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Arsenic and Old Leaves: The Art of Poisoning Your Fantasy Characters – Part 1

So, you’re contemplating murder. Er, that is, your character is contemplating murder. Effective modes of death and all that. Bloodless versus bloodbath, public duel versus private confrontation, “accident” versus spontaneous sword through the gut. That’s all well and good, sure…but have you considered poison?

In the Middle Ages, poison was a highly popular means of ending the life of one’s nemesis, leaving wide open many possibilities for the timid, nervous, and apprehensive murderer. No spectacle, just a little drop of this or a pinch of that at the right moment, and – BAM!subject down.

Naturally, when it comes to writing fantasy, you want to consider all the options for ending the life of a detested (or well-loved) character, and let’s face it—the vast majority of fantasy novels, games, and films are loosely based around the socio-political structure of Medieval Europe. And what does an author strive for if not some element of realism in his or her writing?

“But Faith,” you say, “It’s fantasy. Can’t I just make something up and say it’s poison?”

Of course you can! And that’s part of the joy of writing and world-building. No one says you have to use this herb or that extract for your villain to carry out his evil plan, but there’s that wonderful thing every writer needs to use to his or her advantage: Willingly suspended disbelief.

On average, you get one “gimmie” per story. That’s one plot device, or circumstance, or coincidence, or MacGuffin that the reader will let slide on the virtue that what they’re reading is a story, not reality. But even a story needs to find a basis in the real world, in order to ensure the reader can relate to what’s happening. So, why not base your poison on something that actually existed during the time period you’re mimicking in your fantasy novel? It’ll help provide that extra sense of realism and ensure that your “gimmie” device doesn’t come in the form of one poisonous rare flower found by the side of the road just at the right moment.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the more common poisons found and used in Medieval Europe—and how they might serve your character’s nefarious plans in your next novel.

Poison #1: Monk’s Hood (Aconite) – Europe, Asia

Monk's Hood by Joseph ColemanThis plant gets its name from the shape of its round hood or helmet-like blue flowers. They’re lovely, and deadly, but not the only part of the plant to entice an unknowing gardener—there have been several cases in recorded history of cooks mistaking the plant’s white, carrot-like root for something edible (mmm, poison stew, anyone?).

If your potential poisoner decides to use this plant as her mode of death, make sure she’s wearing gloves, as the entire plant is poisonous, making external delivery of the poison another convenient option.

What does it do? Aconite begins its deadly duty by paralyzing one’s nerves, which in turn lowers blood pressure (but not in a good way) and eventually stops the heart altogether. Even just touching the plant results in tingling, numbing, and symptoms not unlike having a heart attack, while ingestion tends to cause severe vomiting and asphyxiation.

Poison #2: Deadly Nightshade / Belladonna (Atropine) – Europe, Asia, North America

“Mmm… tasty, tasty berries… wait a minute, these aren’t…?” *hurk*

Deadly NightshadeIndeed, such are the delights of deadly nightshade, a plant with delicious-looking, reddish-purple berries that tempts children and adults alike, even today. It’s not unusual for the berries to be mistaken for those from an edible plant, which can be fatal: Ingesting 2-5 berries can kill a child, and just 10 can send an adult on a one-way trip down under (and I don’t mean Australia).

As one of the most toxic plants around, this is another one where gloves are needed—the whole plant is fatally poisonous, from the leaves down to the roots.

What does it do? For one, it causes delirium and hallucinations, which tends to be highly effective in getting rid of people in positions of power (kings, a king’s advisor, the heir to the throne…). However, the plant is also known for its unpredictable symptoms, causing everything from a rise in temperature, to constipation, slurred speech, headache, rash, loss of balance, and convulsions, among other things. Death comes when poison interrupts the body’s ability regulate its involuntary activities (ie. breathing, heart rate).

It’s worth noting that it’s also toxic to most domestic animals (but not cattle), so if your character chooses to poison food and it’s later tested on the royal dog, the animal will also die.

Poison #3: Ergot – Europe

If you choose to use this poison, you’ll have to find a creative way for to explain it—although it had devastating effects on entire villages during the Middle Ages, doctors and scientists didn’t figure out what it actually was until several hundred years later. But, you could always go ahead and do what they did way back when: Blame it on witchcraft!

Ergot FungusThere are records from the Middle Ages showing that, occasionally, entire villages would suddenly be stricken with a strange illness, but the sick didn’t simply lie in their beds. No, they took to the streets and started dancing until they collapsed.

