Beneath Notice

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One way for a character to evade detection from someone who is looking for him is to disguise himself, not in a highly elaborate way, but rather as an incredibly plain, ordinary-looking person who isn't worthy of attention. The idea behind such subterfuge is that even if an authority figure comes looking around, he won't demean himself by looking a commoner straight in the face. Blending into your environment works for chameleons, after all, so why shouldn't it work for humans, too?

This trope appears in many settings, its use generally depending on the values of the time period. In a class-stratified society, it is literally unthinkable for an aristocrat to even consider pretending to be a commoner simply for the sake of honor, so the idea never even occurs to anybody to look for a commoner. Contrast a modern setting, where rather than a whole underclass, usually certain peripheral professions will be utilized for this. In either case, the Selective Obliviousness of characters can become a plot point if a Genre Savvy character declares that Everyone Is a Suspect in hope of keeping others from failing to notice those usually Beneath Notice.

This is why The Butler Did It is such an attractive trope for mysteries: Nobody notices the butler, and he's usually the most trusted member of the household help.

The Nondescript may be this. May result in The Dog Was the Mastermind. Related to They Look Just Like Everyone Else.

Examples of Beneath Notice include:


Film[edit | hide | hide all]

  • In Sneakers, Carl disguises himself as a gardener in order to sneak into Playtronics' corporate headquarters.
    • Actually subverted, in that the gardener is emphatically not beneath the guards' notice, and the only reason it works at all is because they get Mother to dress in an identical uniform as a body double.
  • In The Mask of Zorro, this is how the old Zorro is able to masquerade literally right in front of Montero. Because he is masquerading as a servant, it would not even occur to Montero to take more than a passing glance at him.
  • In X 2 X Men United, Mystique disguises herself as a janitor.
  • In The Movie of The Fugitive, Dr. Kimble disguises himself by shaving off his beard, and is able to walk right by a few cops that way without being noticed. One even asks him if he's seen [Kimble's description]; he responds "every day in the mirror - except for the beard, of course."
    • He caps it off by dressing in baggy, drab-colored clothes, making it easy to slip into a hospital disguised as a janitor.
  • In Fist Of Fury Bruce Lee disguises himself as an Asian and Nerdy telephone repairman in order to infiltrate the home of the man who arranged his teacher's death.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • In Forever Amber, one Duke is highly renowned for being a master of disguise, such that when it comes to light that he was involved in a treasonous plot, he disappears easily. We see the effect social class has on his abilities- the only time we see him disguised is when he dresses up as a musketeer and successfully manipulates his cousin Barbara Villiers into coming onto him.
    • He does this to gain a private audience with her without blowing his cover, for those of you with sick minds.
  • In Interesting Times, Auriental society is so rigid that costume changes to a lower class entirely confuse pursuers.
    • Likewise a large part of Lu Tze's success as a History Monk is attributable to the fact that no matter how heavily guarded the evil lair, a harmless old man sweeping up is just part of the scenery.
    • The best way for a monk to become invisible is to stand on a street corner holding a begging bowl. [Paraphrased]
  • In the G. K. Chesterton story "The Invisible Man", a man is murdered and witnesses say they saw nobody. Father Brown figures out that the murderer was dressed as a postman, and the witnesses didn't think he was important.
  • The Shadow used to disguise himself as the janitor at police headquarters to gain access to information and no one paid him the slightest attention.
  • In the James Bond short story "From a View to a Kill", either Bond or M thinks that perhaps the enemy has disguised himself as a gardener or garbage man or such. Someone hidden in plain sight. Then, they are told that it isn't possible as those jobs on the base are done by enlisted military personnel.
  • Mack Bolan, The Executioner, once spent a day crouched in a rice paddy wearing a black poncho and a straw hat pretending to be a peasant farmer while enemy soldiers searched the area all around looking for him.
  • The Odyssey: Odysseus goes "Old Man" mode, and checks if Penelope is still faithful with the aid of his son. Turns out she is, but heads roll anyways.
  • A variant occurs in the Enola Holmes series: in order to hide in plain sight from her brother Sherlock Holmes, Enola disguises herself as the one thing Sherlock will never look twice at--a beautiful woman!
  • In Foundation, when the ambassador to Anacreon and High Priest of the Church needs to return to the titular Foundation to report to the mayor, he changes into civilian clothing, buys a ticket on a passenger liner and spends the trip pleasantly talking with fellow travelers. Once on the Foundation he buys a newspaper, does some reading in the park, and calls city hall from a public phone booth. Since, in all this time, he does absolutely nothing to avoid suspicion or hide his activities nobody gives him a second look.
  • Harry Dresden has occasionally made potions that make him Beneath Notice.

