Watch a horror film with a bunch of roleplayers and, sooner or later, you will be subjected to outraged shouts along the lines of ‘don’t split the party!’. In both the horror genre and RPGs, this is a fair comment – someone will end up dead. But what about in fiction writing?
The problem with splitting the character party in RPGs, from a storytelling perspective, is the issue of waiting time. The GM (Games Master, or primary storyteller, for the uninitiated) can only concentrate on one set of people at once, so the characters he isn’t concentrating on are left hanging about doing nothing. It also makes telling the story that much harder, since you have multiple groups to keep track of and – in an ideal world – try to converge again.
Let’s put the GM in the role of the reader for a moment. He can split his focus between multiple groups of characters much more easily, because he is only presented on the page with one group at a time, but you still need to bear in mind that added complication factor. The more groups the reader has to mentally keep track of, the harder he has to work. As an example of this being a problem in literature, I refer you to Robert Jordan’s mammoth Wheel of Time series, which has at any given time at least four independent character parties dividing the chapters between them. I got halfway through one of the books, got on a long-haul flight which I slept through for most of the way, and by the far end of the journey when I picked the story up again I couldn’t remember what the hell was going on.
You also have to deal with the question of pacing. As with an RPG, you still have a bunch of characters hanging around in the background waiting for their turn. If you alternate chapters between groups everyone gets equal screentime but there is a risk that the pacing becomes very choppy, the reader can’t get fully comfortable with a character because they keep switching out, and you can limit the amount of tension raised in the overall story arc. If, on the other hand, you have several chapters on one character and then switch to another, that change will be much more abrupt and the reader may not be so sympathetic to this comparative stranger now taking up their attention.
That’s not to say it can’t work well. Why do horror stories and RPGs end up splitting the party in the first place? The most straightforward answer is that you can cover more ground that way. Tolkein’s Two Towers, for example, follows three different groups which results in them acquiring allies in various different places simultaneously AND getting nearer the end goal. Sometimes in a story splitting the party is the only logical solution to a situation.
From a characterisation perspective, sending people off on their own can mean they get a bit more of a spotlight which allows the reader to learn about them in greater detail. It also gives the character an opportunity to develop as an individual and have their own story arc, rather than being a slightly faceless part of the party as a whole.
My comments on loss of tension notwithstanding, you can also do some fantastic things with tension levels between split parties. It gives the reader a slightly more omniscient perspective than any of the characters, which means that when characters unwittingly act to the detriment of each other the reader gets an emotional reaction which you wouldn’t achieve without that party split. It’s that whole abusive relationship thing I talked about before. They love it really.