Known as “dancing mania”, it’s thought that ergot killed more than 50,000 people over the course of several centuries, but it wasn’t just people who were at risk: Cows who contracted the illness literally lost their ears, tails, and hooves before succumbing.

What was it? Turns out ergot isn’t just another plant poison—rather, it’s a poisonous, parasitic fungus that grows on wheat or rye and infects the plant. It loves damp weather, and it’s a darn good mimic, so it’s nearly impossible to tell when it has infected the crop.

What does it do? As much fun as “dancing until you drop” sounds, it isn’t. The poison in this fungus causes seizures, hallucinations (in fact, ergot was used to create LSD later on), hysteria, constricted blood vessels, gangrene, and of course, death. It’s not the kind of poison you’d want to use for a quick death, but if enough of the substance is ingested, it’s a highly effective way to get rid of a pesky prince or princess.

See anything you like? Not sure if you’re quite ready to pick that plant? There are plenty more where that came from! Stay tuned for more Medieval-inspired poisoning possibilities next month, and get those assassins, alchemists, and other assorted fantasy villains (or heroes?) prepped in the meantime with a sturdy pair of gloves, a keen eye, and a hapless royal taste-tester who’ll be easy to fool.

Title image by Biberta.

This article was originally posted on March 9, 2012.

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15 Comments

  1. J.L. Mbewe says:

    Good post! I picked up a book on poisons a while ago, but it doesn’t go into detail on how to use it….though that could be a scary thought. 🙂

    • L. H. says:

      Very useful.

      Just two questions – for deadly nightshade, how long does it take for death to occur? Is there an antidote to the poison? (I tried searching for the answers, but the results came up negative(

  2. Kate says:

    Poison is the BEST. You can do so much with it. “Poison Study” kind of takes the cake for invented poisons, but I also love MAGICAL poisons, because everything is cooler with magic.

    (Dear Readers: FICTIONAL. FICTIONAL POISONS. Thank you.)

  3. […] (In conclusion, read POISON STUDY: Great article on using poisons in your writing by @FaithBoughan!Via fantasy-faction.com Share this:EmailPrintFacebookStumbleUponRedditDiggRelated […]

  4. Jamie Gibbs says:

    This will come in very handy; my MC is an apothecary, so a knowledge of natural poisons will be useful. Thanks!

  5. Nice article; it is always good to know your poisons. If you are fortunate enough, you can always find an herb book floating around somewhere and take a look at the properties within as well. I passed one up a few weeks ago and now I am sad I didn’t get it at the price listed. Lesson learned.

    Thanks for sharing!

  6. AE Marling says:

    I was considering inventing poison names for my next novel. In part I though of doing this because I did not want to say, advertise the efficacy of cyanide. However, fantasy novels are also showcasing the lethality of daggers, knives, and other pointy objects, and I trust my readers to contain their stabbity impulses. Secondly, I thought I might be able to improve upon the names of the poisons, but now I’m not sure about that. Nightshade, belladonna, etc, all kick ass.

    I think Poison Study might have done it right. If poison is the point of your story and the central weapon, then creating poisons might be the way to go. If, however, it’s just one of many stylish ways to kill, then stick to the basics.

  7. xiagan says:

    Great post, thank you! Looking forward to the next one. 🙂

  8. Great post! After surviving a dose of poison, my main character resorts to using poison as a weapon in book four of the Chronicles of Caleath. This information will go into my resource file. Thanks!

  9. I’d never heard of ergot before or the “dancing mania”. Fascinating stuff! Thanks for sharing it, I’m sure I can find some way of getting dancing mania into a story some day!

  10. kristen says:

    Great info, one small niggling detail: the photo above isn’t Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna), but the less poisonous Bittersweet Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara). Judging by Google image search, the two get mixed up frequently.

  11. […] of subgenres, covering outlines, novellas, economics, alternative magic systems, and even poisons (http://fantasy-faction.com/2012/arsenic-and-old-leaves-the-art-of-poisoning-your-fantasy-characters-…). And what would secondary-world fantasy be without religion? But religion, even in fantasy, is a […]

  12. […] If you missed part one of this series – check it out here: Poisoning your characters: Part 1 […]

  13. […] Arsenic and Old Leaves: The Art of Poisoning Your Fantasy Characters – Part One […]

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