Tag Archives: amnesia

Q&A: Amnesia is Autopilot

Hey! Are individual fighting styles recognizable? I’ve got a character who is a master with the glaive and before the story she has an encounter with another character who sees her fight. Neither recognize each other when they meet up again because he couldn’t see her face due to her armor and she lost her memory. However I don’t know how common the glaive was during its use or how recognizable an individual’s fighting style is so is it possible that he might recognize her by watching her fight?

Style requires there be more than one version of the weapon discipline. This is likely. Mastery requires an individual style that has been practiced long enough that it has been formally recognized by whichever group is the decider, and has taken on students or linked to a martial school or the single individual who created it. So, you wouldn’t have a “master of the glaive” but instead a “master of the Black Rose style, specializing in the glaive, recognized by the Seven Sisters.”  Unless the whole style itself revolved singularly around the glaive and even then it’s, “trained in Master Ferro’s glaive style.” or “the western reaches glaive style” or “farmhand glaive” or whatever. Beyond that “glaive” is just one term for the weapon and weapon family, there are others. It could be called something completely different in a different country. The naginata, for example, is a glaive. The Russians called it a sovnya. Usage of the weapon varied based on country and culture with a variety of styles surrounding its use. The most unrealistic thing in Protector of the Small series regarding Kel’s glaive/naginata is that the contemporary European Tortall didn’t have an easily recognizable version of its own.

It’s possible to identify what style a person has been trained in, but less likely to identify the individual unless they’re famous or practice a unique style. If the onlooker is familiar with the style or the style is incredibly unique as in its passed on specifically from master to apprentice and only two people in the world know it. That would require your female character killed her master as a graduation test, like Kenshin was supposed to when he finally completed the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu. That or the weapon just doesn’t exist in the part of the world where she’s traveling or uses a style wholly alien. Even then, the other character would have to know the singular individual who practices it and, like with Himura Kenshin, that opens her up to being recognized by everyone. Even if she is the progenitor of her own style like Bruce Lee and has taught it to others, she won’t be recognized on style alone due to being an amnesiac. That’s a severe hit to skill level, and she won’t be anywhere near at the level she’d need to be in order to be recognized as a famous warrior or master. (That is the point of an amnesia plot.)

The people who can identify a personal style are:

Your Master. (This is the person who raised you, they are your martial art parent. They know you, possibly better than your own parents do and they’ll recognize you anywhere.)

Your Training Partners. (This is not trained with them once, this is trained with them for years, as good as family, and are sworn brothers. People the character has spent a lot of time fighting with.)

Your Students. (Like with a master, students can recognize their teacher. Like a child recognizes their parent. They spend a lot of time watching them.)

Your Sworn Enemies. (These are the people you’ve spent a lot of time fighting. If someone spends a lot of time trying to kill you and you trying to kill them, they can usually recognize the threat at a distance without help.)

So, unless this other character is one of the above, him recognizing her by watching her fight is unlikely. He’d need to be someone who saw her when she wasn’t at her best, when she struggled in the beginning, or what she looks like when she’s either at her worst or on a bad day. If his only experience is he saw her once at a tournament or on the battlefield in passing then he’s not going to associate the current article with the distant memory. He’d be more likely to recognize her by fighting her, if he’s fought her in the past. The likeliest outcome is he’d recognize her as a talented beginner or at an intermediate level who is worth training further, which leads him to seek her out. That, or, they share the same style and had the same trainer so he feels comfortable going to talk to her. This outcome requires their civilization have some sort of training and patronage system.

I’d abandon the idea she still fights as well as she used to, and roll reacquiring of her skills into her character arc. Otherwise, you’ll end up with the same problem lots of writers run into when they make a character too good. If the character doesn’t struggle, the fight sequences suffer and lose their tension. If you apply the term “master” to a character they will be expected to win. Tension is challenge based.

