Creating Realistic and Riveting Amnesic Characters

Can you create amnesic characters who are compelling and riveting to read about—and not simply reproductions of those from popular media? Time to put yourself to the test.

I have a question for you, my friend. Well, two actually.

Do you feel that you can write realistically and accurately about amnesia, without just relying on common knowledge and stereotypes? Can you create amnesic characters who are compelling and riveting to read about, and not simply reproductions of those from popular media?

If you’re uncertain about your answers to those questions, let’s do something about that. To answer the first question with a confident ‘yes’, add What Are the Different Types of Amnesia? and I Forget… What Can Cause My Characters Amnesia? to your reading list.

As for the second question, that’s the topic of this post. Time to explore how you can use your knowledge to create believable amnesic characters, unique and compelling in their own right, and generate some great plot ideas that you might never have considered otherwise.

You want to write a story that features an amnesiac? The first thing you need to consider is what type of amnesia your character has and what memories are affected. To recap, they could have:

Anterograde Amnesia

Meaning: Your character is unable to form new memories since the event that caused the amnesia.

An example of anterograde amnesia:

James suffered from brain trauma during a motorbike crash, which impaired his ability to remember anything that happened to him afterwards for very long. He would talk to someone and, within a few minutes, have forgotten the conversation.

Retrograde Amnesia

Meaning: Your character is unable to remember some or all memories before the event that caused the amnesia.

An example of retrograde amnesia:

Cerys and her brother were kidnapped in a case of mistaken identity. She was forced to watch the kidnappers do terrible things to him, but managed to escape from them herself. The trauma she went through was too much for her to cope with, though, and she experienced dissociative amnesia—the sudden onset of retrograde amnesia. She couldn’t remember any personal details about herself or memories of her past.

Mixed Memory

More commonly, people suffer from varying degrees of both types of amnesia.

An example of anterograde and retrograde amnesia:

Henry suffered from serious epileptic seizures. In an attempt to treat his epilepsy, he underwent surgery and certain parts of his brain were removed. When he woke up, his ability to form new memories was gone, as were most of his memories from the year or so before the surgery. (Anyone recognise this as the story of patient H.M.?)

Besides deciding on what type of amnesia your character has, you also need to consider which of their memories are affected. Long term or short term? Implicit or explicit? These will give you an idea of what kind of things your character will be able to do and learn after the onset of the amnesia.

Example 1: James’ implicit memory might still be intact, which means that he can learn new motor skills, such as riding a bike, even though he’ll forget the actual event.

Example 2: Cerys’ long term memories have been blotted out by the dissociative amnesia, but her short term ones are still there. Anything she does after the amnesia sets in, she remembers.

Example 3: Henry’s explicit memories may be gone, but, as with James, he can still implicitly learn new skills and remember old ones.

Creating Effective Plot Twists And Turns

If your story’s narrator is amnesic, this opens the door to all kinds of ways to misdirect your reader and give them an interesting narrative.

Anterograde Amnesia

Your character can’t remember the new things they learn, but your reader can. For example, they might learn clues as to a mystery throughout the novel and forget them soon after, but the reader will be putting together the pieces in their own minds.

Retrograde Amnesia

Your character doesn’t remember some or all of their past, which means that they can truthfully and wholeheartedly believe that they haven’t done something. For example, if they’ve been accused of a crime and believe that they’re innocent, the plot might follow them in their journey to prove their innocence. At the end of the novel, they find out that they did commit the crime, but, for whatever reason, don’t remember doing so.

If the thought of using memory loss or distortions to create an unreliable narrator intrigues you, I’ve covered this topic in more detail in How Accurate Is Your Character’s Memory... And How Can It Be Distorted? and Writing an Emotional Scene? You Could Have an Unreliable Narrator. You can really sink your teeth into memory and its repercussions in a story there.

Impact on Character Relationships

Living with amnesia can be a day-to-day struggle for the person it happens to and the people they know, particularly those close to them.

Example 1: Your story could be told from the perspective of someone who knows James the anterograde amnesiac, perhaps his spouse, sibling, parent or child. Their struggles and the strain they have on their relationship with James could be a source of tension and conflict in the story.

Example 2: Say retrograde amnesiac Cerys’ story begins with her wandering the streets of an unfamiliar city, with no idea how she got there. While trying to piece together what happened to her, she meets a man who says he’s her husband. How might she react?

If you’d like even more examples of plots about amnesic characters, film, literature and real life have a few to offer:

  • In The Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne suffers from dissociative amnesia and can’t remember his past.
  • In the animated film Anastasia, the titular character hits her head and experiences severe retrograde amnesia—so severe that she remembers nothing about her life before the amnesia set in.
  • The cases of H.M., K.C., Phineas Gage and other amnesia sufferers like them can inspire many a story idea.