Worldbuilding: Paper-Thin Disguises

I’m pretty sure the first time I ran into the idea of a Paper-Thin Disguise was reading a book on Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. That incident was quite literal. The people looking for her knew Tubman couldn’t read, so when a black woman who otherwise matched her description calmly held up a newspaper in front of her face and started turning pages, they moved on.

Facial recognition software may make this Trope harder to pull off in the future, but in a lot of circumstances it’ll probably still hold. Characters are, after all, only human (Vulcan, dragon, whatever), and so far as we can tell, thinking creatures don’t work off straight sight. They work off search images. Throw off one aspect of that image, don’t be what someone is looking for, and – as a ninja may have said – “to not be seen, is to be invisible”.

Three examples jumped out at me when I was poking this thought. Cybersix, Miraculous Ladybug, and Magi.

Cybersix’s is the most elaborate disguise; glasses, men’s clothes, a different hairstyle and a lowered voice, all to pass as a male English teacher. The removing-the-disguise sequence is very effective, especially with the glasses spin across the table. My bunnies still say this counts as paper-thin, because “he” works every day with Cybersix’s love interest, Lucas, undetected. It’s not just the clothes, it’s the attitude. Lucas is looking for a confident, superhuman, mysterious woman in dramatic black. The shy English teacher in round glasses and suspenders looks almost as nerdily opposite that search image as you can get.

Ladybug pulls off another variant of seriously messing with search images. Her outfit has been described as leaving nothing to the imagination. IMHO, that’s part of what makes it so effective for disguising her secret identity: everyone knows exactly what Ladybug looks like. Meaning wipe away the visible red-and-black spots, throw on a few clothes to disguise her outline, and bam. Instant invisible teenager.

Last, there’s Alibaba with the Fog Troupe. That one isn’t proof against Morgiana (darn Fanalis nose), but it does work for most of Balbadd. In that case, again, he doesn’t fit the search image. Who expects the third prince of Balbadd to be dressed as a common thief? And since the vast majority of the city has never seen Alibaba the prince, he’s as invisible as the next blond in the street.

For me as a writer, the frustrating thing about Paper-Thin Disguises is they have the most impact in a visual medium, not a written one. They are, in a sense, the most effective when the audience can easily get in on the joke. “But isn’t that-? Can’t they see?”

So, poke this idea as you will. Anyone seen Paper-Thin Disguises pulled off well in written fic? And how did the writer do it?



40 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Paper-Thin Disguises

  1. Hmm… The best example I can come up with is Will Treaty’s jongluer(sp?) disguise in the fifth and sixth books of the Ranger’s Apprentice series. Much of the series is spent explaining the basic ideas of camouflage, and the author draws parallels between the idea of “people see what they expect to see” presented there to describe how the young man in a flasy black-and-white cloak won’t be taken for a Ranger. Rangers are distant, quiet and mysterious, and wear green camouflage cloaks – a cheerful man without one who carries an instrument instead of a bow couldn’t /possibly/ be a Ranger, right?


  2. Not off the top of my head.

    The only thing that jumped into my head was a joke (that was probably referencing a meme) from watch and react on paper / parody series about the anime Sailor Moon were the titular character insists that Tuxedo Mask and Mamoru Chiba cannot be the same person because Tuxedo Mask wears glasses (actually he wears a domino mask). If he took them off to be Mamoru, then he wouldn’t able to see anything.

    Or the various attempts to explain why nobody recognizes the Senshi despite the fact that they look identical in both forms. Of course sometimes people do.

    Or the fact that sometimes Luna and Artemis, who are cats, aren’t always very careful not to talk around non-Senshi people.

    The watch and react series is Shadowjack Watches Sailor Moon – he’s part way through SuperS – and it is pretty funny. Especially if you are a fan of Sailor Moon.


  3. Blackkat’s Stormborn takes a whack at this with Naruto and Sasuke (with the twist of Naruto being the one who left). It’s a very good Naruto fic in general!


      1. It’s in my AO3 Bookmarks list. It’s quite good.

        And yes, that works for this, definitely. Contact lenses, different body language, and the effects of being by the sea for six years having darkened his skin and lightened his hair. And when Naruto slips on the body language (and laugh), that‘s when Sasuke realizes.


  4. I’m not sure what the perfect formula to pull this off in writing is. …A lot of outsider POV, just the right heaviness of description… But you definitely pinned down what not to do with the bit about when they’re effective, which is to ever attempt this when the audience isn’t in on it. Inevitably, people end up being asked by the author to merge two imcompatible mental images.

