Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor

How to Poison your Fictional Characters

By Michele Acker
© 2007, Michele Acker

Do you have a fictional character you need to kill, but you don't want them strangled or shot or stabbed with a knife?  Do you want your murderer to kill them without letting anyone know what you plan to do or who your killer is?  Try using poison.  It's easy to get, easy to use, and even easier to cover up.  Maybe your killer could slip some poisonous mushrooms in the victim's salad.  Or place a cobra in her bed while she's sleeping.  If you set it up right, your killer could commit murder and get away with it, at least until you want him to get caught.  No guilt, no jail time, no regret.  It's only fiction after all.  In the pages of your novel or short story you can poison anyone you like, and instead of sending you to prison, people will cheer you for your resourcefulness and imagination.

Unlike other forms of murder, poisoning is fast and easy and doesn't require strength or a good aim, and if it's done properly, by the time the person realizes he's been poisoned, it's too late, he's already dead.  What could be better?

Care to have one of your characters try her hand at murder?  Following are a few different types of poisons, their effects on the body, and suggestions on how they might be worked into a plot.

  • Hemlock:  All parts of the plant are poisonous.  Eating a salad made with hemlock leaves would be enough to cause death.  Hemlock causes a gradual weakening of the muscles and intense pain as the muscles deteriorate and die.  Though sight might be lost, the mind remains clear until death occurs.  Symptoms begin in thirty minutes, though it takes several hours to die.  Quail often eat hemlock seeds.  They are immune to the poison, but the flesh from just one of these birds will paralyze a man.  Why not have your killer prepare his guest a meal of quail that has recently fed on hemlock seeds?  It would appear to be an accident.

  • Oleander:  A common flowering shrub.  All parts are deadly, including the nectar, smoke from the burning plants, and the twigs.  Like digitalis, the poison is a cardiac stimulator, causing sweating, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, unconsciousness, respiratory paralysis, and death.  It begins reacting immediately.  Have your fictional killer use the twigs to skewer hot dogs at a barbeque.

  • Rhododendrens and Azaleas:  Common flowering shrubs; all parts are poisonous, including the flowers' nectar.  It causes nausea, drooling, vomiting, slow pulse, low blood pressure, diarrhea, seizures, coma, and death, and takes about six hours to begin.  Honey made from bees that have fed on rhododendrons, azaleas, and oleanders is poisonous.  Cause a town-sized epidemic by having an innocent, well-meaning character bottle and sell poisoned honey.

  • Arsenic:  A classic poison, arsenic is an element.  Most often found as a white powder, called arsenic trioxide, it's generally swallowed.  Arsenic causes severe gastric distress, burning esophageal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea with blood.  If the victim is given a high enough dose so that death occurs quickly, the autopsy will find only an inflamed stomach and possibly a trace of arsenic in the digestive tract.  The poisoning can also occur over a period of time as small doses are regularly given to the victim.  Since arsenic is an element, it doesn't break down, but remains in the victim's hair, fingernails, and urine.  Any death occurring after several days will show arsenic in the liver and kidney.  Long term poisoning causes burning pains in the hands and feet, a numbing sensation throughout the body, swelling and skin irritations, hair loss, weight loss, cramps, vomiting, nausea, visual impairment, and eventually heart failure.  Though scientists have found ways to detect arsenic poisoning, it still remains a popular form of murder.

  • Cyanide:  Some forms of cyanide have industrial uses, while hydrocyanic acid occurs naturally in a variety of seeds and pits, including peach, apricot, apple, wild cherry and plum.  Apricot pits are used to make Laetrile, an anticancer drug.  Cyanide can be swallowed, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin and interferes with the red cells' abilities to extract oxygen, causing an 'internal asphyxia'.  The victim literally suffocates to death as he breathes in oxygen he cannot use.  The effects occur almost instantly when the cyanide is swallowed, causing immediate unconsciousness, convulsions, and death within fifteen minutes.  During an autopsy, a bitter-almond odor can be sometimes detected, but only by a few people.  After death, the victim's blood may be cherry red in color and the skin pinker than usual.  Fruit smoothies anyone?  Or how about a fictional 'doctor' who mixes and bottles her own form of Laetrile?

  • Strychnine:  Not as fast-acting as cyanide or arsenic, strychnine is a colorless powder with a bitter taste that can be slipped unnoticed into a strong drink.  The symptoms begin in ten to twenty minutes with the victim's neck and face becoming stiff.  Then the arms and legs begin to spasm and soon the whole body is in an arched position with the head and feet on the floor.  Death occurs from asphyxiation or sheer exhaustion from the convulsions.  After death, rigor mortis sets in almost instantly, leaving the body in a convulsed position.  While this poison is popular in movies and literature, it's seldom used in real murders.