A character who is at pinnacle skill level must fight characters at a similar or greater skill level while taking into account all that skill and experience implies. With hyper competent characters, we get more out of challenging them where their skills are lacking like Geralt from The Witcher dealing with politicians or solving puzzles where violence is the worst possible choice. This is why you should always be careful when metering out between beginner, intermediate, skilled, very skilled, and exceptional. The trade off for characters at the top of their game is they’re limited. There’s less about them to make them interesting, and new growth is required outside their attained skill set. Unless amnesia sends them back to start and they’re regaining skills faster than they can handle, it won’t be enough to change that.

Most of what makes a style unique to an individual happens cognitively in the choices they make and the skills they choose to utilize rather than what’s based in their muscle memory. A character fighting on autopilot (which is what’s happening here) is going to be very different from a character who is actively making choices based on past experiences and prior knowledge. Unless she’s working with Jason Bourne type amnesia (and even if she is), the amnesiac character is going to be missing key pieces that bring her style up to a master’s level. (I’d also rethink mastery if she’s anywhere under thirty-five, especially if you’ve never spent time around martial arts masters.)

A martial arts master is not a character who is very good, exceptional, or at the top of their martial art.  You can be all those things and not be a master of a particular style. Mastery is, ironically, not skill level. Technical skill is one part of it, the other half is esoteric and very difficult to explain. Mastery is more than just the all-encompassing technical understanding. It is all-encompassing understanding. You’re unlikely to find one under the age of forty, even if they’ve attained the belt rank because it is a state of being that requires enlightenment born from personal experiences. That enlightenment is developed through rigorous training and difficult tests of character.

More than that, one cannot be a master if they have not taken on students even if it is just a single disciple. A master is not just someone who is at the top, they are the head of and entrusted with carrying on the traditions of their particular style. Their time on the battlefield is, for the most part, done, and they have retired to instruct the next generation. Only the most extreme threats will force a master out of hiding because they don’t have the patience for that crap. Teaching others is required. Sifu, Sensei, Sabumnim all are just terms for teacher. It’s like calling your professor a professor. They teach. That’s their job.

In literary terms, a master is a mentor. They serve the same purpose in fiction that they do in real life. They’re there to facilitate the growth of the next generation and guide them on their path to becoming masters themselves. They are parent, teacher, and spiritual advisor. Unless you know how to work with them and the tropes surrounding them, they will kill your narrative even as an amnesiac. There is nowhere for them to go as characters within conventional arcs. A master’s character development and narrative arcs are entirely spiritual. Their best use comes from the teacher/student dynamic like the kind seen in The Karate Kid. Or as a character struggling to reach that state. They are one of the most difficult character types to write, especially if you have no prior experience. They are impossible to write if you lack an understanding of the martial style they practice. If they’re not your protagonist, you can fudge it like with Yoda or Master Li or any number of other quasi-masters seen in fiction. If the master is your protagonist then you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is, all the time and in every scene. Even then, their job will still be facilitating the growth of the characters who surround them rather than growing themselves.

Without their memory, this character is no longer a master and if they never took on the responsibility of training others then they aren’t one anyway. Renown for their skill at arms and a master are two very separate characters, and it is best not to get them confused. For example, Inigo Montoya is not a master swordsman. Goku, Kenshin Himura, Yuusuke Urameshi, and other shounen characters of similar power are also not masters. Meanwhile, Yoda and Obi-wan Kenobi are both Jedi Masters.  They’ve reached a point where they’ve taken on students, and while they may still have adventures those adventures still revolve around their position as teacher. We have the some of surviving training manuals of some the master swordsmen who came out of Europe, and they had students. You can find them on Wikitenauer.

“Master” sounds good, but you’re going to want a full understanding of what the term means before you apply it.  The terminology has a long history of use in fiction, especially now as we’re getting more media from China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Your readers are going to know what it means in concept, even if that wasn’t what you intended. So, you want to be sure of what you want from your character before you start applying it.

