One of the most important things to changing someone's behavior is to understand why they're doing it. There are five categories of motivation to pick from (I refreshed myself on these on the wiki page for "Behavior Modification, functional analysis. Check it out if you want to learn more.) They are:
Access to Attention
Access to Escape
Access to Automatic Reinforcement
Access to Intangibles
I'm going to use head banging (actual hitting of one's head on another surface, not the "dance!") as a typical behavior I've worked with. Then I'll give examples from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix of these same motivations at work.
Access to Automatic Reinforcement- There is a substitute teacher. The child is nervous because of the change in routine and bangs their head on the table to relese this tension. (The best way to do this is to avoid stressful situations, and to give the child a constructive outlet when stress occurs. Having a pillow or stress ball to squeeze would provide a better way to release stress.)
Access to Tangibles- The child bangs their head, and the teacher brings them an ice pack. The child now has what they wanted: an icepack. This is a simple one to stop: don't give the child what they want. The behavior may increase for a time, but once the child is sure that their behavior isn't working, the headbanging will stop. This is why I never ever ever buy whiny kids candy in the checkout line.
Sensory- Child hits head on the desk because he likes the way it feels. Maybe he has a headache, or maybe it's just a strong sensation. Once medical reasons are ruled out, the best way to deal with this is to interrupt the sensation. If the head banging is severe, the child may need to wear a helmet. Maybe it would be better for the child to sit in a bean bag chair or otherwise make the environment unfriendly to head banging. This is, in my opinion, the hardest type of behavior to stop.
Okay, let's look at Harry Potter. I picked this book because most of you have read it, and the movie comes out this week. Yay! (Unfortunately for me, I'll have to wait a week to see it because Nathan is having his hernia repaired on Friday and won't be up to going to the theater for a few days. He claims that it would be desertion if I went without him. And he won't go to the midnight showing on Thursday, even though he's just going to be in surgery and sleeping all Friday. Sometimes I just don't understand him, lol)
Okay, back to Harry and his varied motivations:
Access to Attention- This is the one that Harry is least likely to do, since he gets plenty of attention just for being the Boy Who Lived, but there are times when he wants attention from his friends. His tantrums in the beginning of the book about having been left alone all summer would be such a time.The important thing is that there are 5 basic motivations to behavior. You can also count NOT doing something as a behavior, for instance, Harry and Ron often don't do their homework because they want to pratice quidditch. If Hermione really wanted to make them study, she wouldn't give them planners, she'd take away their brooms!
Access to Escape-Harry says he's feeling ill so he can leave class and take Hedgwig to the infirmary. All of those Skiving Snackboxes Fred and George make are helpful to students motivated to escape class. Harry doesn't continue with Occlumency lessons even thought everyone around him tells him he should because his motivation to escape Snape is so strong.
Access to Automatic Reinforcement- At the end of the book, Sirius has died, and Harry is raging at Dumbledore. Harry is not seeking attention, he is releasing stress. Incidentally, Dumbledore handles it just as he should- calmly, without yelling back. Dumbledore remains the adult. Good job, Dumbledore! I think this would also be why Harry has a "thing about saving people." It's a reaction to who he is and not a sensory motivation.
Access to Tangibles- Harry does all kinds of things to get things he wants. He enters the Great Hall at the appropriate time so he can get food. He does homework so he can get decent grades and maybe become an auror some day. Note that "behavior" does NOT mean "bad behavior." The behaviors can be good or bad.
Sensory- Harry has some pretty nasty headaches in this book, and he's always rubbing his head afterward. Kissing Cho has a sensory motivation, as does riding a broom. Avoiding Stinksap also has a sensory motivation.
This isn't the only way to look at character motivations, but perhaps it will add a layer as you think about what your characters are doing and why. Anybody have any idea what motivates Voldemort?
And I forgot to link to this fantastic article on pacing and dialogue last week. My friend Teresa Frohock picked the brain of Lisa Mannetti, winner of the 2008 Bram Stoker Award for her novel "The Gentling Box." The book trailer is on there, and it's way too scary for me, but Teresa says it is amazing!
Glutton for Punishment?