Beneath Notice

Alejandro: We're never going to get away with this. What will you do if Montero recognizes you?
Diego: Montero considers himself a true nobleman. He would never look a servant in the eye.

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, with 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 and Janitor Impersonation Infiltration.


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    Comic Books 
  • This is how Bruce Banner, aka the Incredible Hulk, gets into labs generally speaking. He needs the equipment or access to machinery, he dresses up as a janitor. Plus it's the added bonus of being there after hours.
  • This is also how some stories people do not see Clark Kent is Superman, especially Lex Luthor. Not only because Kent is too clumsy and mild mannered, but because they believe there's no way Superman would ever choose to live as someone so mundane. The glasses are really just a prop.

  • 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 X2: X-Men United, Mystique disguises herself as the building's regular janitor, which causes the real one to do a Double Take when he sees her.
  • 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.
  • In Perfume, it's explained that the main character has no scent, making people subconsciously treat him as beneath their notice. At one point he steps right over a guard dog, which ignores him.
  • Lampshaded in Black Sheep (1996). Mike Donnelly plans to sneak into a party dressed as a caterer using this trope.
    Mike: Nobody looks at a caterer's face. It's always "Whaddaya got in the tray?"
  • In I Remember Mama, Mama wants to see her 8-year old daughter Dagmar but hospital policy won't allow it then. So Mama comes in during a different shift where no one will recognize her, goes to the mop closet, gets a bucket of water and a brush, bends down on hands and knees, and simply scrubs her way down the hall to the ward where Dagmar is staying, while the nurses who see a bent-over woman scrubbing presume she's the charwoman.

  • 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 Interesting Times, Rincewind is able to evade pursuit by dressing as a peasant with a really big hat so nobility won't look at him. He also runs into an examination room and screams at the guards to go away when they come in (the exams being a very important part of Agatean society).
  • G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown:
    • In the 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.
    • An even sneakier two-way example appears in "The Queer Feet", in which a clever thief disguises himself in an evening suit at a posh function and acts unobtrusively, so that the guests mistake him for a waiter, and the actual waiters mistake him for a guest.
  • 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", M thinks that perhaps the enemy has disguised himself as a gardener or garbage man or such. Someone hidden in plain sight. Then, it is 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.
  • 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.
    • Of course, it then backfires by working too well, and his attempts to get someone's attention are changed, by the potion, into inane and idle chatter that person then ignores.
  • 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,note  by disguising himself as a street wino. His internal monologue even makes a comparison to the camouflage he used in Vietnam.
    • Tom Clancy often makes the point in his books that one of the best disguises is a uniform of some kind, because people only really see the uniform, not the face.
  • 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. Smart characters make sure each member of their household is vetted for, and ensure potential outside observers are identified.
    • Also in The Wheel Of Time are men who, having sold their souls to the Dark One, are soulless and therefore people are unable to notice them. They are effectively invisible and as such great hitmen.
  • Sherlock Holmes occasionally makes use of the "Baker Street Irregulars", a gang of young street urchins, who because they are typically ignored by everyone, can serve as his eyes and ears on the streets of London.
    • The tv series Sherlock includes an homage to this, except he uses the homeless people of London instead of young street urchins. They prove invaluable when he needs to find a specific piece of graffiti that could be almost anywhere in the city. He gives them burner phones to contact him and pays generously with cash for whoever can find what he's looking for.
    • It's also used to great effect by the sympathetic Anti-Villain of A Study in Scarlet, who finds a profession that allows him to go anywhere in London and transport his victims (of their own free will) to isolated spots ideal for a murder.
  • 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 Harry Potter, presumably how a Secret Keeper can hide an entire house just by refusing to tell people where it is. I'm looking at you, Peter Pettigrew.
  • In Everworld, the goddess Brigid lives in our world, disguised as an old Polish/Mexican-looking lady. People who see her coming or going from her mansion assume she's the maid.
  • In Words of Radiance, Elhokar (the king) survives an assassination attempt, and Kaladin (his bodyguard) needs to put him somewhere safe while he goes off to save someone else. He obviously can't stay in the palace; all the guards are suspect. For similar reasons, he can't go to the royal safehouse or even Kaladin's barracks, since those are the first places anyone will look. Where does he take him? A little house in the slums, belonging to the mother of one of Kaladin's crippled subordinates. Said mother proceeds to treat her king like an uppity child, insisting he get a good night's sleep and eat breakfast before the guards come to escort him back.
    The Nanha: I'm not going to have them come and get you and find you not properly fed! I'll not have people saying that, Your Brightness, no, I won't! Eat up. I've got soup cooking.
  • Repeatedly used in Agatha Christie novels. Death in the Clouds is notable since the murderer is a dentist, but carried out the murder dressed as an airline steward since their clothes look similar.
    • In The Big Four, the Master of Disguise meets Poirot in multiple disguises, some high-profile, and some completely mundane.
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire it's implied that most of Varys' "little birds" who gather information for him are a group of tongueless but literate children who hide in the secret passages running through the Red Keep.
  • Black Widowers:
    • In "Out of Sight", the guest knows that the person who photographed sensitive documents he was carrying had to have been one of the people at his table at dinner. The spy turns out to be the waiter, who he had completely forgotten about. Naturally, Henry is able to point this out.
    • In "Season's Greetings", the person attempting to steal a Christmas card turns out to be the mailman. Asimov acknowledged that this story owed a debt to G. K. Chesterton's "The Invisible Man".
  • Lampshaded in The Dinosaur Lords, when Pilar outlines why she and Monsterrat are the best choices to aid imprisoned Melodía.
    "And that's the thing: you know how people overlook children and servants?"
    Montse nodded. It was like asking if she knew what breathing was.
  • Arthur's attempts at King Incognito in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court run afoul of this: He and Hank are dressed as peasants, but Arthur has trouble acting like one.
    "Now, sire, imagine that we are at the door of the hut yonder, and the family are before us. Proceed, please—accost the head of the house."
    The king unconsciously straightened up like a monument, and said, with frozen austerity:
    "Varlet, bring a seat; and serve to me what cheer ye have."
    "Ah, your grace, that is not well done."
    "In what lacketh it?"
    "These people do not call each other varlets."
    "Nay, is that true?"
    "Yes; only those above them call them so."
    "Then must I try again. I will call him villein."
    "No-no; for he may be a freeman."
    "Ah—so. Then peradventure I should call him goodman."
    "That would answer, your grace, but it would be still better if you said friend, or brother."
    "Brother!—to dirt like that?"
    "Ah, but we are pretending to be dirt like that, too."
    "It is even true. I will say it. Brother, bring a seat, and thereto what cheer ye have, withal. Now 'tis right."
    "Not quite, not wholly right. You have asked for one, not us—for one, not both; food for one, a seat for one."
    The king looked puzzled—he wasn't a very heavy weight, intellectually. His head was an hour-glass; it could stow an idea, but it had to do it a grain at a time, not the whole idea at once.
    "Would you have a seat also—and sit?"
    "If I did not sit, the man would perceive that we were only pretending to be equals—and playing the deception pretty poorly, too."
    "It is well and truly said! How wonderful is truth, come it in whatsoever unexpected form it may! Yes, he must bring out seats and food for both, and in serving us present not ewer and napkin with more show of respect to the one than to the other."

