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All About Amnesia, a Guest Post by Miranda Neville

Amnesia is one of the most reviled of romance tropes, right up there with secret babies, but it’s also immensely popular. There are few writers with long careers who fail to tackle it at some point. And why not? It delivers plots rich in conflict, deception, forgiveness–and secret babies. 

miranda-nevilleI thought I’d read a lot of amnesia romances, but found I needed a refresher course, (assisted by AAR’s Special Title Listing). For me amnesia works best when the couple are somehow connected, whether or not the non-amnesiac partner is aware of the fact. When they are total strangers, most problems will be solved once the memory returns. I love it when the writer lets me in on the disaster that lies in wait. In Teresa Medeiros’ A Kiss to Remember, the heroine, desperate to find a husband, invents a whole life for the amnesiac man she finds in the woods. The reader has the delicious knowledge that the man she quickly falls in love with is, in fact, her worst enemy.

In romantic suspense the amnesiac is usually menaced by some unknown peril. Anne Stuart’s Winter’s Edge is a classic of this kind of plot: the heroine doesn’t know if her estranged husband is the one who wishes her dead; meanwhile the real villain must finish her off before she regains her memory. Just to add to the fun, the heroine feels like a different person from the character described to her. She–and we– have to learn why she was putting on an act and how it ruined her marriage.

One of the great appeals of the amnesia plot is seeing a character learn the hidden truth of his or her character or emotions while divorced from the preconceptions and prejudices of real life. Medeiros’ cruel duke becomes a good and kind man when freed from the bitterness of his unhappy upbringing. In Mary Balogh’s wonderfully melodramatic Deceived, a bride is kidnapped at the church door by her divorced husband and loses her memory from a blow to the head. He tells her they’ve been happily married for seven years and it seems right to her: without the knowledge of his supposed infidelity and long estrangement, she readily accepts that she loves the hero because, Big Misunderstanding aside, she does. And if you want complicated, try Lynne Graham’s The Sicilian’s Mistress. The amnesiac heroine lives quietly with her very straight-laced parents and her small son (secret baby!), whom she believes to be the result of a youthful indiscretion. Enter the Sicilian: turns out she was his mistress, whom, of course, he dumped when he “discovered” she was a slut. A mistress! Horrors! Plus he reveals she’s been adopted by the wrong parents.

The recovery of memory often stops a developing relationship in its tracks. The couple who fell in love when one member had no idea of his identity, has to fall in love all over again when he or she becomes a “different” person. Medeiros’ duke must forgive the heroine her deception. Balogh’s heroine must discover that her love for her husband was real. (And incidentally, SPOILER ALERT, reveal the existence of the secret baby.)

THE AMOROUS EDUCATION OF CELIA SEATON Miranda NevilleAmnesia creates a power imbalance. The character who loses his or her identity is automatically at a disadvantage. I don’t pretend to have read every amnesia romance out there, but it seems in contemporary romance it’s more often the woman who loses her memory, hence the popularity of the trope in the Harlequin Presents type of story which depends on male power and apparent female helplessness. In historicals it’s the opposite: with the inherent advantage of men in the past, amnesia turns the power differential on its head.

When I decided to write an amnesia plot I got onto the trusty Google to find out the medical truth about the condition. I’m no doctor, but it didn’t take much to convince me that a realistic treatment of the illness wasn’t going to serve my purposes. One of the likely concomitants of memory loss is permanent brain damage: not a desirable condition for the hero or heroine of a romance. Clearly I had to get away from reality and use amnesia as a literary device, as writers more distinguished and successful than I have done. This decision gives the writer the advantage of defining the form temporary memory loss takes to fit the requirements of character and plot. So don’t read most amnesia books, including my own, with any expectation of medical accuracy.

The hero of The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton, Tarquin Compton, is a dandy and the kind of social leader who destroys a debutante with one quip. I’d already decided that a dandy needed to lose his clothes. Then it occurred to me that the persona of a society darling is such an artificial one that he needed to be stripped of his very identity to learn what’s underneath. And just for fun he finds himself stranded (almost naked) far away from his urban comfort zone in company with a woman who resents him for his careless destruction of her prospects.

