Creating a fictional poison to add drama to your novel

Slade screamed as his skin began to melt away. He clutched the blade, pulling it free. But the damage was already done. The poison spread fast. Slade cried out in agony as he fell to his knees. The dagger dropped from his hand as his other hand grasped at the ever expanding wound on this chest. And then, as the skin continued to dissolve, Slade fell to the ground and was silent.  – From Destiny: Book 3 of The Elemental

Having a character poisoned can add drama and conflict to your story. Will an antidote be found in time? Or it can just provide a gruesome death as the above example illustrates.

Now if you are writing a novel set in the modern day, it might be easier to use a real poison – arsenic, strychnine, cyanide – but since I write fantasy, I chose not to just rename a real poison but to create my own fictional ones.

There are several reasons you might consider creating your own poison. Perhaps your novel is set in the future, and you want to use a new “high-tech” poison. Or maybe you need a fast-acting poison to advance the plot, and your villain doesn’t have access to those that exist in real life. Or you could just do it because it is simply more fun to create your own.

Here are a few things to consider when developing your poison.

How is it administered?

  • Is it a liquid to be swallowed, which might dictate it be tasteless and quick dissolving?
  • Is it a gas to be breathed? If so, does it have an odor or color to alert the intended victim?
  • Is it a poisoned object – dart, dagger, spear tip, spinning needle – which your character will be stabbed or accidently touch?
  • Is it a poisonous plant or perhaps a mushroom or berry that someone might accidentally eat?
  • Or perhaps it is the venom from an imaginary beast you created that is spewed upon the victim?

How does it affect the body?

Even if the effects are rarely mentioned in your story, you need to determine how the body will react to the poison. You need to write about your fictional poison with the authority of someone who has done research as if it was a genuine poison.

When coming up with the reaction, it is important to remember how the body works. Substances that kill after being ingested may not affect the lungs but would probably cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Poisons that are absorbed through the skin have the slowest reaction time while something inhaled or injected would have the quickest. The poison’s level of toxicity will depend entirely on what sort of mayhem you have in mind.

Example

Taylor lay on the narrow cot. His eyes were closed. It had only been four hours since the bug bit him. The swelling had been immediate and now extended up his arm all the way to his shoulder. He had begun to feel dizzy, so they had erected a tent several hundred feet from the barren area. Lina looked at his arm, now twice its normal size. The bite area was definitely a shade of bluish purple. His face was pale. He shivered, and she laid a hand on his forehead. He was burning up.  – from Quietus: Book 2 of The Elemental

What is the antidote?

  • Is there one?
  • Will it be hard to find?

Naming poisons

Of course, your fictional poison will need a name. If you are working on a historical novel, consider a simple name as multisyllabic chemical names were not commonly known. Even in a modern-day novel, if your poison has a complicated name, you may consider a shortened version (use TNT instead of trinitrotoluene).

One way to create a name is to study a list of chemicals and rearrange syllables from different ones to create a new name.  Or you can also take plant names and alter them to come up with names.

I just simply made up the few poisons – Battleweed and Thalon – I named in Summoned. I was inspired by a search on the internet to come up with names for the antidotes – Clearion and Xonic.  But each of my poisonous encounters (being bitten by an insect that was created by magic – as in the example above – to having a mythical creature spew venom on someone) were developed with the help of the book, Deadly Doses – a writer’s guide to poisons. This is a great beginning resource for symptoms, toxicity levels and reaction times. Though since it is an older book, if you are using any of these real poisons, check the internet for any updated information on them.

Just remember whatever you do, aim to make poison believable by knowing the details – what it does, how it affects the body and whether there is a cure.

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