So you’ve got this great story in the works. Excitement, tension, wonderful characters. But someone has to tell the story. Which of these characters should it be? Let’s pick one. The villain? The hero? The secondary character?
Ah, I have it. Let’s call our narrator Ezra. Now Ezra has been misunderstood and victimized his whole life. He’s ready to make a change, and not just for himself, but for poor, misunderstood victims the world over. So he gathers his courage. He plans. He collects resources. He sacrifices everything he has for the greater good. He is a hero, or will be when it’s all over.
The day arrives. Ezra kisses his cat farewell, grabs his bag of tools. He gets into his car, drives to the nearby police precinct and bravely blows the entire building sky high with everyone inside.
Ah hah! So not the hero then. But he sounded like the hero. Courage, sacrifice, greater good. Aren’t these words we usually use when speaking of a hero? Of course. To Ezra, he’s a hero. To the mass population he’s a monster.
Ezra speaks from his experience and his tainted view of the world. He sees the police as an evil entity, destroying his freedom and that of others. He sees himself as the champion, saving all those other misjudged victims(criminals)from having to answer for their unorthodox activities(crimes).
You can’t believe anything he says because chances are he’s not seeing the world as it actually is. He is completely unreliable.
This isn’t bad writing, or even bad characterization. Unreliable narrators are some of my all-time favorites. They lead you along. They make you believe in their world. They give you the gift of walking in another's shoes and understanding them no matter how misguided they may be.
Now this doesn’t only apply to villains. Your hero can also have a very tainted view of the world. They may see everything too rosy or too dark. Too black and white or too grey.
The trick is to allow the true world to be visible to the reader. You must allow the reader to be able to read between the lines or see past the narrator’s blinders. This takes the reactions of other characters to your narrator and using the world’s standard moral code to do your work for you among other things.
Sometimes you don’t even know the narrator is unreliable until you find yourself questioning their thoughts or actions. Hey, you totally thought Ezra was a good guy. Right? Right!!??
If done with skill and subtlety, the unreliable narrator makes a wonderful character filled with depth and interest. If used to your greatest advantage, the unreliable narrator can give you the greatest twists and surprise endings of all time.