Although my blogs are eclectic in that I sometimes write about pharmacy issues, at other times I blog about interesting methods to kill off characters in novels and sometimes I write about…well, about writing.
Since many of my blogs involve some method of killing with a chemical or a drug, I thought I’d take a moment to categorize some of these. Why is that important? Because I want to emphasize that, before a writer can choose what agent to use to injure or kill someone in a story, that writer must first decide the manner in which the character should die.
The decision process should proceed as follows: 1) decide that a specific character should die, 2) determine the specific manner of death that would fit within a specific scene and/or with the greater story arc, and 3) once these initial decisions have been made, identify the specific lethal substance that fits the situation.
And it’s important to point out that death may not be the writer’s ultimate goal for a character. It could be that the writer simply wants to use a chemical or drug to render a character temporarily harmless or to create a discomfort level sufficient to alter a character’s actions.
So it doesn’t matter if the substance is considered a weapon of mass destruction, an herbal remedy or a manufactured drug. All substances harmful to human life can be grouped into three major categories that correspond to the degree of physiological manner in which they effect the human body—from simple discomfort to deadly consequences—and can be used to suit a writer’s needs.
These major groupings are Harassing Agents, Incapacitating Agents and (finally) Lethal Agents.
These agents are not used to injure or kill. Their purpose is to force a change in the action of an individual. In this category, one would see riot control agents (such as pepper spray or tear gas).
Harassing agents have tactical capability and can be used to force undesirables out of concealment. A considerable number of chemicals are included in this category and they are divided into sub-categories that prioritize the specific physiological effect that the agent produces on the human body.
There are tearing agents (like tear gas); agents that irritate the mucous membranes (like capsaicin and syrup of ipecac) to cause extreme respiratory congestion, sneezing, or nausea and vomiting; and malodorant compounds that produce strong and unpleasant smells (such as skunk extract).
Like harassing agents, incapacitating chemicals are not intended for serious injury or death. These substances usually produce temporary actions that cause an individual to be submissive, and these (more often than not) are drugs or herbal concoctions. These substances are usually divided into two sub-categories: 1) sedating agents, and 2) psychological agents.
Sedating agents (these include a variety of tranquilizers and painkillers) incapacitate by causing numbness, loss of muscle control and unconsciousness. These differ from the truly lethal agents I’ll discuss next because their effects are dose related. Certainly a high concentration of a sedating agent (such as a morphine overdose) may be lethal, but the agent’s usual intended purpose is to make a human easier to control (either through relaxation or a drug-induced sleep).
Psychological agents produce their desired effects through mental disturbances, such as delirium or hallucinations. Again, these drugs may be deadly in large doses; but the intended purpose is not to kill as much as to interrupt a person’s mental function, thereby making that person easier to manage.
These agents are the ones that are the most deadly. These agents are specifically intended to cause injury or death. They produce human casualties without regard to the long-term or fatal consequences.
Lethal agents can be ingested, inhaled, absorbed through mucous membranes or the skin, or they may simply cause severe external destruction (for example, those that burn or blister skin, destroy eyes, mucosal or other sensitive tissue). Such agents that destroy bodily functions by attacking from the skin inward include strong acids (such as hydrofluoric acid, sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid) and alkaline substances (lye, for instance).
Other deadly agents include mustard gases, radioactive substances and metallic poisons that cause cell destruction from within the body, or choking agents that cause lethal disruption of the pulmonary system (chlorine and phosgene gas are examples) or other agents that disrupt bodily functions from within. These include nerve agents (like tabun and sarin) and paralyzing toxins (such as puffer fish tetrodotoxin, saxitoxin and ciguatera).
No matter who you intend to harass, control or kill off in your story, you must first decide how you want to present that action—that is, how to introduce a specific chemical to produce the desired effect (the set-up plan), how to describe the action of dosing the person (the attack) and the corresponding physiological effect you wish to achieve (the emotional drama of the scene that I call the “killing effect”), and finally the way in which you want the antagonist or killer to get caught…or not!
This subject is very broad and there are so many chemicals, poisons, toxins and drugs which can be used that this blog actually could be the beginning of a how to book (now that’s an idea, and one which my editor has already suggested).
But I hope I’ve not frustrated you by listing so few specific substances. I have included some hyperlinks, however, that should prove to be good resources to use in your research.
Thought? Comments? I’d love to hear them!
Engaging, informative and erudite as always, James. Thanks.
Thanks, James! Your kind words are always appreciated.
Well, there are some interesting thoughts to start my day!
For anyone interested in this sort of thing, you might enjoy THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK by Deborah Blum. Despite the title, this book is not a how-to manual like James is suggesting he might write, but rather a fascinating history of forensic toxicology full of real life anecdotes of poison-related deaths.
Thanks for the suggestions, Amy. I just ordered THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK to my kindle app and it does look fascinating. In case anyone is interested in this publication, here is the link to the site on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Poisoners-Handbook-Murder-Forensic-Medicine-ebook/dp/B004P1JDM6/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1416445723&sr=1-1&keywords=the+poisoner%27s+handbook
I’ll probably hide in a corner over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and delve into it. All the best!
As I read the blog this morning, the three groups established
Harassing, Incapacitating and (finally) Lethal for character control or management
are the same groups for crowd or riot control. Law Enforcement folks make this,
real life decision, many times each day. I had never thought of these things in parallel.
It was a thoughtful and well-constructed blog. Keep writing.
Thanks for your interest and for those kind words…and I’ll certainly keep writing! 🙂