Hiya! i see a lot of amnesia on tv as a plot devise. and i admit, it is an attractive plot devise. Is it realistic to have a character forget memories of themselves and recent events but remember things like, oh i don't know, arithmatic and how to read and write and who the monarch of england is? how could a patient with amnesia be written more realistically?
If “amnesia” as it is written by TV writers everywhere were to never ever ever show up again ever in the history of writing, I would be a very happy Scripty indeed. In fact, “Amnesia!” as a trope can go to make itself a lighter-fluid smoothie and accidentally light the match while it’s looking in the blender to see if it’s done.
I’m going to differentiate amnesia–a loss of memory after physical trauma–from “Amnesia!”, which is code for TV-bullshit-fake-plot-device memory loss.
I think the best way to frame this is that amnesia is a symptom of brain damage, whereas “Amnesia!” is a symptom of shitty writing.
Amnesia has two basic forms: anterograde and retrograde. Anterograde amnesia affects making new memories, while retrograde amnesia affects memories from the past. These can include memories of events, or people, or both. It can include loss of skills. But it almost never degrades someone’s ability to remember who they are, which is one big way that amnesia differs from “Amnesia!”.
Amnesia from trauma is also almost never isolated. That means that there are other neurological symptoms going on at the same time: gross motor dysfunction, foggy thinking, dizziness, forgetfulness, headaches, visual disturbances, balance issues, nausea and vomiting, something in addition to their memory impairment.
“Amnesia!”, on the other hand, is a loss of identity and ONLY of identity. Characters typically forget who they are, without forgetting how to talk, tie their shoes, shave their pretty pretty face, apply their TV makeup, etc. They can drive cars. They never have any other symptoms of brain damage, because that’s inconvenient for plot purposes. And symptoms always magically resolve by the end of the episode or, in absolute worst case scenario, the two-part series.
There are several reasons while this trope bothers me so much. One is that real people, in the real world, suffer amnestic issues–especially anterograde amnesia–as a component of brain injury, and live with those issues for years. Writing about their issues as though they’ll magically go away is frankly insulting to the community of those living with TBI and NTBI.
Another is that “Amnesia!” is simply bad writing. Characters are the ones who need to drive plot. Plot should be used as a way to talk about characters, not the other way around. “Amnesia!”, much like a coma, is used as a way to sideline a character without harming them or killing them. It’s a diversion. It basically presses the pause button on a character.
Now, all of this is with a caveat: psychological trauma can produce brief episodes of this kind of amnesia, wherein a person forgets who they are–basically because, on some level, they want to forget. It’s an opportunity to process. But I still think it should be off the table for writers.
It’s sloppy. It’s lazy. And I believe that you–that all of you–are better writers than that.
Thanks for writing in, and for listening to me vent.