Kenzi Anne replied, I know exactly what you mean!! I like to make up figures of speech for fantasy characters; a lot of times it depends on the character using them. If, say, I have a humorous, innocent, and/or lighthearted character, I might have them say "Snarks and snizzles!" because it sounds silly and is absolute nonsense. Also, alliteration tends to make the phrases a little more catchy, which a lot of the phrases we use are. My personal forte is fairytale retelling, and oftentimes I like go back to the language that the original is told in (usually German, though it may be easier for me to use this because I'm minoring in it), and use words from the language so that they sound "real" and can have meaning. If you're not using fairytales, I'd suggest thinking of the kinds of things that make up the phrases we use. For example, people often would swear "by the king" or, as in Harry Potter, "by Merlin's beard!" (That one has always stuck with me for some reason). But it makes sense for wizards to mention a wizard that everyone would know, and who is often depicted with a long white beard.
We tend to use very important things in culture that most people living in said culture would recognize, like how the Hindus believed cows were sacred, so saying "holy cow" in the Hindu culture made sense. Taking elements/motifs/taboos/etc. from the culture you've created can help you to make phrases that coincide with your world. :)
I’m with Kenzi Anne, except in one regard. I don’t think that people whose religion is Hinduism say “holy cow!,” because we’re unlikely to make fun of our own religion in our expressions. I suspect that someone outside the religion, amused by the reverence for cows, coined this one. There’s interesting information about the subject on this Wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_cow_(expression).
But I do agree that the source of our figures of speech is likely to be our characters and the world of our story.
Elodie in A Tale of Two Castles, a farm girl who is just beginning to see the wide world, says “Lambs and calves!” when she’s surprised. In Stolen Magic I expanded this kind of expression to other characters. Robbie, who used to live in a harbor village, says “Whales and porpoises!” The barber says “Hair and teeth!” because barbers also pulled teeth in the middle ages. And the dragon Meenore says “Fire and smoke!” Wrapped up in these examples are three approaches to expression development: a character’s background (a farm or a fishing village), a character’s occupation, the character’s nature (a dragon). Count Jonty Um thinks, but never says, Fee fi! or Fo fum! for the obvious reason that he’s an ogre.
Elodie’s world is an approximation of medieval, when conditions were grimmer than we have to face in our daily life, so a local adage is: Love your lice. Only skeletons have none. Ick, but having lice is preferable to being dead, so there’s that consolation. Few are rich on Elodie’s home island of Lahnt, and poverty gives rise to other sayings, like, Share well, fare well. Share ill, fare ill, which leads to another strategy: Think of the realities in your stories. Here’s a prompt: Invent three proverbs that could apply to a warrior culture, three that might arise in a farming community, three for a university science department, three that might be used by fairies.
I love Kenzi Anne’s idea that an expression might reflect a passing emotion or a character’s usual state of mind. “Snarks and snizzles!” is delightful. And I agree about bringing in sound to explain why an expression catches on. For example, we have the rhyming “doom and gloom” to indicate a different feeling.
Although “doom and gloom” isn’t specific to a particular culture and would probably work in a fantasy, I’d stay away from it as too close to cliche. I’d prefer to come up with something fresh. Same with any other common expression. But if I couldn’t think of anything new, then I’d just skip the figure of speech entirely and reveal my character’s feelings in another way–through action or thought or dialogue (minus expressions). A gloomy POV character might get bad news and feel her limbs grow heavy, for example. A secondary character might appear uncharacteristically draggy to our MC.
Having said that about cliches, in a non-fantasy story, one of our characters, say Joe, might use ordinary expressions often. He might be a fountain of them and may not be an original thinker. We don’t want to be cliched writers, but we can certainly develop cliched characters. In fact, we can even think of a character arc in which Joe finally comes up with something surprising and new. And in a fantasy we can have a character like Joe, one who spouts the sayings that are common in her culture. She can set off spasms of yawns in her listeners whenever she opens her mouth.
Here are two prompts:
• Invent three expressions for each of these emotions: pain, anger, love. Make two of the three use sound, like alliteration or assonance or rhyme, to boost their memorability.
• Two of your characters, friends, swear to speak only in expressions for a day, and the expression has to fit what’s going on. Cliches are fine for this. No matter what happens, they will voice an expression or say nothing. As soon as they agree to this, something unexpected happens, one or more of these or an event you make up: a tornado tears through town, someone they both thought dead shows up, aliens land, a magic wand appears on the bed of one friend. The friends don’t abandon their vow in the face of the unforeseen. Write the day.
Have fun, and save what you write!