A master is literally one of the worst characters to have as a protagonist, unless you know the story you want and their purpose fits with those needs. They’re like an admiral. If you want to write a story around an admiral being an admiral, then that’s great. However, the admiral cannot just take off for parts unknown or lead a battlefield charge. Well, they can but there’s going to be fallout for that failure of leadership. They’ve reached a point where they can delegate and they’re far better at facilitating growth in others than they are at being the main event. Masters are perfect for telling stories about teachers, a teacher struggling with their inner demons as they grow in a new skill set.

In martial arts, teacher is the next step on the road to mastery. Teaching is a method of self-discovery and gaining greater understanding of your martial art. In teaching others, we attain a greater technical understanding of our skills than we did before. We approach our old skills in a new way and with new eyes, learning from our students as they learn from us.

“Those who can’t do, teach” is a faulty statement. A good teacher may be less renown than singularly focused professionals but is often the most skilled person in the room. They’re the ones who can translate what they know into new contexts so they can be understood by beginners. When one focuses on themselves alone, they reach a skill ceiling they can’t break through and at which point they no longer grow. It is through reevaluation of those skills through new eyes that they discover new ways they can be applied. Martial artists often develop their best techniques through teaching. In the process, they build communities.

Think for a moment about all your favorite teachers and those you’ve loved in your life. What would happen if they suddenly vanished without explanation? How would you feel?

This character is a master of the glaive, so where are all the people who went looking for her after she disappeared? A master martial artist isn’t like a spy, they don’t usually travel alone and even when they do someone is going to go looking for them when they disappear. The amnesiac martial arts master is a trope in Hong Kong and Chinese cinema, but by the time we reach the third act (or even the second) their students have come barreling in and found them. If it wasn’t one of their disciples who located them to begin. “Master went missing (again), we need to find them” is an actual narrative arc. This is also, usually, kickstarts a traditional master/student narrative with whomever takes the roving amnesiac in hand and helps them recover their memory.

A character who is an amnesiac takes an extreme hit to their skills, so this character is not going to be fighting on the level she was before if she can at all. Autopilot is still autopilot, and autopilot will screw you over against anyone who knows what they’re doing. It is entirely likely she will have an entirely different style, if she can fight at all. Muscle memory is one part of the equation, experience and the knowledge necessary to use learned skills is another. She won’t be able to strategize, for instance, or have any tactical awareness. Her pattern recognition will probably be shot, which means that while she can block and counter she’ll be reacting instead of acting. Reaction may be good, but she’ll be at the whim of a more experienced actor. In a tournament setup, she’s going to end up middling at best and low tier at worst. She’ll make most of the same mistakes beginners will, but she’ll have the skills to get herself into deeper trouble and lack the necessary experience to get herself out.

High level martial skill is experience, not technique. Being good at dueling is based in experience, understanding how to react and counter is experience. Decision making is experience, as is understanding the full range of techniques available. Your female character’s technique may look fantastic due to her muscle memory and her reaction time may be flawless, but understanding feints and tactics requires a level of experience she either no longer possesses or what she’s gained in new experience up to this point. Those new experiences will have changed the look and feel of her martial style, as she is ultimately a new person. This character is in the process of uncovering and rediscovering her skill set, but she cannot and may never use them the same way she used to. It’s pretty common that when some of that experience goes, it is gone forever.

Outside of that, she’ll still need to practice those skills she can remember on the regular to keep them up to snuff. Failing at either, she’ll fall behind. This means she’s likely working off a limited number of techniques rather than the full scope  she previously possessed. If she has been trained by someone else, it will likely be in another style using the glaive and that will change her style as a result. If all she’s done up to this point is rely on her own muscle memory to provide her techniques, then she’ll only have control over those she’s remembered and practiced. The new ones she remembers in battle will occur on autopilot. Autopilot is outside her control, and that is exceedingly dangerous both to herself and whomever she’s fighting. This means she could kill someone in a friendly bout or end up using a controlling technique when she needs to kill. Blind technique is blind technique, the body moves according to its own will. Trained reflex is the same as instinct, it cares nothing for situation or circumstance. Her body will act in accordance with what its been trained to do with no guiding input from the head. The head is where the morals and contextual understanding are, the head understands the importance of limitation and behavioral changes depending on circumstance. The body doesn’t. Use of force is cognitive. The body just responds, and what it responds with will be what it is most used to using. These are usually the basics, and while basics are foundational, most people from beginner to intermediary levels understand how to counter them. Advanced fighters know how to take advantage of them. Advanced combat happens entirely with the head, utilizing controlling and changing circumstances.

