Nope. I’m not going to trot out the same tired advice to trim word count by slashing plot and/or removing characters. I’m going to talk about literarily killing your characters. [Ha! Puns.]
Since my long-running series is fantasy-based, this will all be from the perspective of a fantasy setting. However, that shouldn’t stop you from applying what you learn here to a realistic world. [Provided it’s not a simple case of the magic-user used magic and the victim totally died, because that’s difficult to pull off when magic doesn’t exist in your world. You’re smart–you’ll know how to glean what you need from this.]
We could go on for hours about swords, instant-death spells, and arson; but those are pretty straightforward ways to kill or incapacitate someone. We’re going to go into the realm of cloak, dagger, and intrigue. That’s right–poison.
Poison is the perfect medium! Need a long, drawn out death? Poison. Need something that kills near-instantly? Also poison. Need something difficult to detect, or that mimics natural causes? Poison can do that. Need a reason to send your characters on a quest where they set aside their differences and come together in order to find an antidote? Poison’s got your number.
And as an added bonus, not only can it do all those things, but it’s discreetly administered. Aside from becoming liquid insurance for an assassin’s blade, it can take the form of an ingredient in a sumptuous meal or delicious tea. It could even be released into the air via deadly but wonderfully-perfumed incense. Poison can be everywhere. Not only that, but most poison is derived from natural sources.
That’s right! There is so much out there that can kill someone without you needing to make anything up. If you want to lean hard into the fantasy setting, you could devise any number of fantastic plants or venom that could be made into a plot point. But if you’re like me and want a touch of realism in your stories, you just need to look at things that are common in our world.
My favorite example is rhododendron ponticum. It’s a beautiful, ornamental shrub common to many parts of the globe. In fact, it’s called Common Rhododendron. Look at this thing. So innocuous.
It’s beautiful for something that will cause nausea, vomiting, breathing difficulty, and heart failure if you consume any part of it. But the best thing about it is that honey made from its pollen is so toxic, even the bees that make and consume it are poisoned. In fact, jars of this honey strategically placed in a village took down almost an entire army of Roman soldiers in 401 BC. Though, to be fair, they were left in 67 BC to take down a different invading army. As a plot device, readers and writers alike would call that deus ex machina BS. [But it’s history!]
The lovely thing is that honey is so innocent. In fantasy it’s often used as a sweetener in place of sugar, and even in our world it is common to drizzle it on pancakes, over oatmeal, in yogurt, or spread it on toast. No one would suspect a thing.
And that’s only one of the things that you can use. There are agents out there that come straight from the ground itself that can kill. Want to venture into the land of slightly-absurd-but-still effective poisons? Look no further than diamond dust.
Yes, seriously. Though it’s not a poison on its own, when ingested the shards will embed themselves in the organs of the victim, causing infection–which leads to sepsis–and death. It’s a slow process, taking several months to work. It is an older method of assassination used most frequently during the Renaissance. It wouldn’t work in a modern setting due to the advanced medical technology we have nowadays.
The poison a character chooses can say a lot about them. What is more fantastic and decadent than a monarch using diamonds to take out the ruler of a kingdom they are at war with?
Another benefit of poisons: they don’t have to kill. In fact, sometimes there is more to be gained in incapacitating someone. Have a scheming advisor that wants power? Killing the king would make the throne go to the next in line. But what if the king becomes too ill to rule? The advisor might become regent until the king recovers… [Spoiler alert: Unless a protagonist steps in, the king will remain “ill” indefinitely.]
You can use poison to enhance tension as well. Finding an antidote can take time your heroes don’t have, and making or procuring it can be difficult on top of that. This is a good way to divide a large group, bring characters together, or send them off to another part of your world. Want a cure to be even harder to obtain? Combine your poisons. Not good enough? Mix real world toxins with ones you invent. The only limit is your imagination and how dead or incapacitated you want your characters to be.
Armed with this knowledge you can now go out there and not just poison your darlings, but do it catastrophically!
P.S: Here is a handy list of poisonous plants to get you started. Have fun!