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The fascination and process of using the amnesia trope

A quick search on Amazon for “amnesia historical romance” produces over 300 results. If you cut out the historical and go for “amnesia romance” you get 1000 results. I should say that makes it quite a popular theme among authors.

I’ve used it twice in historical romance to create a mysterious past that unfolds piece by piece. It’s an interesting exercise in development.

In A Trace of Memory, which I will be re-releasing soon, our hero finds the heroine wandering in his woods, dishevelled and unable to remember who she is or how she got there. Of his two sisters, who are with him, one believes Elaine is genuine, while the other suggests she is guilty of an elaborate ploy to entrap the eligible earl. Nevertheless, they take her in and look after her, although Charles is in two minds. Is she faking it?

This one proved lighter in mood than the next, and the snatches of memory Elaine finds disturbing are at length augmented by individuals out of her past appearing on the scene. The determination of the truth and the growing intimacy between the hero and heroine are of more significance in the event than the amnesia.

This is not true of my second use of the trope. Widow in Mistletoe, which is in the pipeline from Sapere Books in my Brides by Chance Regency Adventures series, also features an earl. He is the victim here, thrown from his curricle and injured. Widow Chloe takes him in but when he wakes, his memory is missing. In this scenario, his identity is known as he has a groom with him, but Lance has no idea who he is and the story revolves around his mistaking Chloe for his lost love, Clarissa, and the gradual recovery of part of his past.

The working out of an amnesia historical romance follows the same pattern as any other Regency story. Boy meets girl. Attraction is followed by complications which, when resolved, result in the happily ever after – or at least a hope of it. The interesting bit comes in how much we can develop the symptoms and progress of the condition and how much that influences the story.

An amnesiac, by definition, has an impaired memory. We are not talking here of the distressing condition of the gradual onset of dementia which we know is not going to go away. For the purposes of romance, that would defeat the object, although I don’t doubt there exist many poignant stories delineating this tragic condition. My mother suffered from Alzheimer's and I've seen what that gradual sad deterioration looks like.

A knock on the head, however, can produce a more immediately severe condition that is, we hope, temporary. This is, I suspect, the most used method, in both books and movies, for ridding a protagonist of memory in the rapid manner that creates an immediate problem.

The trick lies in how much memory our amnesiac discovers through the story. How much of the mystery do we choose to reveal, piece by piece? What triggers can we use to build even a vague picture of this person’s past, and indeed of their character? The opportunities are legion and the development of the story depends upon those choices.

Henry's daughter teaching him to read again

You can, for example, change a man’s whole character, as demonstrated by Harrison Ford in the film Regarding Henry where the hero survives a bullet and becomes, in his rehabilitation, a completely different individual, warmer and loathing what he learns of the man he used to be. This was also the basic theme of Goldie Hawn’s amnesia in Overboard. It is evidently a favourite trope in movies too.

With my widow story, a dream-induced memory of Clarissa pitches Lance into the first and major complication since Chloe resembles her. He also begins to discover an arrogant attitude he had as a lord that he now deprecates. His confusions abound and he begins to fear for his reason. Chloe becomes the only stable point in his new existence.

I must say that as I was writing the story, I didn’t work this out ahead. It grew in the writing. Logic dictated that in a person who still has their faculties, the loss of memory must be distressing – unlike with dementia where often the victim has no understanding of having the condition. This presented scope for plenty of drama and the story became quite dark in places. It’s hardly gothic, but the psychological disturbance creates that darkness.

I wonder if this is the magnet that drives authors to the trope? The fascination with the psychological aspects of the condition and how that affects the victim and the people around them has so many possible permutations that it’s unlikely any one story is repeated elsewhere.

Nevertheless, I think it’s a risky trope. Easy to overplay or underplay it. For example, what of the convenient second accident that miraculously recovers the memory lock, stock and barrel? I suspect any amnesiac will retain hidden pockets that prove elusive.

To me it seems far more believable to allow snippets to appear here and there and perhaps widen as familiar territory helps to jog the mind into more remembering with more coherence.

Although Elaine recovers most of her memories, I left Lance’s recollection of his past incomplete. Both protagonists were enough recovered, however, to look forward to a new life with their respective romantic partners.

It would be interesting to learn how other authors have dealt with this issue. If you are an author, have you used amnesia, and if so, what was your experience?

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