(This is a common thread in the martial artist amnesia plot, the amnesiac formerly skilled martial artist can fight off the untrained and beginners by rote muscle memory.  They struggle against the intermediary usually to the point where they either lose or almost lose, and are demolished by advanced combatants. This is often before they hit their final antagonist, which prompts them to realize they need to train and meditate to recover themselves. Then, their past catches up with them.)

Limited experience with specific weapon types will probably mean her body doesn’t know how to react to them at all, because it didn’t have enough time to get them down by rote. That is what her muscle memory is. Rote. The techniques she didn’t regularly practice will be gone, the techniques she used but rarely will return later to last, and her ability to change her fighting style depending on situation is entirely beyond her control and entirely reliant on what her body remembers how to do. This isn’t a magic switch.

If she recalls some of the experience with the technique in fragments of memory, then she’ll inevitably create openings. An experienced fighter will take advantage of those. It may happen in a fraction of a second, but that fraction is the difference between a block and a killing blow.

This other character may look at her and see something in her style reminiscent to someone he once knew, but the level is so below what it once was that he dismisses it. Maybe he seeks her out wondering if she’s a student of a friend or copying a style she saw in passing, only to discover she’s the master and an amnesiac but that would require her having a school with students. The same would apply if he was impressed by her talent, but working under the assumption she needed more training.

Skill without knowledge or experience necessary to use it is a recipe for disaster.  An amnesiac has to learn all over again, and what they re-learn will never be exactly what it was before. The shades of the other self are there, the muscle memory is there, the skills are there in part, but they aren’t the same person in total and they can’t be used to the same degree of finesse. The technical aptitude is missing. There is a vast difference between being able to recall or copy a sonnet you wrote versus being able to compose one that is entirely new.

Basically, if you’ve got one character going through the motions and the other character looking at them but to recognize them they’d need to be going full throttle.

The solution is probably going to be he seeks her out on the basis of her talent, only to be surprised to discover she’s the master he planned to send her to and now in need of his help. (Not that she wins, she may lose and probably should but that this mystery warrior is talented enough to warrant the offer of training.) He’s more likely to overlook her if she’s exceptional. The middling to intermediate are the ones who get sought out at tournaments by more skilled instructors. There’s not much reason for a skilled warrior to seek out a skilled warrior if they weren’t planning to in the beginning, they’re more likely to ask around about the mystery person.

Tournament social groups break down by skill level, previous experience, and likelihood of consistent attendance. New people usually keep to themselves or are introduced to a group by more experienced attendees, while those who frequent the circuit gather together. There are the social butterflies who hang with each other until they’re called and watch the matches. The ones who linger alone on the sidelines, watching. The serious ones won’t spend time with anyone else, who limber up and practice alone. To immediately get attention from a stranger at your skill level, you need to be exceptional. One punch or single hit exceptional, and over in less than five seconds. Otherwise its slowburn.

She’s probably been killing a lot of people just off rote muscle memory. It’s going to be worse in a tournament where similarly skilled martial combatants will be in attendance and quite likely more familiar with dueling than she is or was in her previous life. (Master doesn’t mean master of everything or can handle everything.) If she’s not knocked out early, the end likelihood is her killing another participant entirely by accident after they’ve pushed her body past the limit of what its comfortable with and it begins responding outside her control. Again, muscle memory does not mean your body will do your fighting for you. It isn’t an out to give your characters high skill levels when you the author doesn’t know what those skills mean or how they appear. Reflexes and muscle memory mean the body will do what they’ve been trained to do regardless of circumstance and if the head doesn’t know what that is then the head can’t control it.