    This topic did definitely remind me of a well-traveled Tumblr post about Clark Kenting I saw again recently. (*links to my own tumblr like a tool for the sake of reliability*)


  5. funny you should mention Miraculous ladybug – I’ve just this minute finished reading the most recent part of an absolutely fantastic ML/Avengers crossover. go to AO3 and read chapter 3 of ‘what the cat dragged in’ by Kryal
    among other things, there’s a fascinating bit of worldbuilding with the miraculous actually putting out a deflector shield of sorts, so literally no human OR camera eye can fasten on the identifying details of either Cat Noir or Ladybug.


    1. No, no, that wasn’t magical disguise, that was the racist inability to tell one French national from another. 🙂


  6. There was a CJ Cherryh stand alone, PALADIN, wherein one character has a paper thin disguise, quickly spotted by the POV character. Basically it was clothing, and carrying heavy basket on the head, IIRC) to change the walk from obviously female to , well, not. But it got her through several hundred miles on foot unmolested.

    Cultural expectations come into play, too. i remember reading, I believe it was in the Gulf War, that Iraqis couldn’t identify female soldiers, and our military people were shocked because to them the women were obvious. Our culture is used to unisex dressing and hair style and we learn to watch for various body language cues to tell us.what we’re looking at. Other cultures are used to clothing cues and never have to learn the other. So cross-cultural paper thin disguises ought to be easier to pull off.

    I wish I could remember the title of the non-fiction book where the woman lived a year as a man and found it a lot harder than she expected, although also finding a lot was in attitude and body language.


    1. Paladin was a very neat book. I recall being particularly amused by the way the heroes’ riding horses through paddies at night in desperation was taken for dragon tracks the next morning. Low fantasy, indeed.


  7. Doc Smith’s Lensmen books. Dave Weber’s Orfressa books. (If I’ve figured out the latter correctly (*SPOILERS*), there are three characters that are actually the same.)

    Plus there is a topical political joke that I infer does not fit what you would prefer be discussed here.

    Is using false documentation as a disguise to fool bureaucracy what you intend?


    1. I have to admit I started banging my head after the second Orfressa book. Yes, Bahzell’s a great guy – couldn’t Brandark get one of the shinies?

      I’d prefer to keep this post about fiction, yes. Worldbuilding!

      …Look up Paper-Thin Disguise on TVTropes. Basically, it refers to a disguise along the lines of Clark Kent’s glasses. “Surely he can’t be Superman!” That’s what I intended to bring up in this post. 🙂


      1. Brandark gets some shinies in the second series. Some of which are unspecified. I think Weber needed to set up Bahzell for the second series, and had a limited number of books and a limited schedule to do it in. If I’ve guessed right, he has some tight requirements to pull off an obvious deception without betraying the readers.


      2. Checking, he did the first series in four books, and IIRC had originally planned on five.

        I’m pretty sure he could not write Bahzell’s kid out of the Kenhoden series, and that writing them less well won over not writing them at all.

        I couldn’t say that the book after works much better as a story in its own right.


  8. I love Paper-thin Disguises now but they really frustrated me as a kid. Team Rocket is right there!!! You have known them for how long!? Recognize them already!!!

    For Miraculous Ladybug, I haven’t watched that many episodes but wasn’t this lampshaded. Alya photoshopped Adrien by putting a Chat Noir mask on him. Marinette sees and immediately denies it.

    Random question but does anyone know why they changed Chat Noir’s name to Cat Noir?

    Back on track, Persona 5 seems to be planning to use this trope. They only really take off their masks and change outfits.
    The main group: high school students/notorious phantom thieves
    Protagonist: mild-mannered, passive high school student/absolutely unrepentant trickster
    Also he has Clark Kent glasses as far as people can tell.
    Makoto Niijima: student council president/biker-girl with anger issues
    These are ones that I can come up with and the games not even out yet.

    Unrelated to rest:

    Someone earlier mentioned Kryal. Because of their Avengers/Miraculous Ladybug story, I am now randomly coming up with weird Ladybug crossovers.

    Ladybug/What Comes Around:
    Kwamis and djinns. Beings that are several thousand years old that if certain conditions are met will decide to live with you. They can grant you a temporary transformation involving better body and an ultimate magical attack. This move is also severely energy draining. Each one is aligned with a different concept.
    Kwamis as some sort of natural djinn-like creatures. I know this is complete crack but I keep thinking about it.

    Miraculous Ladybug/Persona crossover or AU:
    LB and CN’s personalities already sort of fit the games, especially Adrien.
    Akumas can resemble out of control shadows that have possessed their original sometimes.
    Adrien would be interesting. It would allow the exploration of him switching between his two very diiferent public personas (couldn’t think of a better word :/).