An unforeseen challenge of writing the amnesia plot is the revelation of back story. A writer reveals the past through dialogue and internal monologue. But when a character has no knowledge of his past, there’s nothing to reveal. Initially I wrote a long section for my hero before he’s hit on the head, but my critique partner firmly informed me it was data dump. She was right, damn it. (I am not a writer who enjoys deleting 5000 words in a single blow.) I kept a brief pre-amnesia passage for Tarquin and left the reader to learn about him from the skewed perspective of the heroine and conclusions (mostly laughably wrong) drawn from his own fragmented memory.

By the way, this book is lamentably lacking in secret babies, but I make no promises for the future.

You can find out more about Miranda Neville’s new release, The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton, at her website.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

30 Comments

  1. Mary Anne Graham
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 07:16:10

    I’ve never liked amnesia as a plot device. I want the characters in a romance to recall why they shouldn’t for all the pages until they realize the only reason why they should — They have to!

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  2. Maggie Robinson/Margaret Rowe
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 07:29:23

    The very first thing I ever wrote (securely, firmly, forever under the bed) was an amnesiac heroine who winds up in a brothel. I still feel the sting of shame.

    I’m on the fence about amnesia, possibly because I’ve never known anyone to suffer from it except in books and movies.Sometimes it works for me, others not so much.But I’m really looking forward to reading Tarquin’s story later today! You’ve penned a terrific series.

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  3. Joanna Chambers (Tumperkin)
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 07:33:29

    I love amnesia plotlines and the Lynne Graham you mentioned is a huuuuuge favourite of mine! There’s also a few very good Charlotte Lamb amnesia categories that I’d highly recommend to lovers of this trope.

    I’m not fussed about medical accuracy (though I suspect I might feel differently if I was a medical professional since legal inaccuracies drive me to distraction). For me, it’s exactly what you said: using amnesia as a literary device both to explore character and to enable characters to review past events in a new way. I also very much enjoy the dilemma the non-amensiac character often experiences regarding withholding the truth from the amensiac character.

    Love the sound of your naked dandy and looking forward to find out if he is eventually liberated from his dandyism or if he turns it to his advantage and makes fig leaves wildly fashionable.

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  4. Christine
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 07:39:46

    The best amnesia novel I have ever read is not a romance but “Face Of A Stranger” by Anne Perry- the first in her William Monk series. (Though to be fair through the series a romance develops slowly). The protagonist not only has to deal with his amnesia, he cannot tell anyone, is a police detective and discovers more and more unpleasant truths about himself (discovering his previous personality through other’s opinions of him) as the novel progresses. For me it’s the gold standard of “amnesia” stories.

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  5. Sabrina H
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 08:28:28

    I actually just finished this novel, spent all night reading it as soon as I could load it to my e-reader. I am usually not a huge fan of the amnesia plot, but this one played great. I loved it!! But then, I loved
    the Medeiros book as well. I consider it one of my desert island keepers. Theres something about stripping away layers of artifice and bitterness in heroes and watching them fall in love with the heroine :)

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  6. Holly
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 08:33:29

    I dislike amnesia plot lines as much as I dislike secret babies. I’ve seen documentaries and have read non-fiction books on people who have suffered amnesia, and they have had to re-learn how to write, in some cases how to walk, it’s not a romantic experience. I would think anyone suffering from this would be concentrating on getting better, not trying to find a HEA with the all too perfectly, chiseled, ripped, handsome hero these books provide.

    I love romance books, but there are a few tropes I just can’t stand and that’s one of them. As for secret babies, it’s a ridiculous trope, especially in this day and age. But then again, I don’t read Harlequin series books for these very reasons, their tropes are ridiculous in my opinion.

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  7. Juliana Stone
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 08:45:50

    Hi Miranda! Major congrats on your latest release! It’s funny how many people either hate or love amnesia plots! The first book in my jaguar warrior series features a heroine who has amnesia–which for her is dangerous as her ex lover is trying to kill her! But I agree with another post…I like it when the characters are alrady connceted somehow!

