamine in their diets (they get most of their calories from liquor) and the alcohol interfering with the digestion of what little thiamine they do eat.

Sorry - was AFC for a few days, and didn’t see your request before you left.
Just as a note, a pretty hefty plot point revolves around this, so beware of spoilers! I’ll do my best to remain vague about that plot point anyway.

[spoiler] The actual memory had been erased due to magical means. This had actually happened previously in the series, and the character recovered those memories over time due to force of will, essentially, after being clued in to the possibility that someone had been screwing with his memories by other characters noticing a change in behavior, and then the character noting incongruous thought patterns.

This time however, the “missing” memories were first magically removed, and then that period of time was “re-written” (again through magical means) so that the character didn’t have any suspiciously missing moments. The reveal of the memories being missing then had the double whammy of 1) the character finding out that their mind had been messed with and they didn’t even suspect anything like that, and 2) the actual plot point itself that was hung on that reveal. [/spoiler]

I just thought it was an interesting and very useful mechanism - the character in question is a viewpoint character, and most readers assume that they’re listening in to a reliable narrator.

In this case however, not only was the narrator NOT a reliable one, but the narrator themselves didn’t *know *they weren’t being a reliable narrator as far as that experience went.

To me, that writing choice made the reveal for the plot development more of a *reveal *and less of a “gotcha” moment where the characters know something, but the readers are left in the dark. I liked that.

Way I look at it: old B&W movies are called “retro.” The “I can’t remember my name” meme was popular back then. Memento is the new wave, and has the other type.

First rule: make it basically permanent to be realistic. A child will have a better chance at recovering memories than an old person who gets injured. Not just because they have more to remember, but also because the child’s brain is more flexible.

Typically, it’s a gradient. They may be able to remember third grade perfectly, but very poor memory for recent years and almost none for the hours preceeding the accident. Also, don’t think of retro/antero as having a sharp cut off point = the accident. They may not remember things in the hours or days after the accident, even if conscious and lucid. Same with anterograde, they may forget some old thing.

Korsakoff’s is NOT the same thing as anterograde, but has some symptoms of it. Korsakoff’s people tend to confabulate (think Grandpa Simpson telling stories) more than plain old amnesiacs.

:smack: I had this on my bookshelf for a few years, and was reluctant to read because I thought it was just the first book. Thanks for the update. Looks like 3rd is not in here, Soldier of Sidon. Now my only enemy is time.

If your character has a past they don’t want to remember, and the rest of the story doesn’t specify the scientific ways things happen, I don’t think there’s really a problem with having your character forget their past or parts of their past.

An example you might hate, but that works for me, is Desperately Seeking Susan (it was on TV last night, so it came to mind) - the main character loses her memory but she really, really wants to and that is shown (in indirect ways) before she does the ‘getting hit on the head/losing memory’ thing.

You can, in real-world terms, justify someone ‘losing their memory’ if they haven’t really lost it but blocked it. At least enough for an urban fantasy story. Perhaps they’re half-aware that they’re lying about losing their memory or perhaps it started out that way, then they were convinced by their own lies.