    Last random notes:
    Where would be a good place to put random What Comes Around ides?
    Also, every time I leave a comment for you, Ms. Vathara, it always takes at least an hour to fully write.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They’re blasting off again! 🙂

      Chat Noir is French. Cat Noir is how it’s sometimes put in English. Don’t ask me who picks what.

      There’s actually a Miraculous-as-Djinn-Equip fanart on Deviantart!

      As for random What Comes Around ideas – you can always leave comments anywhere here. I read ’em all! 🙂


    2. Around: Was pondering whether the reincarnation somewhat preserving the relationship between Alan, Maria and Cassim cognate might imply the same for Yamraiha and Dunya. I recall that Nepal was one monarchy deposed around ten years prior to Around.

      Miraculous Ladybug/Guyver, Miraculous Ladybug/Project Arms, Miraculous Ladybug/Berserk, Miraculous Ladybug/Elfenlied, Miraculous Ladybug/Gao Gai Gar, Miraculous Ladybug/I am a horrible, horrible person with worse taste in jokes.


      1. I think I recall a suggestion that Yam might be a civilian DoD scientist and or engineer.

        It seems fairly canon that the Star Gate program recruits all sorts of people, and sends them through the gate with some level of weapons familiarization.

        This raises the questions of when the training takes place, and what kind of budgets can be justified for related programs.

        Since they don’t seem to be active or reserve, one could speculate that someone has created a training program for individuals with potentially useful skillsets, that partially prepares them to go through the gate, but does not reveal any secret information. It washes out people who are a disaster waiting to happen, but doesn’t conduct skills training to even the level of the reserves.

        Someone with a potentially useful skill is offered a slot in the training program. They accept, graduate and can collect a small stipend so long as they attend periodic refresher training. They go on a list, and are preferred for recruiting into the star gate program. If recruited, they get read in, get refresher and advanced training, and get tossed through the gate.

        If you like this option, it seems fairly plausible that Tib and Yam could’ve come across each other at one, and not been recruited into star gate command.


    3. miraculous ladybug/what comes around: um, my bunnies are already on that idea. I can’t be the only one who’s noticed the similarities between rukh/dark rukh and the akuma before and after they’ve been purified? I’m working on the theory that the miraculous were the creation of one of the djinn – did we ever get a canon djinn of inspiration/creation and purification, or similar? – who came up with them as a stopgap measure in case anyone in Al Thamen re-incarnated (or Yuman finally had the PTSD nervous breakdown he’s been entitled to for about 2000 years), and made the miraculous right before all the djinn shut themselves away.
      Of course, the kwami will know that Aladdin’s woken up… the miraculous holders might even get an unexpected power-up, which would cause all sorts of WTF? questions for Adrien and Marinette, and a mwahaha! for HawkMoth. I wouldn’t put it past Master Fu to know Ja’far’s clan, and use the connection to send out a polite ‘I really think your Magi might want to be aware of what’s going on’


  9. ….I don’t have any links, but I remember several batman fanfics with Bruce talking to Dick/Barbara/someJusticeLeguer while being ‘Matches’ Malone (he slips in and out of persona when he risks being overheard).

    Speech mannerisms can come across pretty well. Paper-thin enough?



  10. Hmm. Belgarath from David Edding’s Belgariad series. Belgarath is essentially a more worldly Gandalf: ages old, loves ale, women, and cryptic answers. One of the more powerful magic users in the world.
    Disguise? Well, not so much a disguise as a way of life that doesn’t match his reputation. He dresses like a bum and acts like lower middle class. Rope belt, ratty tunics, mismatched shoes (each fit perfectly, their other halves didn’t), and isn’t too worried about hygeine (to his daughter’s disgust). Very few people recognize him right away.

    By the same author is another series named The Elenium. Two holy knights take to the streets, one dressed as a porter man with a beard (made of horse hair) carrying a flimsy wooden crate and the other dressed as a courtier, satin doublet, leggings, and wide-brim hat complete with ridiculous feather. “But Thparhawk, You know how thatin thpotth when it getth wet.” Will always be one of my fav lines. BTW, the crate held their two long swords. And Kalten’s cape was pink.

    … Yes, I cracked open the book. I’m gonna have to reread Diamond Throne now. It’s past due for my dose of Sparhawk and Kalten.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, yes. Not to mention Silk’s skill with disguise. 🙂 Which also tends to be paper-thin, especially when dealing with his countrymen, but they have so much fun with it…. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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