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  8. Annabel
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 08:54:50

    I just plowed through Balogh’s Slightly series, and one of those (Slightly Sinful) had an amnesia plot–strangely, another naked man found in the woods. Where are all these naked, memory-challenged men in the woods and where can I find a handsome, rich one for myself!!??

    I did actually enjoy the book and the whole series, and it was recommended to me on here when we were discussing icy dukes, so many thanks to that person who told me about it.

    I tend to be very accepting of almost any trope or plot device if the book is well written and I like the characters, so amnesia is not a problem for me unless the rest of the book is weak.

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  9. Alison Kent
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 09:21:40

    I agree with @Holly. I don’t like the trope because of the reality of amnesia. I’m a very literal reader (and writer) and can’t get beyond the truth of how amnesia presents to any literary license – especially after doing research to consider using it as a plot device. Just a personal quirk!

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  10. Karen S.
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 09:27:40

    I have to admit I’m a total sucker for amnesia plotlines, though mainly when it’s the *hero* that has amnesia, as having a heroine in a less powerful position is really all too common in romance. Having the hero have to figure out who he’s been and who he *wants to be* is something I find fascinating, when accompanied by the complication of romance.

    Of course the problem usually comes in the execution. Instant love doesn’t really work for me in this situation, for…fairly obvious reasons. While I’ve done some research on amnesia for possible writing of my own, I can usually see it as Miranda does, more as literary-trope-amnesia. Except when authors push even my ability to suspend disbelief by having the amnesia go away during orgasm. (Seriously, I’ve read two books where that happened.)

    But yes, soul-searching and the big mystery of who the hero *is* along with the push-pull of “damn, I’m attracted to you but now is *so* not the time”? More, please. Especially if the heroes are as well-built as Jason Bourne. :D

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  11. Jane O
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 09:54:24

    I am a sucker for amnesia plots and have been ever since I saw Random Harvest with Ronald Colman — it was on TV when I was in high school.

    The medical reality of the state is unimportant to me. What’s fascinating is the combination of terror one must feel at not knowing who or what one is with the freedom of discovering oneself without the baggage of past mistakes and other people’s expectations.

    I am really looking forward to your new book.

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  12. Keishon
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 10:38:02

    I can’t run away fast enough from amnesia plots but I did read a good one by an old favorite…title is Unforgettable by Meryl Sawyer. The only book I’ve enjoyed by her.

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  13. Sunita
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 11:33:00

    @Jane O: Random Harvest is one of those rare books where the movie is just as good (Colman & Garson, how could they miss?). I just reread & rewatched in the last few months, and even knowing what’s going on, it’s enthralling to me.

    I also love the amnesia plot even though I know the way it’s depicted is purely a literary construction. But it goes back so far in fiction, and it’s so much fun to see authors play with it.

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  14. library addict
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 11:37:29

    I’ll usually take amnesia over secret babies any day. I think it’s one of those tropes where, yes, there are a lot of poorly written ones, but there are also some real gems.

    My favorites are the ones where the couple is divorced or having marriage problems when one of them suffers from amnesia and the other has to pretend they’re happily married. I also think it works best when it’s traumatic amnesia say from witnessing a crime, rather than because they’ve gotten bumped on the head. Much easier to buy into to and I’m not left wondering why they haven’t gone to the ER for a bunch of tests.

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  15. DS
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 11:50:13

    @Christine: I would say that I don’t like amnesia plot lines except I do agree that I liked Face of a Stranger.

    There are a bunch of causes of amnesia and different kinds, but it seems that romance sticks with the retrograde amnesia. The one I see the most in real life is fugue state. That’s the one where the spouse empties the family back account, flies to Las Vegas and cannot remember any of it. Hardly the stuff of romance.

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  16. Elyssa Papa
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 11:50:43

    Hi, Miranda! Congrats on the release of your new book!

    I secretly (okay, I guess it’s no longer a secret, lol) the amnesia trope. Mostly because of the ressons you listed–the moment the character regains his/her memory and what follows is so full of tension and, well, shit hitting the fan.