    Live Action TV 
  • Sherlock invokes this trope twice.
    • In The Empty Hearse, when Sherlock returns from the dead. He pretends to be the waiter at the restaurant where John is waiting for his girlfriend, intending to suddenly reveal himself and surprise John. Unfortunately for Sherlock’s plan, John is so distracted that he pays almost no attention to his “waiter,” going so far as to question Sherlock about wines without actually ever looking at him, and Sherlock’s initial attempts at a sudden reveal fall completely flat.
    John: [uncertain about choosing a wine] Surprise me.
    Sherlock: [annoyed] I am endeavoring to, sir.
    • Then done again in the very next episode, "The Sign of Three", where the wedding photographer is the (attempted) murderer. His cover allowed him to go anywhere, not be in any pictures, and no one could describe his face since it was typically hidden by a camera.
    • The very first episode has Sherlock and John chase down a cab because they believe the passenger is a murderer. He isn't, but the driver is. Nobody ever looks at a cabbie. Gets a Call Back in season 2, when Sherlock catches a cab and despite his Hyper Awareness, fails to realize that it's being driven by Moriarty.
  • A common tactic for The A-Team.
  • A common tactic on Burn Notice, Michael will sometimes don the uniform of a maintenance worker or such, since nobody thinks to question why a guy from the phone company is fiddling with phone connections.
    • A trait it seems he inherited from his dad - Mr. Weston Sr. used to do the same to steal equipment off of work sites.
  • On Orange Is the New Black, most of the guards are busy keeping the opposing factions of white, black and Latina inmates in check, which grants Mei Chang, one of the very few Asian inmates, the freedom to do basically whatever the heck she wants.
  • 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. Once inside the party, he removed the white catering jacket was just another gentleman at a nice party with a cane.
  • On Hustle, Ash uses this fairly often in terms of setting up their cons.
  • In Fringe, Walter explains that a side-effect they noticed amongst the children treated with Cortexiphan was that it instilled a subconscious desire to blend into their surroundings; as such, they had a tendency to be dress in drab colors which don't attract much attention, such as black, white and grey.
  • In the Alphas episode "Rosetta" the team encounters an autistic woman during a raid on a terrorist safe-house who has the power to understand and translate all languages she hears, instantly, and figure that the terrorists have been exploiting the woman to encode and decode their secret messages. The woman volunteers to assist them in catching the terrorists and seems to be helping, until Gary notices she's been intentionally mistranslating the encoded messages by just enough to make it look like she was making minor mistakes. Turns out she wasn't being exploited by the terrorists... she was the leader of this particular terror cell and no one considered she was anything but a victim because of her autism.
  • On Babylon 5, the pak'ma'ra were frequently reviled by other races due to their bizarre cultural and dietary habits. They also tended to be everywhere, often working menial jobs where their presence was ignored as much as possible. Delenn reasoned that this characteristic made them ideal couriers and even infiltrators.
    • Londo Mollary devises a plan to smuggle a Narn prisoner Na'Toth from the Centauri palace (Narns and Centauri are for the most part mortal enemies). He dresses her up in face concealing Centauri gown and then simply walks her through the palace passages as his concubine, pretending to be a loud and rowdy drunkard. As he explains later, the Centauri nobles are conditioned to not pay attention to anything unseemly, so nobody gives them trouble,
  • In an episode of Deal or No Deal the contestant's daughter, who lives overseas, was one of the "models" holding a case as a special surprise for her mother. Howie had to literally yell at the contestant to look at the model before she caught on.
  • Slightly inverted in the Alias episode "Détente": Nadia is initially undercover as a maid. When they realize their current plan wont work, Nadia and Sydney instead dress up as debutantes to find an alternate way past the guards. Sloane protests this saying the guards already saw Nadia's face, only for her to dismiss his fears by saying "Nobody looks at the help." She's right.
  • Willy Armitage of Mission: Impossible routinely infiltrated the target location by disguising himself as a janitor or repairman.