The ingredients were boring. The potion looked and smelled boring. Perfect.

  • In the Ryanverse story Without Remorse, where the reader discovers the origin of legendary CIA agent John Clark, he takes revenge against drug syndicate that killed his lover. He manages to successfully elude the police and the syndicate, despite very publicly murdering a total of 8 people,[1] by disguising himself as a street wino. His internal monologue even makes a comparison to the camouflage he used in Vietnam.
  • Frequently used in The Wheel of Time. Servants, beggars and other people who go unnoticed are an important source of information, and are frequently secretly employed as spies. Genre Savvy characters make sure each member of their household is vetted for, and ensure potential outside observers are identified.

Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • On Leverage, while Sophie, Hardison and Nate are more likely to show up people of importance, Parker and Eliot generally fly under the radar by posing as irrelevant workers. Parker and Eliot are also much less likely to be captured, though that is also due to their respective skill sets allowing them to get out of danger more easily.
    • Parker apparently learned this from her mentor Archie, as he also does this in "The Big Dam Job." As he says, "Nobody ever cuts the cake until someone tells them to cut the cake." he was stealing a sword from an exhibit on opening night by smuggling it out through a fake cake, appearing as part of the catering staff.
  • On Hustle Ash uses this fairly often in terms of setting up their cons.

Tabletop RPG[edit | hide]

  • Shadowrun. Often used by runners infiltrating corporate facilities.
    • Common in Shadowrun fiction also. In one of the first short stories written for the setting, a fugitive from the yakuza is successfully smuggled across town past a cordon of street thugs, all of them on high alert, because her escort bribed a pizza deliveryman to let them borrow his van.
  • In 7th Sea, the Servant skill has a Knack (sub-skill) called Unobtrusive, which relies on this trope.
  • In Vampire: The Masquerade, characters with the Obfuscate discipline at a certain level can use it to hide in plain sight among groups of people. It's especially useful for a Nosferatu, who by definition Lookslike Orlock.
    • Likewise, many games in the New World of Darkness not only have abilities like Obfuscate, but a Merit that makes it harder for someone to find records of the individual or track them down. It goes by various names depending on the game line, among them "Occultation," "Hidden Life," and "Anonymity". Often, though, these Merits also apply penalties to situations where being known would be useful ("Who're you to throw your weight around? Don't know you from Adam...").

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • The "Beggar Prince" book from The Elder Scrolls
    • Also the Thieves Guild uses beggars as spies
  • In Hitman: Blood Money humble disguises like repairmen or janitors raise less suspicion from guards. They are, however, a disadvantage by restricting the areas you can enter while wearing them.

Real Life[edit | hide]

  • Real Ninja (supposedly, since ninja are supposed to be a secret) were not actually invisible, but would take the role of an ordinary peasant and, sometimes for years, just blend in with everyone else until it was time to strike.
  • Then dictator of Mexico General Santa Anna de Antonio Lopez attempted this trope after the Mexican Army lost the Battle of San Jacinto during the Texas Revolution. He hoped that the Anglo-Texans and Tejanos would be so busy looking for an officer in a flashy uniform that they would overlook a simple peasant farmer. It didn't work.
    • Since disguising like a commoner is much more than just putting on common clothing, this trope isn't truly averted here, but played with. Commoners do notice other commoners and if they are behaving strangely and are also a stranger to everyone, they are a suspect.
      • Also, dude had a wooden leg. Kinda hard to miss that.
  • Jefferson Davis is rumored to have attempted to escape the victorious Union forces disguised as a woman.
  • Sometime around (before?) the Russo-Japanese War, there was a Japanese spy in Singapore. He served food in the officers' mess in a British base, listening to the information they revealed talking to each other, and no-one looked at him.
  • Chilean lawyer and guerrilla leader Manuel Rodríguez used this often to fight the Spanish out of Chile. He went as far as opening the carriage door for the current Spanish governor Casimiro Marcó del Pont, who didn't recognize him and gave him a coin for the favor.
  1. there were more, but he dropped the disguise for those