    One of my favorite movies, Random Harvest, has the hero losing his memory and his wife then acts as his secretary because she doesn’t want him to just be with her because of what she tells him. She wants him to fall in love with her. It’s so angsty…and there are some heartbreaking scenes; it’s just such a good movie.

    I also loved Shelly Thacker’s A Stranger Kiss, where the French scientist heroine loses her memory and then the hero, a totally beta spy, pretends they are married because she has the key to some type of weapon or something. But the moment where she regains her memory and the scenes that follow are so deliciously good. I think I’ve reread that book too many times to count.

    And who can forget Judith McNaught’s Until You where the heroine loses her memory and regains it but the hero still thinks she’s a liar? God. The drama and angst!

    I think I went off-tangent. But I really enjoyed CELIA so much and I’m looking forward to your next one.

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  17. Las
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 12:43:16

    Amnesia is second only to secret babies as my ultimate guilty pleasure trope. LOVE them! I don’t know why. I’m a bit embarrassed that I do, because, really, the whole idea is just ridiculous for so many reasons and there are plenty of tropes I cannot abide that are far less egregious. But every time I come across an amnesia plot I give it a look. Now, none of the amnesia stories I’ve read are particularly memorable (no pun intended), but I’m always eager to read another.

    Now that I think about it, most of the amnesia victims I’ve read–contemporary and historical–have been men.

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  18. Angela
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 13:17:07

    I think I’ve only read one amnesia story – Until You by Judith McNaught – but I really enjoyed it.

    I think that, like anything else, it all resides in the execution. And there’s so much to play with there. Like someone above said – the tension of not knowing who you are, coupled with the freedom of not having those restrictions that life sometimes bears down on us. Then the tension once the amnesia is resolved.

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  19. Miranda Neville
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 14:24:41

    I’ve been reading the comments with great interest. I can understand how those with first hand medical knowledge of the condition would find the unrealistic treatment of amnesia, common in fiction, hard to swallow. I think we all have places where we find it impossible to suspend disbelief – I know I do.

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  20. Jane
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 16:07:41

    I’ve been looking forward to this book since I first stumbed across “The Wild Marquis.” The antiquarian book auction setting of that one (a new passion of mine) put a big smile on my face the entire time I was reading it.

    I can enjoy the amnesia trope irrespective of medical realities. Although the orgasm triggered memory recovery mentioned above would snap even my suspension of disbelief! It can work for me whether the sufferer is the hero or heroine and whether they’ve known each other before or not. Tarquin Compton does seem like a great candidate. I can’t wait to get to know him stripped of his considerable appreciation of his own consequence.

    Now, secret babies? Pretty much a dealbreaker for me.

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  21. Gennita Low
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 19:22:39

    Oh gosh, Meryl Sawyer’s Unforgettable remains on my Keeper Self, as well as Ann Stuart’s book mentioned above. I do like amnesia plots :).

    Congrats on the new book. Ordered it today!

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  22. Janine
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 20:34:10

    Great post! I love the amnesia trope, so much so that I’m planning to write an amnesia book myself. I understand why some people can’t suspend disbelief in it but I think the idea of wiping the slate of memory clean is so powerful in a mythic way that amensia stories will not go away. My personal favorite amnesia book is probably Uncommon Vows by Mary Jo Putney. The heroine’s amnesia is a kind of act of God in that book, a test of the hero’s vows, and I find that aspect of the book very potent.

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  23. Magdalen
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 22:24:13

    I used to work with a guy who’d been in a car accident following which he had amnesia for two weeks. I was enthralled — amnesia fascinates me — and I undoubtedly annoyed him no end with my questions. Unfortunately, his amnesia had been more than a decade in his past and he didn’t remember much about the experience.

    I wonder if some fictional cases of “amnesia” might be better characterized as dissociation, e.g., as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder, which is much more common in real life. The problem there, of course, is that reintegrating the dissociated trauma isn’t very romantic.

    It’s not a romance, but I very much enjoyed The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry, where William Monk has complete amnesia, losing even the memory of how he used to behave but not his powers of observation. When he sees how people treat him (unaware of his amnesia) he realizes he must have been a thoroughly unpleasant colleague. He has a second chance to be a better person, which is a lovely sort of do-over.