Basically, an amnesiac participating in a tournament in order to quickly regain their skills sounds like a great idea but the problem is the character is not in control of what’s going to happen. This happened in The Bourne Identity, Bourne wakes up with no memory, is attacked, and then kills his attackers. This may have been for the best, but he had no control over what he did or how he did it and it took him awhile to recall how to do the same thing intentionally. The Long Kiss Goodnight is another good one, but she’s still fighting mostly on memory and her memory is getting mixed up with her cover identity.

Amnesia with combat skills is rolling the dice. You don’t know what will set them off or what’s going to happen when they do. They could disarm the guy, they could crush his throat. Amnesia with weapon is the fast track to accidental death and dismemberment. There’s a lot more at stake and many more opportunities for the situation to go wrong. The basic attack patterns and combinations are going to revolve around killing. That’s the purpose a weapon like the glaive. Meanwhile, they have no ability to defend themselves while fighting on autopilot and completely cede control of the field to someone else because again, how their body behaves is outside their control. The most skilled character fighting on autopilot will end up at the mercy of any character marginally able to hold their own and function on all cylinders. Advanced skills and their application are beyond what muscle memory can provide. They can retrain but they will never fight the exact same way they did before they lost their memory, and, unless they are very lucky, will never be the same person.

New people make new choices and therefore fight in new ways, and the person is the one who creates stylistic identifiers. The act of recovering her fighting ability will change her fighting style in minute ways, enough to ensure its no longer personally identifiable.

-Michi

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How viable is muscle memory that it trumps amnesia? Say, Jason Bourne who doesn’t remember a thing, but still knows assassin-fu? Thanks for your advice!

Bourne isn’t running on muscle memory. He suffers from a variant of retrograde amnesia which affects his ability to remember who he is, but doesn’t affect his skills. From what I’ve read on the subject, it’s entirely possible for an amnesiac to retain basic knowledge, in isolation from specific memories. Which is to say, this can happen.

There are details about exactly how Bourne’s amnesia manifests itself that may be unrealistic. An individual can retain general knowledge, and skills, but that doesn’t mean they’re not impaired, and when you’re talking about something like tradecraft, being in full possession of your faculties is a little important.

For whatever it’s worth, the only time I’ve ever interacted with an amnesiac, they were suffering from anterograde amnesia. This is the inability to form new memories after a triggering event. (You can see this one demonstrated in Memento, if you’re wanting a point of reference.) So, I can’t really speak to how accurate Ludlum’s work was when it comes to that element.

In a 1986 interview, Ludlum claimed that he came up with the idea
for the Bourne trilogy after suffering retrograde amnesia and losing
about 12 hours. The old advice is, “write what you know,” and apparently Ludlum did, in this case.

I know I’ve recommended it before, but if you’re thinking about writing spy fiction, The Bourne Identity is a book you really should read. The 2002 adaptation is also good, but it uses the same premise to tell a very different story.

Normally, I would strongly caution writers against using
amnesia in their stories, unless they have something fairly creative
they want to do with it. This has more to do with amnesia plotlines
being run into the ground, and becoming horribly cliche over the years. Memento uses it as a jumping off point for an interesting narrative format. Bourne uses it to play around with the spy as a character archetype. Bourne also uses it to play up the traditional mystery of a character who doesn’t know who they are, or who they can trust. That’s one of the approaches you probably want to avoid.

Because amnesia works so well for establishing a blank slate, and giving the audience a point of view character who is exactly as unfamiliar with the world as they are, it’s become cliche. I fully believe there are methods to use amnesia as a useful narrative tool for your work, but a lot of the more obvious approaches have already been done to death.

-Starke

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