Point of view, names, and amnesia

Sat Sep 10 2016

Just a quick post today to share something interesting I noticed recently concerning the interaction between the narrative point of view and how character names are used in stories that involve amnesia.

I know. Could I pick a more niche subject? Probably not. But it has been on my mind ever since I noticed this, so here you go.

Point of View

I wrote a whole series (Part 1, Part 2) a while back on the use of different POV choices, so I won't cover all that again here.

Suffice it to say that POV affects the relationship between the reader and the narration itself, by dictating the ostensible source of the narration, and by putting various implicit boundaries around what information is allowed within that POV.


I wrote a whole article on names just three weeks ago, so again, I won't tread that ground again here either. Suffice it to say that a name is a piece of information relating to a character.

Duh, right. Characters have names! News at eleven!

What's important is that the name is information, and POVs condition the information presented in the narrative.


In normal stories, a character's name is an unremarkable piece of information and works causes no problems in any POV. In amnesia stories the problem is that the character doesn't know this information about themselves.

And as it turns out, doing a convincing job of portraying the situation of a person not knowing their own name depends on your choice of POV:

First Person

If the amnesiac is the narrator, then his or her own confusion about their name will suffuse their narration at appropriate points. However, in the narration of events as they pass by, the author doesn't face much of a challenge because the narrator can still refer to themselves as "I". At least in English, we don't refer to ourselves by our own names, so it's perfectly acceptable for the amnesiac narrator to say:

A few miles later the road forked left and right. Not remembering any of the landmarks on either side, and having no reason to do otherwise, I went left.

Third Person Omniscient

In 3rd omni, the narration comes from a source that is outside the character. The (typically unnamed) narrator is expected to know everything about the world of the story, including the names of characters who happen to have amnesia, and thus again there's no problem. It is perfectly fine for an omniscient narrator to say:

A few miles later the road forked left and right. James looked each way, scrutinizing the landmarks but not recollecting any of them. He sighed, and having no reason to do otherwise, went left.

Third Person Limited

In 3rd limited, a.k.a. "close 3rd person," we suddenly have a problem. The source of the narration is outside the character as in third omni, yet is limited in the scope of its information to only that which the character knows and perceives.

The 3rd limited narrator can't use "I" because the narrator is not the character, but is some kind of imaginary camera following the character around, showing us what they see, hear, and so forth. Yet the 3rd limited narrator can't use the character's actual name either. It is not fine for the 3rd limited narrator to say:

A few miles later the road forked left and right. James looked each way, scrutinizing the landmarks but not recollecting any of them. He sighed, and having no reason to do otherwise, went left.

This doesn't work, even though it is word-for-word identical to the 3rd omni example, because readers will understand that the name is out of scope within this POV choice.

What to do?

So if you're writing an amnesia story, what should you do?

Assuming you have not yet started the story, my recommendation would be to write it in first-person. Not only does this eliminate the name concerns, but will also do the best job of putting the reader in the character's shoes. You probably want that for an amnesia story, since such stories nearly always center around the character's quest to rediscover who they are.

Failing that, perhaps lean towards third person omniscient. This is a more emotionally distant POV, but at least allows you to use the character's name and thus avoid a lot of awkward constructions where you're trying to write around the name.

But if you have to write it in third person limited for some reason, or if you've already written it that way and are only now realizing the problem, my suggestion would be to side-step the problem by assigning a name as soon as possible.

You can have the character pick a name themselves, shortly after realizing that they've lost their memory:

He wandered down the road, considering how very odd it was not to know his own name. People had names, he was sure. That was a thing he knew. So what was his?

Well, I suppose I'll have to give myself one, he thought. At least until I remember. A few paces on, a small breeze sent a dry leaf tumbling from the verge, setting it to rest in front of him. He stooped to pick it up and considered it as he walked.

That's me, he thought. Blowing with the wind, coming to rest wherever fate shall drop me. I'll call myself Leaf, then. That'll do.

You can them meet someone else, very soon, and let that person give them a name:

Hunger gnawing at his insides, the man chanced the first public house he came across.

"Excuse me, ma'am," he said to the innkeeper, a round-faced and somewhat harried looking woman. "I've no money, but I'm powerful hungry and I'd do any job you have in exchange for a meal."

The woman sized him up and down. "Can you cut wood?"

The man considered. He could not recall ever having done so, yet the business of it came readily to mind. The setting upright of the logs. The swinging of the axe. "Aye, ma'am."

"Very well. There's a pile out back. You'll see the axe."

The man set to the job, and indeed found that the work came easy. There was a comfort in the familiar feel of the wooden handle, the sound of the chop, and the smell of the fresh-cut wood.

After a time the woman waved him in to eat, setting a bowl of thick stew and a slice of brown bread before him. "What're you called, then?" she asked.

"Well ma'am, I don't rightly know." He rubbed at his head, which still hurt though the lump behind his ear seemed smaller. "I seem to have taken quite a knock to the head."

"Tch. That's a pity," she said. "You look like my cousin, God rest him. Charlie, he was. Suppose I'll call you that, then."

The man smiled. "Alright. Charlie. Thank you, ma'am."

Even if this name is only a placeholder until they learn their real one, it still lets you refer to "Leaf" or "Charlie" within narrative passages, because now that name is information that is in scope of the third person limited POV.