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  24. Cassandra
    Jul 27, 2011 @ 01:20:16

    Oh my! I had to chime in because I love a good amnesia story. I think part of the reason why is that it gives the character to be themselves all over again and also see how they are described by the people closest to them.

    I have read Anne Stuart’s Winter Edge and I found it hard to buy into. I can’t imagine pretending to be something you’re not to the person you married and keeping up the pretense successfully.

    I have to throw in one of my favourites: Lisa Kleypas’s Someone to Watch Over Me. I adore the hero and his intention to take the woman he’s lusted after (and wanted to make his mistress) down a peg over how she treated him. Unfortunately she can’t remember him at all (someone tried to drown her because she’s not much liked by anyone apparently). But the sweetest part of the story is how she doesn’t feel like the mean, selfish person everyone says she is. No more spoilers I promise!

    Also love the highly underrated Elaine Fox’s Pray Love, Remember.

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  25. Caroline
    Jul 27, 2011 @ 08:22:41

    I think calling amnesia in books a literary device is brilliant–it offers so many intriguing story possibilities, if one can get away from the unpleasant medical realities. Great post, Miranda.

    This book is all cued up on my e-reader!

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  26. Robin Bayne
    Jul 27, 2011 @ 08:32:38

    Oh, Cassandra, I remember the Elaine Fox book– loved it.

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  27. lizzie (greeneyedfem)
    Jul 27, 2011 @ 12:29:24

    It’s not a romance, but the French play ‘Le voyageur sans bagage’ (The Traveler Without Luggage) by Jean Anouilh is a really fascinating, moving piece about how our history and the expectations of others inform our behaviors. A WWI veteran with amnesia spends a week with a family who is claiming him as their MIA son/brother/brother-in-law — and the more they treat him as the person they think he is, the more his personality changes to reflect that.

    I’ve also been meaning to read ‘On the Sea of Memory’ by a man who has permanently lost 15 years of his life due to ECT. Memory is such a factor in our personalities — it’s fascinating to think who we would be if we didn’t have it any more.

    There’s something so vulnerable about a character with no memory — they don’t know who to trust, what their real relationships are — it’s pretty stressful for me as a reader/viewer, actually. Although I think the moment when they remember something crucial can be worth all the anxiety.

    I think it’d be interesting to read a romance with a character who does NOT recover their memory loss.

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  28. Susan/DC
    Jul 28, 2011 @ 21:11:44

    I read Anne Stuart’s “Winter’s Edge” more than 5 years ago, but I still remember that it won the trifecta for having 3 of my least favorite tropes: amnesia, a wife who was still a virgin after (IIRC) 2 years of marriage, and a big age gap between hero and heroine. However, amnesia is one of those tropes that I generally don’t like simply because it is handled so poorly; it is not in-and-of itself a deal breaker. It’s all in the execution, and in Miranda Neville’s hands I feel quite confident that it will serve its literary purpose quite well. I liked both “The Wild Marquis” and “The Dangerous Viscount” a lot because they each had quite delicious (though very different) heroes, and the heroines were their perfect match. I’m therefore very much looking forward to Celia and Tarquin’s book.

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  29. Beth Kery
    Aug 01, 2011 @ 19:56:13

    Hi Miranda,

    I enjoyed the post, and congrats on the newest release! I love how you used the amnesia to make your character more vulnerable and exposed.

    I think there must be a reason the amnesia trope has hung around so long–it does provide fascinating possibilities, afterall. As a mental health professional (in my other job) I do know that it happens more than people might think, although not in the “I forgot my whole identity for two years” type of way.

    At any rate, I was glad to see you tackled the trope! Best of luck.

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  30. Depende da Perspectiva (Seman
    Aug 08, 2011 @ 05:37:53

    [...] no All About Romance; – Getting it right, no Murder She Writes; – Editing, no Murder She Writes; – All About Amnesia, no Dear Author; – Didn’t expect that to happen, no ACME Authors Link – It’s all [...]

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