  • Methanol:  Methyl alcohol is distilled from fermented wood, unlike ethyl alcohol, which is distilled from fermented grain -- and it is considerably more toxic.  Commonly found in perfumes, antifreeze, paint removers, and varnish, if ingested, it metabolizes into formaldehyde in the body.  Methanol damages the liver, kidneys, and heart and causes the lungs to take on fluid and the brain to swell.  Once the formaldehyde becomes present in the body, it can cause fatigue, headache, nausea, vertigo, back pain, severe abdominal pain, dizziness, vomiting, and blindness.  Rapid and shallow respiration, cyanosis, coma, falling blood pressure, and finally death occur from respiratory failure.  A person can ingest methanol and not feel any symptoms for twelve to twenty-four hours, which is much too late to save them.  In order to survive, a victim must be treated within two hours of ingestion.  In some parts of the US, moonshine is still made illegally.  Perhaps your antagonist could mix wood shavings in with the mash (grain), either accidentally or on purpose, causing as many deaths as your plot dictates.

  • Amanita Mushrooms:  Abundant in both America and Europe, these extremely toxic mushrooms vary in color from pale green to white or light brown, though the most well-recognized color is bright red with white spots.  They can be found in damp, sandy soil, dry pine woods, and even wooded lawns.  Once ingested, they produce hypoglycemia and degenerative changes in kidney, liver, and heart muscles.  Since symptoms are slow to develop, usually six to fifteen hours after ingestion and sometimes as long as forty-eight hours, the victim will not only eat the entire mushroom, but won't know anything is wrong and therefore won't seek medical attention until it's too late.  Once the symptoms appear, the victim will feel a sudden onset of extreme stomach pains, violent vomiting, intense thirst, and bloody diarrhea.  He will remain conscious almost to the end before finally lapsing into a coma and dying.  The damage to the liver is so severe that in some cases, the only way to save the victim is with a full liver transplant.  Mushroom burger anyone?  How about your fictional murderer placing a nice helping of sautéed mushrooms over his victim's steak? 

  • Toxic Reptiles:  There are many different types of poisonous reptiles, some more lethal than others.  While it may be too dangerous, or too obvious, for your antagonist to slip a snake into his victim's bed, it might be possible for him to buy or steal the venom of said reptile.  The poison could then be stirred into a drink, added to food, or even injected.  How about a blow dart?  Old-fashioned, maybe, but certainly effective.  Unless the victim knew which snake or other reptile the poison came from, there would be no possibility of administering the correct antivenin.  Venom from the cobra family of snakes, cobras, mambas, and coral snakes (along with a few others) progressively paralyzes the nervous system and causes death within two hours if the antivenin isn't given.  Symptoms usually start within fifteen to thirty minutes and begin with pain, swelling, a drop in blood pressure, and convulsions.  Death occurs once the poison reaches and paralyzes the respiratory muscles.  Venom from the adder family of snakes, puff adders, boomslangs, bushmasters, and various other vipers causes symptoms similar to cobra bites, as well as bleeding from the gums, chills, and fever.  A bite on the hand will be followed within thirty minutes by a swollen arm and purple skin.  The victim will perspire heavily, vomit blood, bleed from the nose and eyes, lose vision, and collapse within an hour.  Death is inevitable unless the correct antivenin is given quickly.

There are many other poisons, too many to list here, and most of them are available to the average person.  Anything can become a poison in the right quantities, even air.  Inject a syringe full of nothing into an IV line to stop a patient's heart or block the blood to his brain.  Want your character to commit suicide and can't decide what to use?  Have her down a bottle of Tylenol.  That'll do the trick.

Are you thinking of writing a historical and don't know what was available at the time?  Think plants.  In the past people didn't have access to the drugs we have now.  They had to rely on 'natural' cures, extracts, and poultices made from plants.  For instance, at one time women were given oil made from the Savin plant to cause an abortion, but sometimes too much was given, killing the mother instead.  Often there was a very fine line between too much and not enough. Today, with the renewed interest in 'getting back to the basics,' opportunities abound for the canny gardener/would-be fictional murderer to develop his own garden of deadly plants.

Think about the needs of your story, and with a little imagination and some interesting research, you should be able to come up with just the right poison to kill that doomed character.