    Tabletop RPG 
  • 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 Looks Like 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...").
      • A non-supernatural merit in Vampire: The Requiem makes a character less noticeable while they're doing a routine, practical task like paperwork or gardening.
      • Mage has a Legacy (the Blank Badges) with an ability that turns Occultation into effective dots of Status in any mundane group. The net effect is that nobody knows who the character is but they're clearly someone important, allowing for all kinds of social engineering fun. There's also the "Incognito Presence" Mind spell.
  • Mostly averted in Warhammer 40,000, where many Inquisitors use disguises to get around without raising suspicion (well, those who don't go around like a grox in a ceramic shop, at least), but due to a regrettable lack of imagination, many of them go around as Rogue Traders, and there's one whose cover was a Dumb Blonde Glamorous Wartime Singer. She was smart enough to get an actual Rogue Trader to hang around and be suspicious.
  • Sidereal Exalted occasionally cast themselves as forgettable extras, such as a town drunk or local guardsman, and even gain massive bonuses for doing so. And yet it is through these disguises that they essentially rule Creation from behind the scenes.
  • In the 1980s James Bond RPG, it's more expensive to build an average-looking character than a good-looking one, partly for game balance (blending into the crowd is a very useful tactic for a spy) and partly to encourage players to go along with the larger-than-life genre.

    Video Games 
  • 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.
  • In Mass Effect 2, Thane's loyalty mission has his backstory exposition include the tunnel vent rats, a group of orphans who live in the Citadel and acted as his spy network because nobody ever took notice of them.
    Thane: My people call them "drala'fa", the ignored. They are everywhere, see everything, but they are never seen.
    • The Collectors exploit this by having the Vorcha release their plague on Omega, a species considered vermin by the rest of the Galaxy. This also yields the side-benefit of causing civil unrest when it's discovered it's an engineered virus, as the two species who are immune are Humans and Vorcha... and guess where the finger falls on.
    • The Keepers who operate the Citadel are another example of this. Even the player will have likely forgotten about them by the time their true purpose is revealed; silently maintaining the Citadel until the time is right to open the Relay and allow the Reapers to return from Dark Space.
  • Although he is a janitor, Roger Wilco from Space Quest fame dresses up as a janitor of an Evil Inc. in Space Quest 3.
  • The true antagonist of Persona 4 is the gas station attendant who shakes your hand in the opening scenes of the game.
    • The person behind most of the abductions (but not the actual's complicated) is Taro Namatame, a disgraced politician now working as a delivery man. He pulls off the abductions by walking up to the door of the intended target, ringing the doorbell and pretending it's an ordinary delivery. He can go anywhere he wants because nobody would give a delivery truck a second glance, no matter where it's parked.
  • In Dragon Age II, free mage Merrill finds that she doesn't have to do much to stay hidden from the Templars in Kirkwall; as long as she doesn't use magic, she's just another elf in the Alienage to them.

    Web Original 
  • Polnareff, when working for DIO in Vaguely Recalling JoJo, disguised himself as a restaurant waiter to get closer to the Joestar group.
  • The guardian witch in Whither. At least one character still can't believe she's not harmless.

    Real Life 
  • 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.
    • The common 'ninja uniform' of black pajamas and a face mask comes from exploiting this quality in the audience of Japanese theater. Throughout the play, stage hands dressed in this manner would be visible during the play, but ignored as just part of the scenery. Because of this, they were the perfect place to stick a ninja into the script—to the audience, they would be appearing out of nowhere.
  • Then dictator of Mexico General Antonio López de Santa Anna 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.
  • In the aftermath of the American Civil War, Confederate president Jefferson Davis is rumored to have attempted to escape the victorious Union forces disguised as a woman. This is likely because he'd been wearing his wife's overcoat against the cold.
  • 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 Spaniards 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.
  • This is often given as a piece if advice for people traveling. The less you look like a tourist, the less likely you'll get in trouble with hooligans, thieves, or other such criminals.

Alternative Title(s): Beneath Their Notice