Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
You wake up in a dark room, lying face down on a cold stone floor. You groan, your head feeling like it weighs ten times what it should. Taking stock of your surroundings, you find that you can’t see much in the dim lighting of the candles lining the walls. There’s a rickety looking wooden table in the middle, and what appears to be an old antique dresser with a mirror on top just across from it. Pushing yourself up off the floor, you wince. Your body aches more than it should. With shaky steps, you make your way over to the mirror. Even in the dim lighting, you can tell you’ve had better days. Your eyes look tired and your face is covered in dirt. Turning around, you spot an old wooden door just outside the reach of the candles’ light. You walk over and push it open, the door making a loud creaking that echoes into the hallway beyond. You can tell you’re in some kind of ancient castle. One of the windows has broken, the wind of the storm rushing in and blowing the worn red curtains all about. You take a step into the hallway.
And that’s when it hits you, you don’t remember anything. Why you’re here, where this is, and even who you are…it’s all missing, as if someone reached inside your head and pulled them out one by one…
The amnesia trope is a very common staple in fiction, particularly in the science fiction and fantasy genres. People often malign the trope, saying it’s cheap or lazy. And while I’ll agree that often the amnesia trope can be a sign of a writer who’s run out of ideas, there’s also a very simple reason the trope exists in the first place.
Because it’s an effective way to set up a mystery or driving goal for a character.
When someone in a television show, movie, video game, or what have you wakes up in a strange location without any recollection of why they’re there or even who they are, our innate curiosity is like “hmm this is interesting…I wonder what’s going on?” Call it manipulative if you want, but it works. It immediately draws us in because we can’t help ourselves. We want to know more, we have to know more. And amnesiacs in fiction tend to have far more interesting lives than their real-life counterparts.
Take The Bourne Identity for example. In the beginning of the movie, the crew of a fishing ship fishes Matt Damon’s character out of the water during a harsh storm. He’s been shot in the back multiple times. There’s no identification on him aside from a strange device featuring the address of a bank in Zurich. And it becomes quickly evident that he has combat training, as he manages to ambush one of the crew members and grab him by the throat. It’s then that we learn that Damon’s character has no memory and has no idea who he is or where he is. It’s a very effective opening that gives us a clear reason to get invested in the plot.
But the real reason Bourne Identity succeeds at gaining our interest is because they give us key interesting details about the character: the strange laser pointer device pointing to the Zurich bank, the gunshot wounds on his back, and his apparent combat prowess. It’s not enough to just give a character amnesia. The amnesia might draw in people initially, but unless they’re given some more details, that interest will wane very quickly. This is especially true in modern fiction, because people have seen the amnesia trope used so often that a writer will have to do extra work to keep them invested.
While the amnesia trope is very common in thrillers and mysteries, I think more recently it has found a home in video games, particularly those of the horror variety. Like before, amnesia is a good way to get people interested, but in video games it serves another important purpose. In a game it’s crucial that the player identifies with the character they are playing as in some way. Amnesia is a very useful tool in this sense, because it allows the player to jump in at a point where they have about as much information on their situation as the character in the story. In this way, they are experiencing the mystery right along with the character. If the main character suddenly got amnesia halfway through the game, it would just create this weird disconnect for the player and they would likely lose interest.
Take Amnesia: The Dark Descent as an example. Our journey begins as the main character, Daniel, is stumbling through the halls of a castle struggling to maintain his memory. The scene fades in and out of blackness as he makes his way through the stone corridors. He recites off details about himself, but by the end of the intro he can barely manage to say his name. He wakes up later on in the middle of a hallway, with nothing aside from a trail of pinkish fluid to follow. As we go through the game, we slowly learn more about his predicament and how he ended up in this strange, haunting castle. Because, like I said, the amnesia trope can be effective as long as a writer handles it with care.
In the end I think the amnesia trope has a bit of a unfair reputation. Like anything, it can be overused, but just looking at the memory tropes page at TV Tropes shows you just how versatile it can be. It pays to recognize that everything, even the most cliche of tropes, have their place in fiction. And yes, that even includes demons, which I have very loudly complained about many times before. But it’s a tricky balancing process. You can give a character amnesia, but if you don’t give the character a compelling reason to have amnesia then the effect is lost on people. I’m of the opinion that originality in stories is a little overrated. As long as you can put a unique and interesting spin on a story, and do it well, then it really shouldn’t matter if your story is heavily inspired by one thing or another. EVERYTHING is inspired by one thing or another. All of fiction can have its roots traced back to the ancient tradition of oral storytelling. True originality simply doesn’t exist.
A writer needs to be able to make use of all the tools in their toolbox, so to speak.